Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain


Sandalwood, good for just about everything!

Life, is chaotic as usual! I have a lot of sewing projects (a lot) along with a lot (seriously too many) of migraines (so many it took way too long to finish this post). Time to sit and write feels so precious these days, and this post took way longer than I wanted to get out. But, without my writing I don’t feel whole – so I make time! (  >_<)9

The Hubs is growing a beard, seems to be all the rage these days with the male of our species in my age group. He went to get a shave and a haircut at a local place and they put some oil on his beard for conditioning it. He loved it, and I thought it smelled really great! Like cut wood and lovely (he would probably disapprove of that term but who cares 😉 ). So we looked up the ingredients, because I wanted to make it for him – like I love to do, and of course one of the ingredients was sandalwood – the others were pine and cedar wood with some hair friendly carrier oils, (remember rosemary is good for head hair, it is light and won’t weigh it down). Sandalwood had popped up in my saffron post, and I was growing more curious about it after reading some snippets here and there about it. So the dive into research began!

History and Uses of Sandalwood

Wow.Who knew that sandalwood was so cool? Well most of ancient India that is for sure! I love the stories surrounding the Gods and Goddesses of India, Durga, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi are personal favorites. So imagine my happiness when I found out that Sandalwood is sacred to that lovely Goddess Lakshmi! She is thought to reside in the wood itself, as mentioned by the Brahma Vaivarta Purana.

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Lakshmi carving of made of Sandalwood (you can buy these from the site linked…for a pretty penny)

The name Sandalwood comes from a corruption of the sanskrit word Chandam, which then evolved through linguistic corruption into Sandal possibly along the path Chandam → Sandanam → Sandalum → Sandal. Chandam could mean literally “wood for burning incense” or “shining, glowing” from candrah. Most likely the word we use today is from a late Greek word – santalon – which probably influenced Medieval Latin to create sandalum which then led to sandell in Old French and then sandal in modern English.

Sandalwood and some sandalwood powder.

Sandalwood heartwood and some sandalwood powder.

All sandalwoods are what is known as a hemiparasite which Wikipedia defines as –

“a plant that is parasitic under natural conditions and is also photosynthetic to some degree. Hemiparasites may just obtain water and mineral nutrients from the host plant. Many obtain at least part of their organic nutrients from the host as well.”

Sandalwood is very similar, as well as related, to the well known mistletoe. While they do photosynthesize to create their own food, many of the species also have a taproot that seeks out other plants and then feeds from them. Sandalwood has a sad story of destruction and overuse by humans, so it is extremely important to not only check for the species of sandalwood used in an oil, but also that it is sourced in a sustainable and ethical way. Generally the more expensive the sandalwood oil is, the more likely it is of the right species and from a legit harvester that is approved by the Indian government. Since it is so endangered in the wild there are strict harvesting rules and regulations around sandalwood trees. Sandalwoods are very slow growing trees, which makes restoring the wild population difficult when illegal harvesting is happening. And the older the tree the better quality and stronger smelling the oils (and wood will be).

It’s scent is what makes it so alluring, and I know well of this. My parents lived in China right before I was born, and I had a lot of unusual things growing up. One of them was a carved sandalwood fan, it was so delicate and I would take it out of its little protective box to just sit and smell it.

My fan looked much like this sandalwood carved fan

The scent was just so addictive to me even then, and I think this scent is what has drawn humanity to it over the centuries. It is also used in a lot of religious carvings from prayer beads, to statues of gods and goddesses, to even little fans like mine.

Sandalwood has a large part in human history as well as religions. Sandalwood is mentioned in Indian texts for at least 2,000 years and was used for religious practices as well as medical uses for possibly up to 4,000. It is basically a huge part of life in Hindu culture, it is used in birth rituals, marriage ceremonies, and death rituals. It is used in its oil form, and the wood is used in a powdered form and both are used for the aforementioned religious and medicinal reasons – which I briefly mentioned in the saffron post since it is great for skin masks, soaps, and other preparations, and helps treat and reduce acne as well as other skin conditions. It was also very prized for religious carvings, and for other carved wood products since it retains its scent for decades. In Hinduism specifically it is used as a paste, which is mixed with saffron or other herbal pigments, and is called chandan. Chandan is sacred and can only be prepared by those who are ritually pure. The paste is then used by devotees and is put on the forehead, neck or chest in a ritual manner. Chandan can also be mixed with herbs, or other items to create javadhu which is generally used as a perfume or mixed with water to make a paste and used as deodorant.

Typical Javadhu powder you would find in a store

In both Hinduism and Ayurveda sandalwood is a very holy, and thought to bring one closer to the divine (hence its use as a ritual paste) in fact it is one of the most holy elements to Hindu practitioners or followers of the Vedas and sometimes applied before prayers.

In Buddhism it is also mentioned in some of the sutras (or sutta, depending on which flavor of Buddhism you follow), specifically the Pali Canon mentions it. There is even a legend that as the Buddha died, sandalwood powder fell from the heavens. Sandalwood is thought to be of the lotus (padma) group for the Amitabha Buddha, and is considered one of the three main incenses that are integral to Buddhist practice in general. Sandalwood is thought to focus the mind, and keep one alert during meditation, as well as transform “desires.” It is the most popular for offering incense to oneself in Buddhism.

In the Sufi tradition of Islam sandalwood paste is applied to the grave of a saint by devotees, a mark of respect and of devotion – mostly practiced by people in Southern India where Tamil culture has an influence. In Chinese and Japanese local custom it is also a common incense used in worship and other ceremonies. In Zoroastrianism (in which fire is very sacred) the priests, Mobads, that keep the fire offer it sandalwood – but it is not used in home offerings to the sacred lamps kept in the home. Sandalwood purchased in a fire temple is often more expensive than elsewhere since it is a common form of income for the temple and the Mobads.

Why and How it Works

Some of the chemicals you can find in sandalwoods are santalin (which provides the red color for dying), santene (a terpine that is also in pine needles), tannic acid (same stuff you get in wine!) and santalols. The main chemical that is important in sandalwood for medicinal use is santalol.


Alpha-Santalol in its chemical format

Beta-Santalol in its chemical format

Beta-Santalol in the same

Which is broken into two different chemicals α-santalol and β-santalol. Alpha seems to be the most common chemical, but seems like the beta version is the most medicinally useful. It is pretty hard to find medicinal journals that speak of trials and uses of santalol in medical tests but there is a mention in a medical journal of pharmacy ….from 1911. Though it is useful since it points out that sandalwood oil is not very pleasant in taste (though I, personally, would not suggest taking this internally). There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that there are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent, slight sedative, and good for the respiratory system, hair, and skin. The German government has approved sandalwood oil as a treatment for urinary tract infections, so there is at least some scientific evidence that it is effective for treating infections, but other than that official scientific studies are very scarce. The most interesting point of the German studies is that the oil needs to be coated so that the oils are not released until it hits the small intestine – or it could cause irritation. For this reason I again – do not advise taking this internally.

There seems to be some evidence of its anti-inflammatory action again no firm scientific trials but there is a ton of folk medicine and word of mouth evidence to back this up. Same with the antispasmodic but, again not nearly enough evidence scientifically to completely back these claims, but 4,000 years of history must have something to it. I have found that its use helps with pain, and spasms – especially when massaged into a painful area (with a carrier oil, this tends to need to be diluted). I have not tried it personally as a sedative, though I find the scent quite soothing. It’s antiseptic properties make it a fantastic addition to deodorant since it helps to kill any bacteria that would be lurking around in your armpits. Its skin properties help with scar treatments (like lavender does) and helps soften and soothe, and helps sooth skin inflammation as well as things like eczema. Its astringent nature as well as its antiseptic, make it also great for treating acne. It also helps soften hair, and moisturize it, so it is great to apply to hair  on your head (like rosemary, though it is not as light as rosemary) or hair on your face (if you’re a guy 🙂 ).

Floral scents like lavender or geranium blend well with sandalwood, as well as clove, bergamot, vetiver, and black pepper.

Sustainability & True Species

Like all things that are expensive – saffron, cinnamon and frankincense are good examples – sandalwood oils can be adulterated or diluted at the cheap end of the spectrum. And the actual stuff is expensive – like Lemon Balm oil level which makes frankincense look cheap! I found that it is actually one of the most highly adulterated oils for sale on the market. That means if you see a 9-13$ bottle – you are probably getting mostly jojoba oil or some other carrier oil – or not even a drop of real sandalwood oil. Real sandalwood oil (Santalum album) is in the 100$+ range, which is really prohibitive for some pockets. So you can purchase the cheaper stuff, and this is the cheapest one I trust using on my skin. If you want to go “whole hog” I would go with this site or this one (which also has powdered sandalwood) since they are sustainably and ethically harvested. As you can see the cheapest one is actually a blend of species, since they are all technically all sandalwood but not the “top” species (though they are all good species in the blend as we will discuss further down).

This is another one of those “you get what you pay for” type things. Like the cinnamon I mentioned – if it is cheap, it probably is cassia. Once you have had true cinnamon, there is nothing like the real thing! But what is the right species of sandalwood? Well you could make a blanket statement like all trees of the Santalum genus are real sandalwoods. Which would mostly…mostly be true.

My husband will be pleased with this. Mostly.

My husband will be pleased with this image. Mostly…

But there are a few main species used for sandalwood that you should be familiar with and are the most commonly used.

Indian Sandalwood – (Santalum album)

Santalum album

Other Common Names – White Sandalwood, East Indian Sandalwood, Chandana, or Chandam

First up is the king of all sandalwood species (or would it be queen?) either way Santalum album is the one that is most commonly used, and is sadly the most threatened of species due to poaching and illegal logging. Also this is the wood that sandalwood is named from since Chandam is the Sanskrit word that led to the modern English word. This species is currently the most vulnerable to extinction in the wild, which you may have heard of due to the exploits of Veerappan, a well known sandalwood smuggler. Often used in religious carvings, and as a powder (then made into a paste) is smeared on devotees or made into incense. It is also used for folk medicine and was used to treat: common colds, bronchitis, skin disorders, heart ailments, general weakness, fever, infection of the urinary tract, inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, liver and gallbladder complaints and other maladies. It is known to be effective (from folk medicine history and some medical trials) in treating analgeisc (specifically calming to nerves), antidepressant, antifungal, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent (good for acne and skin), sedative and a fantastic scent to add to perfumes, soaps, and deodorants.

Coast Sandalwood – (Santalum ellipticum)

Santalum ellipticum

Santalum ellipticum

Other Common Names – ʻIliahialoʻe, or Hawaiian Sandalwood

Hawai’ians used the heartwood (‘la’au ‘ala) for its oils, and was often exported to China during the years 1790-1840 for production of carved objects, chests, and joss sticks (incense). The natives used the wood to make the decks of their double hulled canoes (wa’a kaulua) and the heartwood was used to make perfumes and sometimes added to kapa cloth possibly for its fragrance. The leaves and bark were used after burning to ash to treat dandruff and head lice. Shavings of the wood in combination with other plants were used to treat some sexually transmitted diseases.

Australian Sandalwood – (Santalum spicatum)

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Santalum spicatum

This is a species that comes from Western Australia, and its export is a major part of their economy. Its oil was first distilled in 1875, and was produced here and there for a few decades until the 1990’s when it experienced a resurgence which increased (and is still increasing) since it is often used in the perfume industry, very popular with aromatherapists, and in chewing tobacco. This is a much less threatened species, and is almost equal in medicinal properties to Santalum album without the worry of using an extremely endangered species. So if you are unable to afford or can not find ethically sourced Santalum album, this is a good (and less costly) alternative. Testing shows pretty strongly, so far, that it has a lot of great antimicrobial properties, as well as all the stuff listed for Santalum album (since they are so closely related their chemical makeup is very similar and makes it a fantastic stand-in for the more expensive sandalwood).

Other Santalum species you may see are: S. acuminatum, S. austrocaledonicum, S. boninense, S. fernandezianum, S. freycinetianum, S. haleakalae, S. lanceolatum, S. macgregorii, S. murrayanum, S. obtusifolium, S. paniculatum, S. yasi. These species you may see pop up in the occasional commercial preparation, but are not commonly used nor are their medicinal properties well known.

The Fakes

These species, while useful in their own rights are not sandalwoods and are occasionally used as an adulterant in real sandalwood oils or preparations. These should be avoided if you are looking for a real sandalwood.

  •  Adenanthera pavonina sometimes called Red Sandalwood, but this is not sandalwood. Its seeds while toxic when eaten raw are safe to eat when cooked and have been used to treat inflammation in folk medicine.
  • Amyris balsamifera – known as Balsam Torchwood this is a common species accepted by a lot of perfumers and aromatherapy blends.
  • Baphia nitida called African Sandalwood Camwood or Barwood, its bark and heartwood make a red dye, it is known as Osun in Yoruba and is a part of a brand of Nigerian black soap called Dudu Osun.
  • Eremophila mitchelli also called False Sandalwood, Sandalbox and Rosewood Belvory as well as other common names. While native to Australia it is considered an invasive species in some areas of Australia and is illegal to plant.
  • Myoporum platycarpum sometimes called Sugarwood, False Sandalwood as well, which is another native of Australia but is mostly toxic and just the sap is edible, but can not be produced by wounding the tree.
  • Myoporum sandwicense another False Sandalwood, or Bastard Sandalwood, Naio in the native Hawai’ian. It was used in making canoes, fishing net spacers and torches for night fishing. It is a very oily wood and was part of the woods exported to China for Joss stick production.
  • Osyris lanceolata known as African Sandalwood as well, but is generally in Southern parts of Africa, it is over logged despite government protection. Its wood is used for utensils and firewood, and in some communities it is used to preserve milk in gourds for long periods of time.
  • Osyris tenuifolia or Osyris lanceolata known as East African Sandalwood or again as False Sandalwood. Not much information is available on this species.


Easy Sandalwood Lotion

  • 2 oz Coconut Oil
  • 10-20 drops of Sandalwood oil (or 1/2 teaspoon of Sandalwood powder)

Take the coconut oil, and whip 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the essential oils. You can also use a bit (half a teaspoon to a teapoon depending on how thick or honey-like you want your lotion. Raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.

You can also just add a drop or two of Sandalwood essential oil to your regular routine, or just massage a little into problem areas with a carrier oil (Sweet Almond oil is a good alternative if coconut oil makes you break out).

Saffron & Sandalwood Lotion

  • 1/4 cup Whole almonds
  • 1/4 cup Strained Yogurt (or Plain Greek yogurt)
  • 2 teaspoons Lime or Lemon juice
  • pinch of Ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood
  • pinch of Saffron

First make your strained yogurt, if you don’t know how to do this go here and follow the instructions. Then soak the almonds in a bowl of water overnight, peel the skins off the next morning and grind into a fine paste in a food processor or strong blender. Add in the strained yogurt, lime (or lemon) juice, turmeric, sandalwood, and the saffron threads. Blend again in the food processor or blender until smooth and creamy. This cream can be stored in a clean container in the fridge for about a week, and you should apply it after washing your face at night. Smooth it all over your skin and massage in gently, in the morning wash your face again.

Both of these lotions are good for fighting acne, skin rashes, eczema, sunburns, helps reduce age spots and brighten dull skin. It even does a lot if you massage it into scars, helping to soften them and reduce their visibility, you can even add in a bit of lavender too to help with the redness of scarring if you are treating that. Really it does your skin good and will help just about anything to do with skin 🙂 there is some evidence even that it may help with Rosacea, though it may irritate some skin types that have Rosacea so make sure to do a test patch before you attempt to treat it with sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood Steaming

  • 2-5 drops Sandalwood oil
  • Bowl of hot water, must be steaming
  • Towel

Place a few drops into the bowl of hot water, place towel over your head and allow the steam to bathe the face. This another way to treat skin issues, or to treat very dry skin, or chapped skin.

ProChestColdTip: If you have a chest cold or respiratory issues, or even laryngitis, you can do this with some eucalyptus since there is some evidence that sandalwood can act as an expectorant and has antiviral properties.

ProStressTip: This can also be really good for stress, as the smell is very soothing, and has a mild sedative action, but I would suggest using meditation while inhaling the scent of just the sandalwood oil to reduce stress and bring relaxation.

Woodsy Beard Oil

  • 25 milliliters Carrier oil (this can be straight or a blend, 100 drops = about 5 ml)
  • 2 milliliters (about 50 drops) Sandalwood oil
  • 1 milliliter Cedarwood oil
  • 2 milliliters Pine oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle, apply a few drops to hands and massage into beard. Comb through with beard brush or beard comb. Trust me guys your ladies will love this

The carrier oil can be anything you like, jojoba is good, vitamin E is great, argan oil is all the rage these days. Grapeseed, hemp, coconut, sweet almond, olive and apricot are all ok as well – it is really up to you on this and what works best with your face and hair and you can combine them and do half and half, or whatever combo you prefer most. Since you will be putting this on your face it will condition and soften your skin (especially with sandalwood oil) and condition and soften your beard hairs. This will make about an ounce, and you can either use a bottle with a dropper or you can use a bottle that has a built in dropper like on most essential oil bottles. You can even re-use some essential oil bottles for this.

ProScentsTip: You can also substitute the pine or cedarwood for lime and rosemary respectively, for a more citrusy smelling oil. You can also check out this site which has some great links for bottles, measuring equipment (if you don’t have anything to measure milliliters with) and some other recipes.

Muscle Spasm Massage Oil

  • 1 ounce Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Sandalwood oil (or 1/2 teaspoon Sandalwood powder)
  • 10 drops Wintergreen
  • 10 drops Cardamom

Mix well it is best to use an oil that is liquid at room temperature, if you use coconut oil that is not, you may want to whip this in a stand mixer to make it easier to apply. This is a great oil to massage into painful muscle spasms, or for general muscle pain (especially back pain!). The sandalwood and cardamom will help release the muscles and relax them, and the wintergreen will provide warming (which always helps muscles release) as well as providing a natural aspirin component to alleviate pain further.

Sleeping Sandalwood & Lavender

  • 1-2 drops Lavender oil
  • 1-2 drops Sandalwood oil

Massage into temples and inhale the lovely scents deeply. This is a combination that I find many swear by, and I do like the combination. It isn’t as powerful as hops, but it will definitely send you off to a sweet smelling dreamland.

ProMigraineTip: Since lavender and sandalwood oil are antispasmodics as well as good for treating pain, these are also great to massage into the temples if you are suffering a migraine.

If you suffer from dandruff you can also use sandalwood oil to treat it, and you can use the Best Shampoo Ever Recipe I posted previously as a base for it. Also sandalwood as I mentioned is great as a deodorant, you can add the oils to the Best Deodorant recipes I posted (any of them in the post will work) or you can use sandalwood paste to make your own. Simply take your sandalwood powder, mix with small amounts of water until it forms a paste and apply with the hands to the armpits.

Remember, everyone’s body is different and has different chemistry so always do your own experiments and see what works best for you. Always check sites like WebMD for interactions with any medications you might be taking, and remember check for ethically sourced, and sustainably harvested sandalwood oil. You will pay a little more, but it is worth supporting people who want to make sure this tree is around for future generations. And as always, if you have any doubts whatsoever – ask a professional!


What is a Radiofrequency Ablation?

Sounds super scary right? And you don’t even know what it is yet. I am inspired to write this after explaining to a lot of people the procedure I had done recently. So why not get some word out on what this is, and how it can help with chronic pain conditions that stem from neurological disorders.

So what is it first of all? A Radiofrequency Ablation (or Radiofrequency Nerve Lesioning) is basically where they take a wire, and insert it down a needle into a part of you (generally along the spine if you are treating pain, other places for other issues) which is then heated up and tissue is ablated. Ablated means they’re removed, cauterized, or destroyed – think of it like one of those chemical peels, the top layer of skin is being ablated. Which sounds horrible and possibly painful just reading that but I swear it isn’t! Usually for pain management it is done to nerves coming from certain points on the spine, and the medial nerves (which sends the pain signal up to the brain) are targeted.

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This is a picture of where they are and what things look like in the Cervical section of the spine.

It doesn’t feel really any different than any other injection procedure you might have, though sometimes you may get a muscle twitch when they pass current down the needle to make sure they are hitting the right spot. Once they know they are in the right spot using the current to stimulate and a fluoroscope, they pass a current down the wire that generates radio waves (which also produce heat) to cauterize, or ablate, the nerve. It is actually a pretty easy procedure, and I seem to recover faster than from other types of procedures. Plus I find it helps me a lot more with my pain than a cortisone injection these days.

Since it is easier to be a visual learner most of the time, here is a great video to watch with some animation so you won’t feel too squeamish if blood makes you woozy.

So as you can see it is waaaaay less scary than sticking a needle in you and burning off parts of your nerves sounds. Plus the nerves grow back in a few months and if you are lucky don’t have to repeat the process. If you are like me and do, it has a lot less negative side effects than getting cortisone over long periods of time, and you get to be free of some pain!

Remember all of our bodies are different and yours may react differently than mine, talk to your doctor, or a few doctors (which is best) and make sure you do your own research to make sure this is the right procedure for you and your pain condition. WebMD is a great resource as always for things like this, and definitely ask a professional!

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Pine, the Sacred Tree of Attis

Pine, another one of those hidden in the open, or as my Mom likes to say “if it was a snake it woulda bit ya,” plants that has a ton of uses but never really gets noticed…unless you are looking for a Christmas tree. Pines though, are a common species, and a very old species, used by many cultures since it has a pretty wide spread across the world with many different species. It is a relative of juniper, and of fir and cypress trees (which will be covered in later posts), and has species in every part of the globe.

Some more personal history of pines here, the tragic Bastrop fires in 2011 burned a massive amount of farm/ranch land, and houses, which was devastating enough. But it also burned some very rare pines called the Lost Pines, which is a group of Loblolly pines that were separated from their pine-y brethren in about the Pleistocene era. They are being replanted, but it will take a long time to replace these hardy, but beautiful trees in that area.

Loblolly pines, ancient, majestic, and useful!

Pine is one of those really great plants that is categorized as mostly harmless by most botanists and herbalists. In general, of course there are some that are exceptions. Since it is easy to find and most species are harmless I will not be differentiating between the different species (there are just too many!) But this is general information on pine and it’s uses, and I will list the most commonly used for each sort of preparation if there happens to be one. One of the best aspects of pine is, most pine species are high in vitamin C and vitamin A, and both are really important for your immune system.


Pines, being evergreen conifers, all tend to have cones of some sort, as well as needle like leaves, and the leaves contain the precious vitamins and oils used.

I am sure everyone has heard about getting enough vitamin C in their diet. The big C is such a vital vitamin it is why the term “limey,” a not so flattering term, was coined for Britishers. British sailors carried lime trees, sometimes lemons, with them to keep scurvy at bay, and improve the taste of stale water. Grog was the most well known dosing method, it was a mix of rum, water and lime juice. This disease was a limiter (besides water and food keeping) in the “Age of Exploration,” in its prevention of travel too far from fresh food.  Scurvy is a horrible disease, it is an incapacitating and painful disease of malnutrition. It is like gangrene in that your body is slowly breaking down, and is an extremely unpleasant way to die. In fact it wasn’t until the 18th century during the first travels of Captain Cook that it was recorded that not one man was lost to scurvy, which was quite remarkable at that time. Many colonies also suffered from scurvy during the colonial eras, and it was the Native Americans in the North American colonies that showed the new settlers how to eat pine needles in the winter to prevent Scurvy from taking its toll during harder food times.

Vitamin A is one you probably don’t hear a lot about, even though it is crazy important to have in your diet. Vitamin A, which is also prevalent in pine leaves (or needles), is vital to the immune system, the health of your retinas, and many other things. Vitamin A is the number one vitamin in the world that people do not get enough of, even in the “developed” world. It is really important to make sure that your diet has enough vitamin A, since it becomes harder to absorb if you get cortisone shots, also if you smoke tobacco, or drink frequently, which may cause a deficiency. If don’t consume enough fresh fruit and vegetables – which is a major issue in most countries that eat lots of processed food – you may be deficient and not even know it. So while vitamin A is not as well publicized it is just as vital as C in your diet to keep that immune system fighting strong. This becomes even more important if you are receiving cortisone shots, since your immune system needs to be strengthened as much as possible to help keep you from catching every bug that you happen to come into contact with.

For more information you can read on cortisone here, and vitamins and their role in the body here.

So, if you are ever lost in the woods, you could probably make tea or just eat pine needles (the young leaves, or tips are preferred to eat or make tea with) to survive and they would probably be safe. Unless you are Bear Grills, and then you will probably be too busy drinking your pee to make tea of pine needles. I say probably safe since some species tend to be a bit more resinous than others, if it smells like floor polish you probably shouldn’t drink too much of it, since it could be too much of a good thing. Though you probably won’t want to drink much anyway, it is very much like drinking pinesol and quite a turn off.

Not only are the needles good for vitamin C and A, as well as safe (most species), but the inner bark also can be used. It is known as the cambium in science terms, but it is the soft sort of stringy inner bark you see when you peel the bark off a tree. The stuff in between the outer rough bark and the inner wood of the tree. This inner bark can be dried and used as an ersatz (substitute or famine replacement) flour, or even as a gluten free option for thickening soups, stews, gravy, etc. The Adirondack Mountains are named after the Anglicization of the term that in the Mohawk language was a slightly derogatory term for Algonquian-speaking tribes that lived near them. It also happens to be the Mohawk word for the porcupine, who also eats bark. It was first coined due to the Algonquian tribes eating bark and buds of trees in famine times. It was also used by some Native American tribes as flea and lice repellents in bedding since adding pine needles to it can ward off insects.

In Western traditions its boughs and trees themselves were and are used often in Christmas decorations, or just in winter decorations due to their pleasant smell and long lasting green, which is so welcome in the white days of winters. Pine resin was also used to make rosin, for bowed instruments, as well as furniture polishes. Hippocrates studied pine for its respiratory (pulmonary) issues and found it useful for throat issues. Pliny the Elder also mentions its great therapeutic value, stressing how important it is for the respiratory system. Pine resin was used to line, and thus water proof, wine jars, and the taste of the pitch came to be a preferred flavor in most wines, just like some today may prefer earthy or leathery wines.

The Greeks also held pine to be sacred to the god Attis, which is part of some freaky-deaky mythology that seems oddly relevant after that one rapper that cut his junk off.

Warning : If you are sensitive to stories about knives and willies, you may want to skip to after the image, if you aren’t read on brave soul. 

So the myth goes, Attis was the lover of a goddess called Cybele (who was sort of an earth/mother goddess – most of her imagery was in the same style as Isis, or Mary – the mother goddess pictured seated with a child in her lap). One day Cybele catches Attis getting a little too friendly-like either with a nymph, or he was being married off to some mortal woman by his parents (it depends on who, when, and where you are asking). In her rage of jealousy she drives Attis mad. Since he is now “cray cray,” to use the parlance of our times, he then proceeds to cut his junk off. Which seems like a sensible way to deal with the whole situation, but at least it gets you into the eunuch club.

“Wooo Pink Wednesdays! Totes worth it guys” – Attius

One of the earlier rituals performed for Attis was a ritual cutting down of a pine tree, which became the symbolic phallus of Attis, and decorating it before it then ritually penetrates the earth by being planted. After planting it, you have a drink and a bit of a knees up. (Almost sounds like a fun Saturday night right?) But later on as the cult travels and evolves, soon since Attis became a eunuch, that meant all of his priests had to be eunuchs. And the initiation ritual became a sort of castration get-together. First you get really worked up, “into a frenzy,” and then just lop one’s junk off. There was a lot of junk cutting off, and symbolic willies related to this Attis and Cybele pair, as you can see, and the whole thing made the Romans rather uncomfortable with the whole business (which I mean, it makes me a bit uncomfortable, and I don’t even have willy to cut off). But they let it go on, because hey, who wants to piss off a guy that gets so worked up he cuts his junk off? And a goddess that seems OK with that sort of thing. No one with junk to cut off, that’s for sure.

Trust me dudes, you think I get cuckoo for coco-puffs? You don’t even want to see her flip her bitch switch.

If you are interested in other pine myths, that are a bit less freaky, check out this site for a quick overview, and there is always the story of Sinis.

As a cook I am very familiar with pine nuts. They are fairly common in a lot of styles of cooking, especially if you are making Middle Eastern food, or Mediterranean foods. You can’t make traditional kibbeh or pesto without them. There is also pine nut oil, made from pine nuts, it has a useful low smoke point, and was sometimes used during Lenten traditions when fats are banned. Pine nuts are a luxury item even today, commanding one of the higher prices for nuts since they are difficult to collect and pine trees generally have a low yield. Their flavor is very much worth the work to get them, and it was one of the foods gathered by almost every people that had edible-nut producing pines in their areas.

Chemically pine needles and pine essential oil (since it is a distillation of the oils from the needles) contain a lot of chemicals we have gone over already like α-pinene, limonene, terpineol (warming) and others. So we know it is a warming oil, with anti-inflammatory, mild analgesic and anti-spasmodic properties. One chemical that is frequently talked about in newer information is that some studies have shown that pycnogenol, found in pine leaves, has some inhibitory action on inflammatory chemical signals (COX-1 & COX-2) and could be useful in the treatment of inflammatory issues maybe even other uses but there is not enough scientific evidence to back this as a wonder drug or anything of that nature, though many sites will tout it as such.

Pine essential oil is a multitasker, besides all its great external uses is also a great scent, and can blend well with a lot of other scents just to relax, or for mixing oils that smell nice as well as increase the medicinal properties of the pine essential oils. It is also good for chest colds and congestion, rubbed into the chest as an oil or salve, or inhaled – as steam by dropping a few drops of the pure oils into a bowl of hot water and then breathed in with a towel over the head to trap the vapors. Most pine essential oils I have come across are made from Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), but there are others oils can be made of, make sure if you are purchasing essential oils you know which species of pine it comes from and do your research to make sure it is the right species for your issues.

Pine Essential Oil Rub for Joints and Muscles

  • 1 ounce Carrier oil (you could even use pine nut oil, but any good quality vegetable based oil will do)
  • 10-20 drops Pine essential oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle. To use, massage into painful areas. Pine is great for aching joints, or just soothing muscles after a work out. I find this works great for minor spasm pain, and just to soothe achy muscles after injections or any sort of post-spasm pain. It can also help to alleviate stress, since its anti-spasmodic and slight sedative nature can relax the mind and body.

ProTip: if you want to add in eucalyptus, lavender, and rosemary they are all great scents that blend well with pine, and bring additional healing properties. Orange also smells great with pine.

You can make a pine pitch salves, which is not only good for pain, but great for wounds, and drawing out impurities (ie – splinters, gravel, dirt, really anything that you can get embedded in small amounts in a wound from a tumble). This is a very traditional medicine, something you could classify as “wise-woman” medicine, and was used by women in the frontier areas of America, possibly handed down through contact with Native Americans, to treat wounds that would otherwise have been a vulnerability for infection, gangrene, septicemia and other deadly infections.

Pine Pitch Salve

  • 1/2 ounce Bees Wax, granulated or grated
  • 2 ounces Pine resin
  • 4 ounces Oil (any good quality vegetable oils – jojoba, almond, coconut, olive, etc)

Heat oil in a double boiler, and add resin. Stir until melted and mixed thoroughly. Add in bees wax slowly, and continue to stir until it forms a uniform appearance. Pour into containers and allow to cool. Apply to wounds, and painful areas, as well as wounds with foreign objects, stys, splinters, and pimples. This is also great for fire ant bites, as it draws out the poisons, and regular bug bites.

You can also make pine tar tincture by dissolving it in a high proof grain alcohol (vodka, everclear, etc) in a 1 part pitch to 4 parts alcohol ratio. You can use the liquid to wash wounds, or as part of a warm water compress (a few drops on a damp hot towel or cloth) or as a sore throat remedy & cough remedy (recipes further down).

ProSurvivalTip: In survival situations you can also melt just the raw pitch, try to find large globs and remove them straight from the tree, and heat. Allow to cool until it is warm, and can be handled. While it is still pliable, apply to the wound to help heal and draw out impurities. The pitch once removed, will contain any foreign objects that were in the wound, and can be re-used to make a salve if conditions allow.

ProCollectingTip: Resin if you want to collect it yourself needs to be done in spring or summer when the sap flows in the tree. Usually you can find a tree that is producing sap from a naturally made wound, or you can cut the tree yourself and return to collect the resin. This is REALLY messy, sticky stuff, I suggest a dedicated collecting tool you don’t mind getting sticky or keeping kerosene or gasoline handy to remove it from hands and tools. It does well in parchment paper, and you can freeze it for easier handling.

Pine Resin and Raw Honey Salve

  • 2 ounces Pine resin (you can purchase this online, in some herb stores, or harvest it yourself)
  • 2 ounces Raw honey
  • 1 ounce Oil (any good quality oil will do)
  • Optional: 1/2 to 3 ounces bees wax, granulated or grated

Heat the oil in a double boiler, and add the pulverized resin slowly. Once it has melted and combined into the oil add in raw honey. If you would like a firmer salve, you can add in the bees wax, you would want to add it and do tests of cooling a small amount on a spoon to see how firm it will be. It is up to you, and the resin, how firm the salve will be. Pour into containers, and allow to cool. These always make great gifts for cyclists or hikers and ramblers 🙂

If you don’t have Pine resin available or you don’t want to bother with the hassle of collecting (or you don’t want icky tree bits in your resin) you can use essential oils to make an easy salve.

Pine Essential Oil Salve

  • 20-30 drops Pine essential oil
  • 1/2 ounce Bees wax, granulated or grated
  • 1/2 ounce of Oil (any vegetable oil)

Heat oil in double boiler, and slowly add in bees wax until it is melted and combined, remove from heat and hand stir in essential oils, pour into containers and allow to cool. This like the other salves is great for on the go applications for pain and wounds.

For a quick cheater version, you can use 2 ounces of any solid at room temperature oil and 10-20 drops of pine essential oils. Add the oils drop by drop as you whip the oil until it becomes creamy and like body butter.

Since it is such a great antibacterial, pine resin has been used for throat complaints for ages, an old recipe you see floating around a lot is for throat lozenges and cough syrups.

Pine Pitch Throat Sticks

  • 3 cups filtered water
  • 5 pounds sugar
  • 5 drops of pine tar tincture (the one mentioned above)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon Wintergreen essential oil (133 drops)
  • Good sturdy pot
  • Accurate thermometer (preferably a candy thermometer)

Combine water and sugar, and boil to the hard crack stage. Once it reaches hard crack remove from heat and spread on a greased cake pan or cookie sheet (if you don’t care if it warps put it in the fridge first to cool it), or if you are lucky enough to have one on a marble slab. As it cools add in the drops of tincture and wintergreen, you will want to mix this with your hands as much as possible, pulling and stretching the sugar as it cools to make sure everything is evenly distributed and well mixed. This is sometimes easier to do if you have someone help you with this. Once fairly cool cut and roll into sausages about 1/4 to half an inch in diameter and cut into half inch sticks, or inch long sticks if you like, and allow to cool. You can also roll, or dust, these in corn starch to prevent sticking and store them in a jar until needed. These are wonderful for sore throats, especially the ones that are very painful to swallow due to infection.

Pine Tar Cough Syrup

  • 1 cup Honey (local wildflower honey is the best choice!)
  • 2 tablespoons pine tar tincture

Blend well, and dose is 1 teaspoon three times a day for sore throats and cough.

Tea, one of the more simple ways of using pine is easy to prepare and use as a gargle, drink or even to add to a bath. And since pine is pretty much everywhere, you should always have a handy supply of vitamin C at your finger tips even in very urban areas. So next cold and flu season, you are prepared since vitamin C and A are everywhere!

Pine Needle Tea

  • 2 teaspoons of Pine Needles (fresh or dried)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water

Steep for 4-10 minutes in a covered teapot or halve the amount (8 ounces water and 2 1/4 teaspoons) for an individual cup (Remember cover that teacup! You will lose all those oils that make this worth making int he steam if you don’t). If you want you can up this to 4 teaspoons (or 2 teaspoons per 8 oz of water) but I don’t suggest exceeding that. This is a great tea for stress or pain, or just to warm you and your joints up on a cold morning. It is also a great gargle for sore throats as well. For the best species to make tea with, it seems the general consensus is the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is the best sort of pine for teas, and there are some pre-packaged forms of this (in pills, teas, and dried leaf forms) if you don’t have this species locally, though most pines will do just fine.

Remember if you are not sure of the species, which you should try to avoid this, unless in say a super desperation situation, and the tea smells too furniture polish-y add more water and only use small amounts of the needles. I also find that using fresh or dried needles if they are whole a rough chop is sometimes needed before using them. If it is really off-putting you probably should find a different tree.

Pine Bath Tea

  • 2 tablespoons of Pine needles (dried or fresh)
  • 16 ounces Boiling water

For this one the stronger the smell the better, steep for 10 minutes and add to bath. Soak for 20 minutes and enjoy the wonderful smell.

Pine Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-15 drops Pine essential oils
  • optional: any additional oils for any additional properties needed

Mix well, make sure you don’t have any lumps of oils, and store in a water tight container. Add about a cup full to a hot bath, and soak for about 20 minutes. Also you can include the previously mentioned herbs, or anything you thing would smell great with this to enhance the healing nature of the bath.

Holiday Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 10 drops Pine essential oil
  • 5 drops Orange essential oil (Sweet Orange or Bergamot would also work)
  • 5 drops Clove essential oil
  • 5 drops Cinnamon essential oil
  • optional: 5 drops Nutmeg essential oil

Mix well and store in watertight container. This is another great gift for the holidays or for relaxing during that stressful time of year. Gifts and a way to relax, told you pine was a great multitasker! 🙂

Remember everyone is different so make sure you do your own trials to see what works for you, and if you have any pine pollen allergies this might not be a remedy for you, do a small skin test before trying any of these remedies if you have that allergy. Make sure you check things like WebMD for interactions, and the like. And as always if you are ever in doubt, about anything at all, ask a professional!


Pepper, The King of Spices

Migraines, migraines, migraines! Ugh, they sure slow me down but, never stop me 🙂 Luckily, there is black pepper to help with migraines, and it is great for other uses with a long, long history behind it.

I am sure if you went to an American public school that you learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, back in 1492, and he did so to find Spices. (If you didn’t I am sure you got a different story, and possibly more, or less, accurate depending on where you are.) Spices were that mystical substance found in the “East,” that were used to cover up rancid meat. Since apparently our “crude” European ancestors didn’t care if their food was off as long as it was coated in spices. Every country must have it’s creation myth, and this is the one taught here. ‘Murica!

Depiction of actual historical event, brought to you by American Public Schooling

But in all seriousness, spices are important. Important enough to attempt dangerous voyages, or commit horrible crimes upon the native owners of the fabled spice plants. I am looking at you VOC. Spices may mask some of the early stages of food turning rotten, but would not cover them all once it has turned, or make it alright to eat without severe consequences later. Also rotted food is gross, really gross. (Which if that stuff is your fancy, interesting stuff is being learned on disgust now and why we have it) Generally this myth about spices is not believed by actual historians, so while they weren’t used to make gross, inedible things edible, it did make edible things a lot more exciting. In the immortal words of Emeril, they let you kick food up a notch. BAM! It was that excitement of the palate, the way they activate the senses, and rarity, that made spices so desirable. Spices make the meal, it adds complexity, depth, and helps us avoid the monotony of blandness. Even just adding salt and pepper can take a meal from meh, to wow! But we, as a culture, hardly ever notice it as we dump massive amounts of both on our food, before even tasting it.

Spices usually traveled great distances, and because of this commanded great prices, and were first used in small amounts. Sometimes used as precious medicine, and many of them were, even if they were not necessarily used in the right way all of the time. Of course some of them weren’t medicinal, or magical, but were still used as medicine since rare things are often claimed to have powers to add to its price. Also used in cooking, but sparingly and it makes the dishes from Richard II’s kitchen more luxurious when you realize that a small piece of ginger was not only crazy expensive so only nobility could afford it but it made it all the way to England, over possibly months or even years. A lot of these spices that traveled far and were known in the historical eras dried easily and were easy to transport. Some of the most important were clovesginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, in later years nutmeg, and of course black pepper. Black pepper and cloves take the distinction of being the oldest traded, and most important of them all.

Pepper, most well known in its hard, small, bead-like black pepper form, is made from the berries of the Piper nigrum vine. This vine that grows native in India, but is a global crop now, and it is the little berries that are harvested to make what we know and recognize as peppercorns. The berries (drupes to be precise, but I will use berries since most people understand what berries are 🙂 ) hang in long clusters, and turn redish orange when ripe. They are sort of like harder, larger seeded grapes, or coffee berries.


Hard to believe those shriveled little black things we know, started life like this

Harvesting at various stages of ripeness, and its preservation method, determines the color of the end product. The vines are quite beautiful, and they like to grow in tropical areas where there are lots of trees and things to support its vine-y growth. Since pepper and cloves were so easy to transport, they were some of the first spices to travel and make it over great distances. Pepper was once the sign of great wealth, and was extremely expensive, hence its epitaphs of the King of Spices, or the Master Spice. Even thought its price has diminished to allow it to be more accessible, it is still the most used and most traded spice in the world. It has even kept its name Black Gold, though it now shares that moniker with crude oil.

“Wait!? Pepper!? That common thing that we pay as little attention to as salt? That is on every table, be it fast food or fancy. That pepper was crazy expensive?!?” You are probably thinking to yourself.

You betcha.

It was not only expensive, it was used as a form of money it was so precious. Many sayings come from this use of pepper, like in England  “peppercorn rent” came to be used for a token payment, or for extremely discounted rents. The Dutch phrase “peperduur” translates to “as expensive as peppercorns.” In the Middle Ages pepper was used to pay dowries, and even taxes. Now we have pepper everywhere, to the point we expect it and take it, and its low price, for granted. People purchase and use pre-ground pepper which is dry and bland, never getting to experience the complexity of white, or green pepper. Or the wonderful taste of black pepper when freshly crushed. Next to water and salt (which we really under appreciate), black pepper is the most common ingredient in cooking. But, considering we have used pepper since 1000 BCE, it is sort of easy to see how it may have become common, and lost its luster and air of exoticism. Americans consume about .25 lbs (.11 kg) a year and Tunisia is the highest consumption at .5 lbs (.23 kg) a year, and most of it is the most common black pepper.

Pepper has a long history with humans, it has been around since at least 2000 BCE in India where it has been known to have been used by Indian cooking for generations. It was found dried and stuffed into the nostrils of Ramses II, most likely placed there during the embalming of his body. Pepper is native to India but only in a very small place in the region of Kerala, and pepper had to travel great distances to get to Egypt. It is still not known exactly how pepper got to Egypt from India, since there is no documentation of it prior to 600 BCE. The most likely suspect would be by dhow, a type of boat that has plied the seas between Africa, the Middle East and India for longer than humans have documentation for, leading to a lot of debate on how early they could have been used just in general. Using the cycle of the Monsoon winds, as is done now, it would have been fairly easy journey from India to the Middle East or the Horn of Africa with spices for trade. After the Kon-Tiki, it is very plausible that these trips were going on for many years before someone happened to write it down. This trip is still made today by the same type of boats, and it is an easier route than the over land, later known as the Silk Road.

By about 400 BCE Greece was very familiar with black pepper, even if they could not always afford, or find it. They first called black pepper peperi. Black pepper was not as popular as Long Pepper, in Greece and was not a huge feature in their foods. The Romans later caught on to pepper and called it piper. Once Rome conquered Egypt and a sea route to Malabar was possible, and as it became more available Romans grew to use black pepper more frequently in their cuisine. In fact, they almost became pepper fanatics. Pliny the Elder complained that vast amounts of Rome’s income was flowing to the East. Brennus, the original Hells Angel, after laying siege to Rome demanded as ransom for the city 1000’s of pounds of gold and silver, and 3,000 pounds of peppercorns. Vae victis indeed.

Pepper traveled more and more widely and gained popularity in every country it traveled to. Up to the Middle Ages, all black pepper in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa came from Malabar. As Europe grew a taste for pepper its popularity there quickly increased. There is folklore that Indian monks used them for energy, and the term pepper came to mean energy or energetic, and it is where the term “pep” came from. Like with Tea, when it was scare and valuable, many people kept their precious pepper supply under lock and key. People considered poor were the ones with “no pepper” and in Germany a term for the rich was “pepper sacks.” Pepper is what made the wealth of the merchants of Venice, and was what helped to drive the Age of Exploration. Pepper was one of  the spices people sought to find a direct trade route to that started all those expeditions. If you were a merchant in Venice one of the ways to bribe a tax collector was with a pound of pepper. The oldest guild in London is the Guild of Pepperers, started in 1328 CE. Soldiers were given it as payment after battle, and when a wreck of a boat originating from England dating to about 1545 CE was found, all the sailors bodies recovered were found to have peppercorns on them. Not only was pepper wealth, it was easily portable wealth, which made it easy to carry during travel or trade. It was so highly prized, along with salt that you have fantastic items like the Cellini Salt Cellar being made. Which pretty much screams luxury at you, telling you how highly regarded pepper was, displayed in a golden and enameled chest next to a possible Earth goddess who faces her counterpart the Sea god and his boat of salt.


The very definition of 16th Century table bling

If you have ever been to a spice store, you know there are more types of pepper than just black. And to make things more confusing there are different types of black pepper. So it is important to understand what is out there, what it is, and what is important for cooking and/or medicine.


6 of the different types of peppers. Red (orange) pepper is not shown

All of the below listed versions are made from Piper nigrum, which produces most of the well known peppers.

Red Peppercorns – (not to be confused with Pink (Rose) Peppercorns) these are pickled in brine or vinegar, and sometimes called orange pepper. These are not imported into many countries, and if they are, they are pretty expensive. Maybe I will get to try them eventually. The taste of these is said to be more mellow and similar to dried Tellicherry black pepper.

Green Peppercorns  much more affordable, than Red, but still expensive due to the amount of processing and all that work gives a small yield. These are made from the unripe berries from the pepper vine. They are then sometimes treated with chemicals to preserve their color and freeze dried, dehydrated, or canned. A more traditional processing means they are pickled in brine or vinegar. If you are making peppercorn sauce, this is the version traditionally required to make it.

White Peppercorns this is actually just the seed of the pepper berry with the fleshy outer coating removed. The berries are soaked in water until the outer fruit loosens around the seeds. They are then rubbed to rid them of the remaining fruit and dried. White pepper is often used in white sauces, to prevent marring the color where black pepper would stand out. White pepper since it lacks the fruit, does have a slightly different taste than black pepper since it retains its fruit coating. When I lived in Australia, this was commonly used in restaurants as the pre-ground pepper on the tables. I wonder if that is still done there? Muntok white pepper is grown in Indonesia, and generally hand harvested, soaked, and hand processed as well as sun-dried. It is the most common and best known white pepper, and is generally harvested well after ripening and then processed. It has a mild heat and almost wine flavor, it goes best with poultry, cream, and shellfish. Sarawak white pepper is from Malaysia and has more licorice or musk-like flavors, and is considered the better white pepper of the two. It is processed mostly the same as Muntok, except they are soaked in running water sometimes in jute bags which improves the taste. Again this is great for softer dishes and recommended for fish as well as all the things Muntok goes well with. Juila Child always said you should always use white pepper in a béchamel sauce to prevent unsightly specks.

Black Peppercorns – the still unripe berries are harvested and cooked briefly in hot water, they are then dried usually in the sun since the heat helps to change the color as well as dry the berries. These are what most of you fill your pepper mill with, or if you buy the pre-ground stuff your pepper shaker.  Tellicherry (which is a city in Kerala) black pepper is from the same vine as other black peppers, but it is allowed to stay on the vine longer until it is just about to ripen before it is harvested, giving it a more fruity or floral characteristic. Malabar peppercorns are from the famed Malabar coast in Kerala, and are basically the most well known black pepper taste, it is more bitter than Tellicherry more citrus and pine flavors. Black pepper can be used in anything from ice cream. the crust of your finely grilled steak, or just a sprinkle on your mashed potatoes. There are other types than just the two listed, usually based on what country they are grown in. Black pepper is the most valuable medicinally, since they still contain the black peppercorn oil, and this is the oil used for medicinal purposes.

ProTip: It is highly suggested that when buying a pepper mill one should invest in preferably of plastic or metal models, since wooden ones can actually suck the oil from the berries causing them to be less fragrant and potent over time. I have to admit though I have a wooden one myself that I don’t have the heart to get rid of since it was a gift, and since I use pepper a lot I haven’t noticed that much degradation.

Pepper has some sometimes impostors, useful cousins, and replacements – if pepper isn’t available. They have their own uses, and names should be noted if you are looking for medicinal items, to prevent confusion, since these do not have the same characteristics as black pepper and shouldn’t be substituted in medicinal preparations.

All of the below listed plants carry a common name of pepper, but are a different species from black pepper.

Long Pepper – made famous more recently by Sam Adams if you are a beer nerd, since it was used along with grains of paradise in a beer he made that brought back some old fashioned beer spices. Long pepper is usually tied (or confused) with black pepper and seems to have been used interchangeably or preferred over black pepper for its similar taste but slightly hotter kick than normal black pepper

Grains of Paradise – also made famous with long pepper in Sam Adam’s beers, this is not actual of the same genus as black pepper. This plant is more closely related to ginger and is sometimes known as African pepper, or alligator pepper. While it has a peppery flavor the chemicals in it are more closely related to the same chemicals produced by cardamom. Common in West and North African cooking, it is used in brewing as well as flavoring gin and sometimes akavit (a Norwegian alcohol).

Pink (Rose) Pepper – this can be one of two species Schinus terebinthifolus or Schinus molle, both of these are native to South America and is generally the pink-red peppercorns you can buy in peppercorn blends. This is a great culinary spice and I highly recommend keeping a black pepper, and a black, green, pink, and white peppercorn mix on hand for cooking. I love the taste of this mix on eggs the most. Pink peppercorns are antiseptic, and good for wounds but we will not be discussing its uses in depth in this post.

Jamaican Pepper – (aka allspice) I am including this one here since it was thought, when first discovered by Europeans, to be black pepper or some near relative of it. It is used in a variety of cuisines in savory and sweet dishes. Its current name allspice comes from its flavor which the English when first experiencing it thought it smelled of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg combined.

Adulteration & Substitutions

Peppers have been adulterated for pretty much as long as people were figuring out how to cheat others. Sometimes dried juniper berries were used, sometimes papaya seeds, which sounds a bit better than wooden faux nutmegs. If it was already ground, there are horror stories of people using dust from floor sweepings to adulterate pepper.

Some places use pepper substitutes because pepper either does not grow there, or it is too expensive to import. The desire to use plants that have this spicy effect to jazz up food, almost seems to be universal.It should also be noted that chilies are called peppers some places but are completely different, we will go over them in the future.

Because I love cooking, and these are all interesting substitutes. Not to mention possibly useful to people who have a pepper allergy. So here are some alternatives to pepper:

Why are they called corns though? 

They aren’t made of corn! Just like corned beef, or corned gunpowder, corn is a term for any small seed-like item that originates from Old English, and possibly proto-German. So since pepper berries once dried look like small seeds or beads, corn was applied to them and the term stuck.

So, OK, pepper is awesome, but also way more complicated than it looks.

How do you use it medicinally?

In the Ayurvedic tradition it was used to treat migraines, using a paste made from crushed black pepper cooked in milk and then smeared on the forehead. Ayurveda used it as a digestive, and for gastrointestinal distress, which the Europeans found the same uses for it too. It is also great for colds, since it increases mucus flow and can help get things moving again. It was also used in other traditions as a skin treatment to relieve hives and other skin issues. Black pepper is a natural antiseptic and is actually a great source of vitamin C. It should help to strengthen the immune system and is why its included in the turmeric tea recipe. You can always add a pinch of pepper to your turmeric teas, or ginger teas to help with pain and inflammation.

Black pepper has analgesic properties as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodics, its warming effect on the skin also feels lovely on sore achy muscles. Black pepper oils carry a lot of the same chemicals we have discussed with previous plants, camphene, α-pinene, linalool and other sesquiterpines are present which account for its medicinal versatility. It can also irritate the gut in larger doses, aiding with slow digestion or constipation, but small amounts help with digestion and “prevent wind.”

Pepper Oil for Sore Muscles and Migraines

  • 1 oz Carrier oils (any good quality oil will do)
  • 15-20 drops Black Pepper essential oil

Mix well, store in a dark bottle. Massage into a spasmed muscle, or just exhausted ones after a workout. It works great for areas of neurological pain, and massaged into the temples or a spasmed neck to ease the pain of migraines. The warmth and drawing blood to the area helps heal muscles, as well as ease pain. It works great for inflamed joints as well. You can always reduce the amount of pepper to 10 drops and include 10 drops of other oils like eucalyptus, lavender, copaiba, juniper, clary sage, clove, ginger, fennel and frankincense not to mention many others. Most scents smell nice with pepper (a good bet for a mix is floral or citrus) but will provide additional relief.

Black pepper is also good in a salve, which makes it easy to use on the go. So these are great to keep in your gym bag, or near where you work out.

Black Pepper Salve

  • 1/3 cup Oil (Sunflower, Almond, Apricot, just should be of vegetable origin)
  • 1/3 ounce Bees Wax, granulated, or grated
  • 5-10 drops of Black pepper oil

Heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax. Stir constantly until fully melted and everything is combined. Remove from heat, and slowly stir in, by hand, the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is great for arthritic pains, rheumatoid or otherwise, and good for muscle pains on the go.

You can always make the cheater version by whipping 2 oz of solid at room temperature coconut oil in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, and adding 10-20 drops of the black pepper essential oils. You can also make a chai spice version which smells fantastic as well as helps with pain, and with the addition of raw honey is good wound healing and for your skin too.

Chai Raw Honey Salve

  • 1/3 cup Oil (same as above, just make sure it is good quality)
  • 1/3 ounce of Bees Wax
  • 1/3 ounce Raw Honey
  • 2-3 drops ginger
  • 2-3 drops cloves (start with 2 and add more if you like since clove can over power things)
  • 2-3 drops of nutmeg
  • 3-5 drops cardamom
  • 3-5 drops cinnamon
  • 2-3 drops black pepper

First heat oil in a double boiler, and slowly add bees wax, like above then add raw honey. Stir mixture until fully melted and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Remove from heat and stir in by hand the essential oils. Pour into small, preferably glass, seal-able containers and store in a cool dry place. This is a great salve for painful cracked skin to help it heal, to put on a wound before bandaging, and is great massaging into painful joints and muscles. Also a great gift idea!

Home made chai tea is also fantastic, and there is a great recipe here you should definitely try, and I have more fast and loose recipe I like to use.

Chai Tea from Scratch

  • 1/2 inch to inch piece of ginger peeled and crushed
  • 2-5 peppercorns, cracked but not ground to powder (start small and increase to get it to where you like)
  • 2 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
  • 2-3 cloves, slightly crushed
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2/3 cup milk (or milk substitute, coconut cream goes well here, go for the full fat options if you are bold)
  • 1 teaspoon of Black tea (others are fine, and if you don’t have loose 1 teabag will do, Earl Grey will work in a pinch too)
  • Honey or sugar to taste

You don’t want the ingredients completely broken apart but crushed enough to allow maximum surface area for the flavor to disperse into the liquids. Throw it all in a saucepan cold, let it heat up slowly until just before the boil, making sure to stir or swirl the pan constantly. Strain and serve. This is great on a cold morning to warm the hands and ease stiffness and pain. But frankly it is good any time, and well worth the effort 🙂

Black pepper oil is also good, in my opinion, rubbed directly on the skin. Just a drop or two into one of my painful spasmed muscles brings soothing warmth as well as a smell that helps keep me alert. I enjoy it the most massaged straight, with no carrier oils, into my neck and spasms in my face when migraines are an issue. Which if you have sensitive skin this may not be the application method for you. I also don’t recommend using this near bed time as I have found the smell isn’t so great when you are trying to sleep. It is also good for the hair and a drop with rosemary on the hairbrush and brushed into the hair smells quite nice.

If you know anything about Italian food, or if you are an Anthony Bourdain fan, you probably have heard of Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. A dish that’s deceptive simplicity can highlight ingredients, or mistakes. You can never go wrong with Lidia’s recipes so I have provided her’s. This is my sort of simple comfort food, and reminds me of home since Mom would make this often. It also is a good way to get a good dose of pepper in your diet that isn’t a beverage.

Lidia’s Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

  • 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, or more to taste
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • salt for the pasta water
  • 1½ cups Pecorino-Romano, freshly grated, or more to taste 

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. 

Grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder. 

Warm up a big bowl for mixing and serving the pasta-use some of the pasta water to heat the bowl, if you like. 

Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Quickly lift it from the pot with tongs, let it drain for an instant then drop it into the warm bowl. 

Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper on the pasta and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments-add more pepper or cheese to taste. 

Serve right away while the spaghetti is very hot.

There are also some great recipes for Black Pepper Ice Cream, or a more advanced Black Pepper and Strawberry Swirl Ice Cream you should try.

All this time that little humble pepper shaker on your table has held all of these secrets, you may not take it for granted the next time you shake, or now hopefully grind, it.

Remember, do your own research and educate yourself before trying anything, and everybody’s body is different. Make sure this won’t have interactions with your medications by checking sites like WebMD, and if you have any doubts at all if this is for you, ask a professional! 



Juniper, Not Just for Making Gin

We took a small vacation, it was nice to get away, and just have some fun. Fun was much needed since I have been going through a lot of tests again, and it was nice to be away from all the poking and prodding. Even if it has slowed down my posting rate, it was worth it! We saw Santa Fe, it was beautiful and such a friendly town with a lot of Native American, Spanish and Mexican history, as well as US history. People usually think the East coast of the US will have the oldest structures, but the Southwest is the place to go for old. Especially if you like Native American history, which I do!

And I apologize it took so long to get this out. So since it has been a while, make sure you have some tea and a comfy chair, because this is not gonna be a short read…

Cherry tree with rosaries, Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe

Cherry tree with rosaries, Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe

Ram Petroglyph from Three Rivers National Park

Ram with arrows Petroglyph, Three Rivers National Park

Something I kept noticing, while scrambling around the park looking for the 20,000 petroglyphs they have, and in the little towns that dotted the vast landscape, was juniper. It was everywhere, and they are all over here in Texas too. I have always liked juniper, I love looking at the blue-grey berries (I know, I know, technically they’re cones. But I don’t know anyone that calls them anything but berries. Deal with it.), and they are a fantastic addition to meatloaf (or any meat dish, especially game meat). Seriously, throw some in (3-5), its great. They also smell so good and in Texas, where not many things are green all year round, they are a welcome bit of green life in the gold-brown summers and gold-brown winters.

Juniper “berries” of the Juniperus communis, one of the most common edible species. Notice the deep shade of the berries and the spiked shape of the leaves.

Juniperus ashei in Texas, often confused or called colloquially cedar, notice the difference in the shape of the leaves.

Juniperus ashei in Texas, often confused or called colloquially cedar, notice the difference in the shape of the leaves.

This is a tree that is so ubiquitous they worm their way into almost every culture, but like the thing hidden in plain sight, so much so you may not have noticed or thought about them much. Juniper is a conifer that has different species almost on every continent, it is widely used in medicine, myth, and cooking. The Greeks, first documented it as medicinal, and only later did it come to become a culinary spice. Eaten by early Olympic competitors, they were thought to improve stamina which some are high in sugar and it may have been an early form of use of a sugar rush for quick energy. Dioscorides wrote, that rubbing the crushed berries on genitals before intercourse would prevent conception, it doesn’t but I sure bet it made things smell nicer. Romans used it as a cheaper alternative to pepper or long pepper, since these were imported and therefore far more expensive. Probably why it was also used to adulterate pepper sold in Rome since they are quite a powerful flavor, ranging from sweet to surprisingly bitter. Pliny the Elder even mentions that

“juniper berries, which have the property, to a marvelous degree, of assuming the pungency of pepper.”

He also wrongly asserted that pepper and juniper were pretty similar trees, which if you know your spices pepper grows on vines. But considering he did get it correct that it grew on a plant, he is doing a little better on accuracy than Herodotus with cinnamon.

Cinnamon birds you say? Sounds legit.

Egyptians used juniper as well, possibly imported from Greece, was found in the tomb of the most famous Egyptian king, Tutankhamen. It is mentioned in medical papyri that juniper was good for chest complaints, tapeworms, and as a digestive aid. There are other recipes mentioned in the Egyptian medical writings, there were interesting recipes like juniper mixed with honey and beer as a laxative. Or for a headache combine juniper with frankincense, cumin, and goose fat, boil well, and rub on the head. Whether or not these worked is not mentioned, but there is a strong recommendation to collect the fee prior to providing the cure.

Those from the Scandinavian areas tended to use the wood and the berries for food and medicine, as well as fermented drinks, which we will go over in detail. In Europe it was yet another remedy believed to help with the Black Death, it was used whole or burned (for its purifying smoke) and was yet another herb placed in the bird like plague doctor masks to help ward off the illness. There are also creepy fairy tales about juniper as well as the belief that the hamadryad, Frau Wachholder, that inhabits juniper would assist you with recovering stolen property. This is also another plant that was to have sheltered the holy family in their flight to Egypt, and was used in some areas as Christmas greenery for this reason.

Over in the Americas, Native Americans in many areas had loads of uses for the many types of juniper (and cedar) that grow there. Its inner bark was used as a sweetener, and the berries of different varieties were used to treat everything from the normal sprains, wounds, arthritis, digestive issues and ulcers, to treating the more extreme tuberculosis. They are a great antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, which is why it is so great for chest colds and kidney issues, it also had diuretic properties. Some tribes in South America used the pulverized berries to ward off a parasitic catfish (yes THAT catfish). Back in the north, some tribes used a specific species berries as a starvation food, and some even used certain species barks that they ground into powdery flour and used as starvation food as well. The wood, like in most of the rest of the world, was burned for the smoke to purify, protect humans and animals from disease, and ward off evil spirits. It was also well known as a muscle relaxer and used to not only treat spasms but also ease childbirth since it helps muscles relax and would ensure a safer delivery. Some tribes associate the juniper with youthfulness or immortality since it always seems to remain green, even in the worse droughts.

“Charles Sitting Man, a Cheyenne, said that the Great Spirit has much respect for juniper because it seems to never grow old and remains green the year round. It therefore represented youthfulness, and they accordeingly placed it centrally in many of their holy rites and purification ceremonies. Indians also admired it for the durability of its wood, which they found desirable for lance shafts, bows, and other items, and for the dark red, seemingly dyed-in-blood color of its wood.” – S. Buhner, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers

Early US pharmacology included juniper berries in its pharmacological listings, and there is an old American usage of using it to “force out measles.” This may have actually been a good application of juniper since the berries of some species contain deoxypodohyllotoxin which is an anti-inflammatory, and possibly (not enough studies to say 100% yet) an anti-viral. Sadly though like many other natural remedies it has fallen out of favor as a treatment option in the US, but that does not mean its value as medicine has diminished in any way.

Most people know of juniper through gin, one of my favorite adult beverages, especially a cold gin and tonic with lime on a hot summers day. Gin has a long history, and like other healing “waters” and herbal aperitifs has been around as a drink as well as a medicine for ages. Gin was probably not the first alcoholic beverage made with juniper though, since brewing came long before distillation. Juniper was used in brewing by many Scandinavian peoples, either directly added to the beer as a bittering agent, or the branches used for straining the beer. Juniper is used in sahti, which is a very old type of Finnish ale (though it may go under different names depending on where it is made), is a simple ale to make, and used to be quite common, branches of juniper were used for bitters since hops were not commonly used in brewing then.

After distillation was discovered, gin was able to be produced. Well a version of it, gin started most likely as jenever, which may have started as a digestive or maybe just because people like the taste. Sadly those answers are lost to time, the name eventually gets corrupted into many different forms (or may come from other origins) but we have finally ended up with modern gin. Which requires juniper to be considered gin, and there is distinctions between how it is added, either post distillation, or in a second distillation process. Either way gin is delicious, and has a lovely juniper taste. In the 17th century, a Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius, claimed that he is the father of gin. Even though there are much earlier documentations (back to the 13th century) showing that gin, and jenever, have much older histories than Franciscus claims. A more contemporary reference to Franciscus is a play that would have been performed when he was about 9 years of age, unlikely he was inventing alcoholic beverages at that age. Seeing as how this bogus claim led to a persistence to name him as the Father of Gin incorrectly (for real, it causes some seriously international butthurt), he probably should have stayed with his job of poking around inside people, instead of claiming to invent things like gin, and probably the question mark. Due to gin being inexpensive, and a way to drown ones sorrows in later years gin gained a bad reputation and fell out of popularity for a while, mostly due to Gin Palaces, and its association with the poor and the seedier parts of society. In the time since, it has waxed and waned, as alcohol trends do, and has recently gained a resurgence in popularity.

Now, you can’t go outside and find a juniper tree/bush and just start eating berries, there are about 40-60 species of juniper (depending on who you ask) and there are only certain ones that are safe to consume, which I will list with some of their traditional uses. If you are going to be collecting wild juniper, make sure you are absolutely sure that you know what species you are dealing with. If you are wrong it could end up with some extremely bad consequences ranging from some very uncomfortable bathroom time, to a very painful death. So be smart people, use that (un)common sense!

  • Juniperus communis(aka Common Juniper; includes sub species Juniperus communis montana) Berries are bitter to consume raw and are usually dried first, great for meat, sauce and as a stuffing. Traditionally used to season game due to its strong taste. In traditional medicine they are antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and a diuretic, and was used to treat diabetes traditionally, this berry is high in dextrose (d-glucose) and treats low blood sugar quite well, also why it was a famine or starvation food.
  • Juniperus drupacea – (aka Syrian Juniper) While considered edible, I have never had it, this is a threatened species in some areas and thrives in others, and its growth is restricted to the Mediterranean area. It is mostly used now for wood thought it’s berries are still highly prized in the East.
  • Juniperus horizontalis – (aka Creeping Juniper, Creeping Cedar) Berries are roasted, and can be used to make something like coffee, which also could be used to treat kidney issues. The berries like other species are good for stuffing, like in Turkey, and were used like beads when dried. You can also make a tea from the young tips, it was traditionally used for coughs, chest issues and fevers. These could also be used as a steam treatment for the same, or you can use the branches in clothes storage to keep bugs out.
  • Juniperus monosperma (aka One-seed Juniper) Berries were traditionally added to chopped meat, usually game, and then put in a clean deer stomach and roasted (think deer-juniper haggis sort of thing). The berries on their own are fairly bitter and not very tasty to eat. Its roots and leaves were used for their medicinal properties, good for muscle relaxation and reducing inflammation.
  • Juniperus occidentalis – (aka Western Juniper, Sierra Juniper) The berries can be eaten raw or cooked and is rather sweet, it is very nutritious even when dried. It can be ground, mixed with other flours, and made into a type of bread. The tips, or leaves are used to make the tea that contains the muscle relaxant that pregnant women used prior to birthing. This is a most versatile plant (and used almost as much as the J. communis species) since it is an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and used in many traditional medicine preparations.
  • Juniperus phoenicea (aka Phoenicean Juniper, Arâr) This is high in the sesquiterpene thujopsene which is possibly the source of its anti-inflammatory powers. This is most likely the species used by Romans to adulterate black pepper, so it follows the berries are a bit spicier. Best to use this topically if you are able to harvest the berries, or if you purchase an essential oil of it since not enough research has been done on its internal effects and this can become quickly poisonous if ingested in large amounts.
  • Juniperus deppeana(aka Alligator Juniper, Checkerbark Juniper; includes subspecies/varieties J. pachyphlaea, J. patoniana, J. robusta, J. sperryl, J. zacatecensis) No real known medicinal uses but the berries are sweet, and don’t taste too bad they can be dried and ground and added to cakes or made into them or a porridge like substance.
  • Juniperus californica – (aka California Juniper, Desert White Cedar) Berries can be eaten raw or cooked, they have a sweet and dry, and can be pounded and added as a pulp to stuffing or as stuffing on its own in game dishes. The leaves have analgesic properties, as well as muscle relaxing and was used as like other species prior to childbirth to help with delivery. They are also good for hypertension and is a diaphoretic – which causes sweating and means it helps with fevers.
  • Juniperus virginiana – (aka Eastern Red Cedar, Red Cedar, Eastern Juniper, Red Juniper, Pencil Cedar, Aromatic Cedar, Chansha; includes subspecies J. silicicola) Berries are edible raw or cooked, and can be added crushed as a spice to soups and stews, they are rather bitter though and should be used sparingly. There are teas that have been made of the branches, but this species and the subspecies you should avoid doing so unless extremely experienced or directed by a professional herbalist, they can quickly turn toxic.

SPECIES YOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY AVOID: Juniperus sabina, Juniperus oxycedrus, and most other species, or any unknown species.

So now you are in the know about some juniper species, and to be sure you know the species if you are planting or planning to harvest your own juniper. You can also buy pre-dried juniper and as long as they are sold as edible they should be fine to use in cooking. If you are going to purchase them for medicinal use, make sure you get clarification on exactly which species you are buying to make sure you will get the right properties, as they do vary species to species.

Again, if you are collecting any plant in the wild, be absolutely sure that you know what you are collecting and/or consuming. I haven’t personally done it yet, but I hear dying has a rather hard effect on life, so don’t hasten that transition by not being smart about what you eat. Ok?

/soap box

Now we can get down to how to use juniper, I mentioned earlier that it is great in meatloaves, throw a few (3-5) slightly crushed berries into the next meatloaf you make, you will love it. You will always want to buy or dry your berries whole to preserve their oils and only crush right before using, so all the below recipes you will want to crush the berries right before using them.

As always a tea is a great way to use a plant’s parts as a medicine, and these can be used internally as a beverage, or steam treatment, or externally in compresses. Naturally you would want to opt for the sweeter berries to make teas with, and avoid the more bitter ones (unless you are into that sort of thing ¬_¬ ). You want to again crush these slightly before using, and since berries take longer to steep this will be a slightly more involved process.

Juniper Berry Tea

  • 1-2 teaspoons Juniper berries
  • 4 cups Water, it is important to be cold or room temperature
  • Tea pot
  • Strainer
  • Saucepan

Crush the berries slightly and add to the saucepan covering with the cool water, bring gently to a simmer over low heat and allow to cook like this for about 10-15 minutes, then strain into a teapot and enjoy. Depending on the species you choose this would be a great way to treat inflammation (from colds or otherwise), treat painful spasms, and if you are having digestive or kidney issues. It is also great as a digestive to ease painful gas or cramping. Some of the sweeter berries are just nice to have as tea just because, if this is a more bitter berry you are going with for the medicinal value, try adding honey or some other sweetener to this (a teaspoon at first and then add more as you need) to make the medicine more palatable.

ProTip: If you are using this as a compress, you can reduce the water by half and just soak a cloth or towel in the liquid and apply when warm, but not hot, to the painful or swollen area.

Juniper plays well with others and is an easy addition to make an existing tea more exciting. Green tea goes well, but black can work here too. White is too delicate, in my opinion.

Juniper Berry Tea Blend

  • 1 tablespoon Green Tea (same if you choose black)
  • 2 teaspoons Juniper berries
  • 4 cups Water
  • Honey or other sweetener as desired

This is made almost exactly the same as the above tea, the only change is to add the tea leaves to the teapot prior to straining the berry mixture into it and let it steep for an additional 4-10 minutes. This tea has all beverage uses of above tea as well, but is not recommended for external use. This can be a good way to take juniper if you find you don’t care for the taste of it on it’s own.

ProBranchTip: If you want to try a species that has beneficial components in it’s branches use just the very young tips of the branches the greenest, newest parts of the plant. About a tablespoon to small handful added to a teapot and steeped from 5-10 minutes will make a sufficient tea, and compress liquid. As always, make sure you know the species the rate of toxicity in the branches is much higher than the berries, and their use requires much more caution. This was used to treat asthma in the past (specific to species) and they generally have anti-inflammatory properties good for coughs and chest colds. You can include the tips in with the berries during the slow simmer to make the tea as well.

Something you will see a lot of online is sites touting the benefits of eating gin soaked raisins. Now, I for one am not so sure of this “cure” but I have seen it a lot on forums and on sites dedicated to treating chronic pain. I am fairly sure this is a combination of alcohol (which does have the ability to numb pain, if you have ever seen some drunks fight or fall you will know how powerful it gets the more you take) and possibly the placebo effect. There is depending on the brand you select juniper essential oils in the alcohol, and oils are alcohol soluble so logically this would be the best way to impregnate any dehydrated fruit with a seemingly beneficial substance. Most modern gins don’t contain enough juniper to be considered, in my non medical opinion, efficiently medicinal. If you were to up the oil content, by say adding your own berries to the gin this might be a better route than an off the shelf type. Again I have not tried this yet so I am not sure, and if this has been working for you, great! Keep using it until it doesn’t, just remember this is alcohol – so no pain medications, and be smart about it.

If I was going to attempt this for a basic recipe for a more “berried” gin add berries to gin and allow it to infuse for a few weeks. A ratio of about 1 part slightly crushed berries to 2 parts gin should do it, and let steep for a few weeks, 4-6 would be ideal.

Gin Soaked Fruits

  • 1 cup Dried fruit (raisins, dried apricots, prunes, whatever you prefer)
  • 1-2 cups Juniper Berry Gin (the one listed above, and you want enough to cover the fruit and a bit more, you may need to top up if they fruit absorbs too much)
  • Large mason jar
  • Optional: more juniper berries (slightly crushed)

Add fruit and gin to jar and close tightly, give a shake and then set in an undisturbed dark place. Let sit for at least a week, and you will need to let them soak longer the larger the fruit you use. Remember to eat less if you are using larger fruit, since you will be getting more gin per piece of fruit. After they are good and infused with gin, they can be eaten. The recommended dose seems to be about 8-10 raisins per day, for pain, and there is mention that it takes a while for it to work. If you are using this or try it out let me know, I am planning to try it sometime in the near future when I am not so dependent on medications that don’t mix well with alcohol.

You can also use juniper berries in the previously discussed Four Thieves Vinegar just add about a handful (2-4 tablespoons) of the slightly crushed berries to the mix.

Since we are talking about more adult themed beverages, we will go back to sahti. Brewing a homemade sahti is not only delicious but satisfying, like all home brewing. This is a recipe for Finnish sahti from the Scared and Herbal Healing Beers book (if you don’t own a copy I highly recommend buying it). This is a version from that book that was adapted from a 1901 recipe book, also note this is a full grain version, and is a pretty involved recipe.

Finnish Sahti from Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers

  • 11 pounds Malted barley
  • 1 pound Malted rye
  • 8 gallons water
  • a “fist full” of hops (about 2-4 oz)
  • juniper branches (amnt originally undefined, but depending on species about the same amount as the hops. you can also line your “strainer” with them)
  • yeast

“Moisten malts with cold water, mix, cover and let sit overnight. In the morning add two scoops of hot water to the malt. Boil the remainder of the water and add a scoopful at a time to the malt, mixing well until the mash has the consistency of porridge. Add the remainder of the water and allow the mash to stand for one hour.

Bring the clear portion of the mash to a boil four to six times by alternating between two kettles and adding the porridge at the conclusion of each boil. Mix, allow the grains to settle, and pour off the clear wort and reboil.

[If you want to be extra authentic set up a large cooler with spout, or if you have a barrel with a hole and plug at the bottom, with rye straw that has been rinsed in hot water and juniper branches alternating layers until it is half full] During the final boil prepare [your] container…dump porridge on the straw [and juniper filter] and pour liquid from the final boil on top of it. Let the wort flow through the tap into the fermenting vessel. Pour clean juniper water, made by boiling juniper branches and berries in water, over the porridge, and through the tap. Boil the liquid with hops. When cool add yeast and ferment. [For at least 2 weeks, month is better]

To make juniper berry Sahti, take one-half gallon (2 liters) of cleaned juniper berries per quarter gallon (liter) of liquid, macerate in cold water for 10 hours and use this liquid to moisten the malt. Follow the remainder of the procedures above.”

Juniper essential oil is sold on many sites, and many species are available, I suggest very strongly only using the oils externally unless otherwise directed by a medical professional. You also need to make sure you know what species the oil is made from, this can be a lot easier than harvesting your own berries sometimes and it is a lot easier to carry around for on the go applications. This essential oil is great for treating skin conditions, as well as topical pain relief for swollen muscles, swollen joints, and spasms.

Juniper Massage Oil

  •  1 ounce Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Juniper Essential Oil

Mix well and store in a dark bottle, apply directly to painful areas and massage in. You can as always use this as a plain oil or mix with other essential oils (reduce juniper amount to no more than 10, and limit other oils to 10 drops or less) rosemary, clary sage and other oils go well with juniper.

Also you can follow the instructions in the copaiba post for making a salve for this which works great for applying to hands and joints to ease the pain and swelling of rheumatoid arthritis or other swelling or pain issues.

Finally you can’t really talk about juniper berries and not mention its most famously associated recipe. Sauerkraut is actually a great way to get vitamins and minerals that you cant get in other foods. I found this recipe on Real Fermenting and it seems to be the closest to traditional Bavarian sauerkraut I can find. If you know another, please feel free to share in the comments!

Juniper and Caraway Sauerkraut by Real Fermenting

  • 1 Green Cabbage, about 2 lbs
  • 6 Juniper berries
  • 1 teaspoon Caraway seeds
  • 1 tablespoon Salt (Pacific sea salt is listed originally but any salt will do here)

This is a very similar process to the Basic Sauerkraut. I used a slightly smaller cabbage than before. It was a nice looking one, heavy for its volume (juicy), plus I have a little sauerkraut collection going in my fridge so I don’t need too much. Hoping to be able to give some away this weekend.

Grate the cabbage in a food processor and knead it in a wide bowl with the salt. You should knead away until your hands cramp up, and then take a break. Knead some more. You need a good amount of cabbage juice (water from the broken down cabbage cells) in the bottom of the bowl. Once the cabbage is starting to get soft and really giving up the juice, you can pour the whole lot into a wide mouth jar or crock. You just need something with enough room for the sauerkraut plus whatever you are going to use to hold the cabbage under the brine

Stir the the juniper berries and caraway seeds and push down the sauerkraut until the brine comes over all the cabbage. You may need to return to the sauerkraut in a couple of hours to push it down again. Once the sauerkraut is submerged, cover the container with a breathable piece of material and set it somewhere out of the way.

Check on the sauerkraut in about a week and every few days after that. It has only been taking a week or so recently for me, but it has been really hot. Whenever it reaches a sourness that is to your liking, go ahead and put it in the fridge. It’ll keep for months at those cool temperatures.

So as you can see juniper is a really versatile plant, and has loads more uses than I list here. Do your own research and educate yourself on juniper to see how it can improve your life. I can not repeat enough, always be careful and know which species you are using, no one likes to end up dead. Check for interactions on sites like WebMD, and make sure that if you have any doubts, even in the slightest, that you ask a professional!

If you would like to learn more about Native American’s use of Juniper go here.

If you ever want to learn about the Nordic brewing, or ANY brewing really, no one is better than Michael Jackson (not the one you immediately think of, this guy) he is pretty much the Franz Boas of Brewing (and if you get that reference without googling it, you get a cookie! If you didn’t check him out 🙂 ). For an easier, more modern, all grain Sahti go here, for a super packed with information, and pictures, traditional version go here.

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Helichrysum, Immortal & Everlasting

Well, back to the old game of “we are going to poke and prod you for a bit” with the doctors. Looks like my CRPS has spread to another part of me, since its a diagnosis of exclusions we have to rule out everything before we are 100% sure its my CRPS taking over more ground. But, it will never take me down! Especially since it is bluebonnet season here in Texas, one of my favorite times of year.

My energetic recovery helper sitting among some lovely bluebonnets.

My energetic recovery helper sitting next to some lovely bluebonnets.

Everyone should grow herbs, not only is it satisfying to grow and harvest something you planted as a seed, but it is handy for cooking and medicinal uses. If you have only the space for a balcony or window garden, or just don’t have time for that gardening thing, there are a few plants you should absolutely should still make the effort to grow. Aloe, mint, rosemary, basil and helichrysum. They are all multipurpose useful plants that are fairly hardy (that means hard to kill them) and easy to grow…and grow they will, like mad. The one you probably didn’t recognize was helichrysum this fantastic and sadly not as famous as it should be little herb is native to the Mediterranean, and Africa. But because it was so useful, it spread quickly to the rest of the world and now it is used worldwide for skin, pain and nerve conditions.


Happy little flowers of sunshine!

The name we use for it now comes from Greek, helios or Sun, from the Titan of myth, Helios, that drove the shining golden chariot of the sun, and chrysos for gold, or golden, which refers to the bright sunny flowers that are a trademark of this plant. This sunny little plant, which is a relative of the daisy, got it’s other common names of Immortelle and Everlasting from the flower’s retention of their bright yellow color when dried, and this might be why the dried flowers were used as offerings by the Greeks. The Romans used it to treat word cuts, and was also used traditionally in the Mediterranean to treat colds and chest ailments. Used as a strewing herb in the Middle Ages, it was also used in folk healing for skin conditions and healing scars. In Africa it has a traditional use of treating rheumatism, since it is a wonderful anti-inflammatory, and was known as Geelsewejaartjie which translates roughly to “bright yellow flowers that last seven years in the house.” It is also said it is one of the herbs used by Moses to help protect the Israelites from the plagues in the Old Testament.

Later on in Italy its curry-like flavor made it a widely used culinary addition, it does have a curry like smell, but the taste is more bitter like sage or wormwood. Different parts of the plants such as the young shoots and leaves are stewed with meat or vegetables to impart their flavor. It also is a fairly powerful cat repellent, but since it is poisonous to felines (and will take over any where it is planted) it should be planted with caution, and mindfulness of where kitties tend to venture.

Before we get into how you can use helichrysum, a note on the different species. There are a lot of different species of helichrysum, like hundreds of them, and generally they all tend to have the same properties. There are a few species you shouldn’t, but if you purchase this from a reputable herb dealer/company that states on the labeling that it is safe for ingestion, it should be fine to consume teas or other things made from these herbs or flowers. If it does not explicitly state it is safe for internal use, I would see if the dealer can clear that up, or research the full Latin name (genus and species, and sub-species where necessary) of the helichrysum to make sure it is safe to ingest. If you get to that point, be smart and also consult an herbalist to make sure you aren’t endangering yourself.

This is a plant you can class with lavender and chamomile, generally gentle on the skin, and good for the skin, as well as anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-spasmodic properties. It also rivals arnica for its treatment of bruises, and is a great antiseptic. Chemically it contains a lot of neat stuff, one of the reasons it is so good to have around all the time. There are a few we have discussed before, and some that are new. Since it is a lot of information I have listed them in groups, to make it easy:

Pain & Swelling (or Sport Injury) Compress

  • 4 tablespoons dried Helichrysum flowers
  • 16 oz Boiling water
  • Bowl and towel

Steep for 10 minutes, and allow to cool until very warm, but not hot. Soak towel in the tincture and wring out excess liquid. Place on painful or swollen area to reduce swelling and alleviate pain. You can also throw in a few tablespoons of chamomile, rue, or lavender to help with the swelling and pain. This is a great remedy for nerve pain and the warmth is very soothing.

ProTip: This is also a great way to treat sunburns or wind chapped skin.

Helichrysum Tea

  • 1-2 teaspoons dried Helichrysum flowers
  • 8 oz  Boiling water

Steep for about 4-5 minutes in a covered tea cup, or if you double this you can brew it in a teapot. Remember to purchase the dried flowers from a reputable dealer that can guarantee they are from a species that is known to be safe to ingest, if you are going to grow and dry your own do your research and make sure you are buying the right species when you purchase seeds. This can also help reduce stress, and is great with Tulsi, lemon balm or lavender.

Much easier to acquire is the oil, which is made from the flowers. Make sure you check the species used to make the oils before you purchase it, I suggest dealers like Native American Nutritionals, YoungLiving, and Mountain Rose Herbs, since they tend to lead the pack with quality. And cover a range of prices, this is a pretty expensive oil (like lemon balm) but is totally worth the investment. (If the oils are too expensive, definitely invest in some seeds to grow and dry your own or purchase them dried from a reputable local/online herb dealer.)

Helichrysum Massage Oil

  • 1 oz Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Helichrysum essential oil

Mix and store in a light proof container, massage into painful area for relief. This is a great way to treat pain of joints and muscles, as well as inflammation of the skin, muscles and joints. You can also rub this on your skin all over if you use a carrier oil your skin likes (something like olive, coconut, jojoba, or sweet almond), it helps to even tone and generally help skin look fantastic. If you have scars (from surgeries or otherwise), or stretch marks you can massage this into them to help reduce the redness and visibility of scars.

Helichrysum Quick Salve

  • 2 oz Coconut oil
  • 10-20 drops Helichrysum essential oil

Using a whisk attachment, whip coconut oil until soft and creamy. Once it looks light and creamy, start dropping in your essential oils one drop at a time while continuing to whisk. Store in an airtight jar, or clean re-usable container.

Helichrysum Salve

  • 1/3 c Oil (Vegetable based, not canola oil)
  • 1/3 oz Bees Wax, granulated or grated
  • 5-10 drops Helichrysum oil

Heat oil in double boiler, slowly add in beeswax and stir constantly until fully melted and combined. Remove from heat and add drop by drop essential oils while continuing to mix. Pour into containers and allow to cool, store sealed. Makes a great small salve to pop into a purse, pocket or carry on for on the go pain application. Check out the Eucalyptus post if you want more salve details and container suggestions.

Both of these salves are great to rub into sore joints, or painful areas just like the massage oil especially the quick salve since it works in place of oil for massages. While the beeswax salve is more anytime and user friendly application,  keep a jar of these in your purse or gym bag to treat bumps, bruises, sprains and twists that happen unexpectedly, or as your go to pain remedy when you are on the move. It is also good for wounds helping by to heal them, as well as reduce the likelihood of scars. If you have a scar already this is great to massage in to reduce its redness, and is a little less messy than using the oil. Also, both of these treat burns extremely well, you can combine it with aloe, lavender or chamomile for burns and sunburns.

ProTip: Like lavender, chamomile, copaiba, and frankincense its good for skin to keep it lovely, treat eczema and psoriasis, as well as other skin fungal infections. For soaps and lotions it blends well with bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, lavender and citrus scents.

Finally, I always love a food that is also medicine, since nothing is better than food that makes you feel good inside and out. The fresh young leaves and shoots are great used fresh as an addition to salads, placed in fish for steaming (remember to remove before serving), a great addition to a beef marinade. You can bruise the young leaves and add them to onions that you are caramelizing to use for burger, taco, curry or any sort of onion dish. Also, chopped leaves added to cream cheese and mixed well spread on good bread is a fantastic spread, and can even be used for sandwiches, smoked or grilled salmon goes great with this too.

This is a plant that is considered “mostly harmless” that doesn’t mean to carelessly ingest it or to treat it without respect. Even water is poisonous if you have too much. Always make sure you know which species, or sub-species, you are purchasing before even considering any sort of internal use. Generally it is safe for external use, again in reasonable quantities, just use common sense! Remember to do your research and to check for interactions, like on WebMD (or other sites if you have a different species than the one listed on WebMD), and if you are in doubt at all ask a professional!

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The Brain, It’s Not As Smart As You Think

We all like to think humans are at the top of all food chains, because we have our smarty smart pants brains, and this lifts us above the other animals on the planet. Our brain though, is not as smart as we would like to think, and it can easily be tricked. This is not always a bad thing, I have talked about how you can use your brain’s ability to be tricked to your advantage. Things like your mindset, having a supportive and caring Doctor/Healthcare provider, and things like the power of the placebos and prayer.

Luckily there is a wealth of information coming out all the time on new studies done on the brain, that are widening our understanding of how it and our nervous system work. If you haven’t read My Stroke of Insight you should, everyone should. Chronic pain or not, it is just a fantastic book with great ideas everyone should know. The author also did a 20 minute Ted Talk on the concepts and covers them broadly. If you aren’t the reading type, please watch her Ted Talk below. Even if you are the reading type, watch it before you read the book. Her passion about people being kinder to themselves, and others, is something everyone should strive to achieve.

Jill Bolt Taylor – Stroke of Insight TED Talk

Her ideas about preventing negative thoughts, letting those appear and letting them go rather than feeding into a negative thought loop is something everyone can benefit from.  She has a lot more to say in her book, and it only took me a few hours to read. I highly recommend it.

There is also a lot of information coming out about placebos and their powerful effect on the body. What a wonderful world it would be if I could take a sugar pill that worked as well as an opiate, with no chance of addiction or side effects. Placebos are a fascinating thing, and the effect is easy to trigger. I have used the information I have learned on placebos to help treat my pain, like with migraines, and had almost unbelievable results. A great place to start with your understanding of placebos is with this quick Horizon documentary.

Horizon – The Power of the Placebo

There is also a really fun to watch series by National Geographic, called Brain Games, that explores the brain and gives you interesting ideas you can experiment with. Another book with a lot of information on nerves, pain and on mirror box therapy (which is one of the treatments used to treat CRPS) is Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran.

Why does all this information on brains, and nerves, and stuff matter? Well firstly, because pain is a neurological signal. If you are in chronic pain, you need to understand how the body, brain and nervous system all function so that you can not only better understand procedures and your own pain, but you can also help to minimize it in other ways. Secondly, knowing as much as you can about pain helps with coping with it, naming your demons gives you a way to fight them. Acknowledging and accepting your pain is part of the healing process and understanding it helps the whole process. Pain, as we like to say in Tai Chi, is there for a reason, it is telling you something is wrong. Learning to listen to the pain, and what your body is asking for helps you convey better information to your doctors, helps you to better treat yourself at home, and this overall will improve your condition and mental state. If you feel a bit rusty on biology, here are two great videos, the first will give you an overview of nerves, and the second is a great visual example of how pain signals are triggered, and then blocked by opiate pain medications.

Nerve Cells

Animation of Pain Signals and Opiates

Remember educating yourself, helps you more than anything. Knowing what you are fighting helps you to keep those positive thoughts and positive mindset to deal with your treatments, and your pain.



I am on week two of my “continuous migraine,” and I have had to pull out a lot of my “big guns” to treat myself, along with my other doctor given medications. I have been robot-ing through life until we can find a treatment that works. Even though it has been rough, I have got to keep on trucking. I know that soon we will find something! Then it will be nice to pick up all those things you have to set aside because they aren’t vital to existence. But, it won’t be long until I am back to my usual self, and done with those things and on to new ones! 🙂

Luckily, to help me get through things, I have wintergreen handy. This is a powerful little plant, that seems so common, yet also rare. You might be tempted to think, that wintergreen is one of those plants of the mint family that seem to pop up everywhere, and you would be like most people, wrong. Don’t feel bad though, it is very mint like in scent, and tends to be found alongside mints in candy. Wintergreen though, is from an entirely different family of plants. Wintergreen is a shrubbery, with bright red berries, that creeps through gardens and forests sprouting up from its expanding network of rhizomes. Commonly known as eastern teaberry, checkerberry, and other local names, it has been long used by Native Americans, and after their arrival American colonists and their descendants for centuries.

Almost like bright little cherries, good to eat if you are in the wild or just in the garden.

Generally the way people would be familiar with the smell or taste of wintergreen would be from gums, candies, dental care items (toothpaste, mouthwash, etc), and tobacco products. It is in some root beers, sodas, and (if you like martinis) vermouth traditionally has wintergreen in it. While very similar chemically to therapeutic wintergreen, wintergreen flavoring is usually made from a type of birch, sweet birch or Betula lenta it is a similar chemical make up, but not exactly the same. We will get more into the chemicals of wintergreen later though.

It was well known in Native American healing arts, as a herb for rheumatoid and joint issues, headaches and general aches & pains. This little plant was even used as a tea substitute during the American Revolutionary War, and the berries were sold in Boston in the early years of the States as a treat. There was a belief in the US Colonial eras that chewing the young leaves in spring would protect children’s teeth from decay. Jams, pies and other confection type items are made with the berries, though they are rather slightly medicine like in taste and can be offensive for some palates.

The chemicals that makes them different is why we are interested in a specific wintergreen to treat pain, the one we want is Gaultheria procumbensWhile it isn’t as well known in its raw state (just the oil or plant) as it is in pre-made preparations. It is in a lot of joint pain rubs, and it is that “medicine-y” scent that it has that can be off putting to people who don’t care for the medicinal smells of some pain creams and rubs. This is so commonly used in these creams since this herb is a fantastic analgesic, mild local anesthetic, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory.

This is not an herb that I would list as mostly harmless, it is something you can actually use too much of, so this should be used judicially, mindfully, and carefully. This is some pretty powerful stuff, and the oils are very concentrated and contain methyl salicylate which can cause blood thinning, and in large doses can be like overdosing on Aspirin. It is very close to the chemical that makes Aspirin work, and is in a lot of other preparations, is salicylic acid. Both of these acids, methyl and salcylic, work as an anti-inflammatory, they suppress the enzymes (like cyclooxygenase, aka COX, we talked about before) that cause inflammation. This also means that if you have bad reactions to Aspirin, or other similar medications, you want to avoid using this, in my humble non medical opinion, even externally. If you aren’t you should still be careful since the dose between helpful and harmful with any medications is very small, so I say unless you are being guided and dosed by a professional. Also if you are taking any sort of blood thinners, this is not something you want to try without professional advice first. One ounce of essential oil of wintergreen is equivalent to 171 Aspirins, a teaspoon is a whopping 21.5, so I think it is best to stick to using this externally. Always better to be safe than sorry! 

Now, just because it has the potential to do this doesn’t mean you should avoid this very useful plant and oils. Their therapeutic power is fantastic, and as long as you use any plant in the right amounts and treat them with respect you should never have an issue. You should never be careless about anything you put in, and sometimes what you put on, your body.

So now that you are sufficiently knowledgeable about wintergreen, how do you use it?

Well firstly, if you are lucky enough to have your own wintergreen plant in your garden there are a few ways you can use the leaves.

You can make an infusion, or tea, with these leaves, but to extract the chemicals that you need to treat pain they must first be fermented slightly. There seem to be a few different camps on what time of year is best to harvest the leaves, some say young, some say in the fall when they go red. Any point in their cycle, as long as they aren’t dead, seems to be OK for making an infusion or tincture in my experience. Most plants will have natural yeasts that live on them as natural flora, but you may have to do an assisted fermentation if you do not see activity after a few days (usually 3 is enough).

Wintergreen Infusion (tea) for Compresses

  • Mason jar
  • Wintergreen leaves, fresh enough to fill the jar
  • Water, enough to cover

Bruise or roughly chop the leaves and place them in the jar, cover with water and seal. After 3 days you should see bubbling, a sign of fermentation. If you do not see bubbling, you can add a quarter teaspoon of yeast to the jar. Or if you are very brave, you can leave the jar open and see if you can entice a wild yeast to ferment your leaves. This does leave your infusion open to mold and other nasty things growing in your jar, and is really the last resort sort of option. If you are only able to get dried wintergreen leaves you would only want to use the same amount for this recipe.

You do not want to use this recipe internally at all, this is best used as a compress for sore areas. To use this you simply heat a small amount of the liquid and allow it to cool to as warm as you can stand and soak a towel or other absorbent cloth in the liquid and apply directly to painful areas. This is great for joint, arthritis, over exertion, muscle spasms and other pains from general working out and life.

Wintergreen Tincture

  • 32 oz Mason jar
  • 10 oz Wintergreen leaves, fresh or 7 oz if dried
  • Grain alcohol to cover

Fill the jar with the wintergreen and cover with the alcohol, shake daily for 3-4 weeks. Strain and bottle and store in a dark place. For this you can use about 20-30 drops in some warm water, and use a compress to apply it to the painful area. You can also massage the tincture directly into the skin, but I suggest using much less 5-15 drops at most. This is a great way to topically treat pain, and inflammation from spasms, joint pains or just sore tired muscles. Remember even if it is on your skin it is still being absorbed and going into your body, don’t think that you can use more topically since its safer. And again, I would not suggest taking either of these recipes internally.

Wintergreen Massage Oil

  • 1 oz Carrier oil
  • 20-30 drops Wintergreen essential oil

Mix well, and store in dark container. This oil can be rubbed directly into the skin, but care should be taken to avoid sensitive skin areas. This is another great way to treat muscles and joints that are in pain or inflamed.

ProTip: You can reduce the wintergreen oil to 10-15 drops and add other oils to help with pain or other issues like: lavender, valerian, chamomile, rosemary, eucalyptus, etc, etc.

You can, if you are a wildcard like me, use wintergreen oil directly on your skin (known to most as neat application). A drop or two is all that is needed, and then just massage it into the painful area. This is my favorite way of using this oil, and it is one of my go to oils for migraines and painful muscle spasms. I don’t use this oil every day, and I try to limit its use to 1 drop or so every 8 hours, and I change it up and try not to use it twice in a row, or over consecutive days if I can help it, mostly because I find that it is best to be overly cautious with these things. But despite my caution, I love this oil and I find its relief when the pain is very bad, especially with migraines, to be the difference between feeling so horrible that I hate everything, and being happy about life. Which if you suffer from migraines is a big difference.

As always do your own research, find out what works best for you and make sure to always check places like WebMD for interactions before using any sort of medication, herbal or otherwise. This is one that I can not stress enough that if you are in doubt at all about dosage or interactions with medications you are currently taking, ask a professional!

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Rue, the Herb of Grace

Oh the fickle Texas weather! It is wrecking havoc with my nerves and muscles, not to mention giving me some wicked migraines. But at least we only shut down for a day unlike Atlanta! 🙂 Very soon the delicious warm spring will be here. Aaaaah warm sunny days!

This sort of weather makes it a great time to talk about rue. Rue is a plant not well known outside gardening circles usually, and sometimes not even known at all since it isn’t the prettiest of plants, and it has lost some popularity in modern times. Ruta graveolens has yellow flowers and seemingly unassuming blueish green leaves, and tends to be better known in its Mediterranean homelands. Rue is still eaten in salads in Italy, Ethiopia, and Greeks were well known for using it in culinary ways, as well as medicinal. Though it seems unassuming this little plant has a lot of uses, and I suggest not passing it by!

Photo by Kurt Stüber

If you skip it you will rue the day, see what I did there! 😉

Many of the Greeks believe that rue is a charm against magic, and ate it at meals with strangers so they wouldn’t get cursed, or as we would say – get wind. Aristotle mentions he thinks this is absolute rubbish, and that the Greeks just didn’t like strangers, ate too fast, and got wind that way. Pliny says, or is said to say, that it improves poor, or over-strained eyesight, and this is why it was consumed by painters. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were supposed to be some of its more famous consumers, this is questionable though and may be just historical hear-say. Many cultures also used it to treat strained eyesight, and is really quite soothing when applied to the forehead for eyestrain headaches, or tension headaches.

In the Middle Ages this was another bittering herb that was used to add that bitter note to beers before hops became popular. Many of the other uses of rue in the Middle Ages were, like the Greeks, for warding off, or working witchcraft. But it was thought to ward off plague, and for this it is part of the Four Thieves vinegar, and is featured in many other plague preparations. It possibly got this witchy tradition has carried down from the Greeks, but also possibly came from its rather pungent smell that can be unpleasant to some and bad smells were thought to drive certain spirits away. I find it has a smell much like citronella, and works great in a garden to ward off deer, cats, and other unwanted garden guests. Like many plants it has multiple “vulgar” names, it is known as rue, common rue, and herb of grace. It probably got its herb of grace name from being used to sprinkle holy water during the Roman Catholic ceremony of Asperges. After it crossed the Atlantic to the New World, it became used in spiritual cleansing and sweeping away of “negative vibrations” in the Catholic influenced Latin American shamans called curanderos. Its leaves are thought to have inspired the clubs suit symbol in modern playing cards, which originated in France, and its shape even graces the coat of arms of Saxony.

Its young shoots are quite good in a salad. But harvesting is difficult, this herb that seems so mild actually has a rather effective defense. Cutting into this plant releases its sap, which has the fascinating ability to cause almost poison ivy like symptoms if it is exposed to sunlight (well technically ultraviolet light) while on your skin. This ability has the fancy name of phytophotodermatitis (phyto – plant, photo – light, dermatitis – disease of the skin), if you are going to grow and harvest your own be sure to treat rue like a citrus tree. Wear long sleeves, gloves, and use soap and water, and dark spaces to treat if any sap gets on the skin. If you choose to use fresh in a remedy, be careful and test for allergic reactions first.

It is that bitter note of rue that is what makes it good medicine, it contains rutin which is an anti-inflammatory chemical. This is probably where its early association for the treatment of sciatica pain came from. Rue can be applied as a compress to painful areas, and can alleviate swelling in sore muscles. It also contains pretty high levels of coumarin, which we discussed in the cinnamon post, and other chemical compounds that make it great for relieving nerve and muscle pain, as well as reducing inflammation.

Rue Compress

  • 16 oz Boiling water
  • 2-3 tablespoons Dried rue (you can use fresh in the same amounts)
  • Towel

Steep in the boiling water for 5-10 minutes, and allow to cool enough to be comfortable to apply to the skin. Soak the towel, or a rag, in the liquid and apply to painful area. Traditionally this is used to treat sciatica pain, and sometimes eyestrain, but it can also be applied to swollen areas, painful muscles, or areas of nerve pain. It works great for treating these pains, and the smell can be rather relaxing for some people. It is kind of musty smelling, but some people like it a lot. If you use fresh rue, do a test patch first to make sure it wont irritate your skin. Again, this is a great forehead compress for tension headaches, headaches from eyestrain, or just generally overtired eyes.

Rue Massage Oil

  • 20-30 drops RutaVaLa (I recommend using only this specific oil, since it is difficult to find pure, safe rue oils)
  • 1 oz Carrier oil

Mix well and store in a container that prevents light exposure. Massage directly into painful area for muscle relaxation, sleep, and stress relief. This is a great massage oil to alleviate pain and discomfort right before bed time, and the valerian and lavender in the RutaVaLa will help to bring sleep quickly. There is a Roll-On version that is already diluted that is good for an on the go solution.

Like skullcap, rue quickly runs over into the toxic levels if you add too much to internal preparations. For this reason I suggest avoiding taking rue in teas or tinctures, even if you prepare them yourself. If you absolutely want to use rue internally I recommend 2 things. First, never more than 1 teaspoon of rue per 8 oz of water, and do not take more than 1 time every 8 hours. Second, consult an herbalist, and a physician, for advice and approval of your use of rue internally. Otherwise I would suggest, most of the time, using external preparations for pain and inflammation.

Now that said, I do recommend cooking with rue. You still must stick to the sparing use rules you would in herbal medicine but the amounts combined with heat of cooking (or heat from friction in a blender) will help to break down some of the more noxious chemicals that cause so much worry.

Moretum (Roman Garlic Herb Cheese Dip)

  • 4 garlic bulbs (Roasted whole, or if you like Garlic raw)
  • 1 1/2 cups Feta Cheese
  • 3 Celery sticks, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 to 1 cup Cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 c Fresh young rue leaves, roughly chopped (you can use dried about 2-3 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons Olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons White wine (drier the better)
  • 1 tablespoon wine vinegar (red or white works)
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Add garlic, herbs, cheese, and celery into a food processor (or sturdy blender) and start to puree. Mix the oil, wine and vinegar in a measuring cup, or easy to pour from vessel, and drizzle in slowly. You will want to see a smooth evenly mixed paste form. You may need to scrape the sides down of the processor a few times. Serve with additional drizzle of olive oil on top with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. This goes great with crackers, pita bread, or just with some crusty bread to dip in it. Since cilantro is hated by some people you can substitute parsley or even sage for it in this dish. If you want to be sure your rue is safe, you can quickly blanch them and sprinkle with salt to help break things down further, and rid it of some of its bitterness. This is one of those dishes you can eat when you have gotten tired of other ant-inflammatory foods, since food is the best way to take your medicine!

Rue Omelette

  • 2 tsp dried Rue, or fresh rue finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dried Parsley
  • 1 tablespoon Oregano (Dittany of Crete, or Marjoram I have seen used here as well)
  • 2 large Eggs
  • 1-2 tablespoons Milk
  •  Salt & Pepper to taste
  • Oil for cooking (butter works great too)

Whisk eggs and milk together until creamy yellow in color. Add in herbs and wisk to combine. In a heated skillet with oil or butter melted, pour in egg mixture and rotate pan ensuring that the egg coats the whole bottom of the pan. Once the bottom has cooked, tilt the pan forward and roll furthest corner over, tilt again and roll center over, creating the triple fold. Cook until egg is firm, garnish with additional parsley if desired. Again you can use salted, blanched rue leaves for this too.

I can not stress enough to treat this herb with respect and care, as you should all herbal medicines. Anything can become a poison if taken in the wrong amounts. So do your research, do your own trials since everyone reacts differently, and make sure to educate yourself. Remember no one will do it for you! As always make sure you check WebMD for interactions and if you have the slightest doubt, ask a professional!

There is a great list of rue recipes here, and they have a great recipe for a Rue Mead, better known as English Sack. I highly recommend you trying one of them.



Sweet Marjoram, the Herb of Aphrodite

Lesser known than it’s cousin oregano, marjoram has never quite gotten its time in the limelight. While both are members of that ever useful plant family mint, oregano gets top billing. But the humble little marjoram is no less important in mythology, cooking, or herbal medicine than oregano.

The uses of marjoram, like many herbs, seem to be so old as to be lost in the mists of time, we do know this great little plant originated in the Middle East and Mediterranian areas. It spread West from there, and was well known to all of the big name historical cultures – the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and many others. Most people will know it best from its flavor in blends, like Herbs de Provence and Za’atar. But nothing in life is every easy, so to make things more confusing, in antiquity marjoram and oregano were sometimes referred to interchangeably. Due to this it, can be confusing to read older texts about marjoram, and while they didn’t mind the change out, you though, do want to avoid using the wrong species. Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is usually called Sweet Marjoram, and Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is usually listed as Oregano or Wild Marjoram, it is important to distinguish between the two since they do have different properties. Marjoram is sweeter and more mild than oregano, and they look slightly different.

Photo from

Make sure you could pick marjoram out in a line-up!

Marjoram has been used for centuries by humans in many ways. An early reference to marjoram is its depiction on Hittite tablets, and there is another record of the use of marjoram in the Ebers Papyrus. Which if you aren’t hip to ancient Egyptian Medical papyri, is the oldest and all around awesome Egyptian medical papyrus. The Egyptians were using marjoram oil as a way to treat ear infections, as an antiseptic, and was used in their embalming, and worn in rituals for the god Osiris. In Greece it was more associated with Aphrodite (Venus), who was supposed to have created oregano and marjoram and loved them greatly, which means both were included in wedding and funeral rituals. It is said that if marjoram grows on a grave the deceased is happy, or will have a pleasant afterlife. Greeks, Romans and even during the Middle Ages in Europe marjoram was used to crown couples, or the bride, during marriage ceremonies. Also during the Middle Ages it was used as a “strewing” herb, meaning one of the many herbs, like other herbs I’ve mentioned, that were added to reeds or straw on the floor to produce a sweet smell when stepped on, think early air fresheners. Marjoram was also added to beers before hops use became prevalent, since it is a good antiseptic. There was even a belief in Prussia that thunder could cause milk to sour, which was remedied by placing a sprig of marjoram next to the milk.

Marjoram is one of those herbs that never seems to not work with meat, it pretty much goes with every sort from fish to beef. It does go well with breads and vegetables, but desserts are not its strong point. Otherwise it is a highly useful herb. It’s popularity in America has to do with returning GI’s and their taste for Italian food, and of course marjoram came along with that. Another well known use is for vocalists, or singers, they are known to use the herb as a tea, or an inhalant, to help to preserve the voice, or treat laryngitis. It probably worked so well since it has an anti-inflammatory nature, is an analgesic, and has antiseptic qualities, this means it is a great addition (as an oil) to sore throat sprays for colds, laryngitis, or just a seasonal scratchy throat.

Chemically marjoram contains many compounds that make it great for herbal medicine uses. Marjoram contains carvacrol for anti-fungal, and antibacterial, as well as champor, borneol and various terpenoids for numbing and analgesic properties. Its analgesic qualities make it great for topical or internal use for pain of all sorts, and this is one herb that is fairly safe in small quantities over a long period of time. Its oils have been used for centuries to help treat inflammatory pain in joints and muscles, most frequently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Topical application of these oils definitely helps with muscle spasm pain, and brings healing warmth to it as this is another warming oil. Remember bringing additional blood to an injured area helps it to heal faster, this is using the body’s natural healing system to help things along. It is also an antispasmodic so it helps to tell tight muscles to relax and release the tension from spasms, stress, or just over exertion.

Marjoram Massage Oil

  • 1 oz Carrier Oil (Sweet Almond, Avocado, Olive, etc)
  • 20-30 drops Sweet Marjoram oil (use 10-15 for this and additional oils if you decide to make a blend)

Mix well and store in a dark container, massage directly into sore muscles or joint. Avoid sensitive areas, this is a warming oil and can irritate. This is great for muscle pain and spasms as well as muscles exhausted and sore from exercise, as well as lady cramps. Since this is a warming oil

ProTip: To the above recipe instead of 20-30 drops add 10-15 of marjoram, and then add 10-15 of one or a few of these oils lavender, chamomile, and eucalyptus. These will all add to the existing calming, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties of marjoram.

SleepyProTip: A great sleep blend is a drop of lavender and a drop of marjoram rubbed into the temples.

Since marjoram its an antispasmodic it also helps to sooth and calm a cramping digestive tract. Used internally or rubbed into the abdomen, it can relieve stomach and intestinal cramps. This is a great way to treat lactose intolerance as well! For stomach complaints, or just as an internal pain remedy, you can add 2-3 drops of marjoram oil to a gel capsule and take it. You can combine it with other oils like fennel or chamomile for stomach complaints, or with frankincense or lavender for spasms and pain.

If you are going to take an essential oil internally only use therapeutic grade essential oils, I recommend this one.

Or you can make a tea infusion, it is rather nice like a rosemary tea. Very fresh and vegetative tasting, remember though making it with fresh marjoram is usually preferred, but dried works just as well here.

Marjoram Tea

  • 1 teaspoon Fresh Marjoram (2 teaspoons dried)
  • 8 oz Boiling water

Steep in a covered teacup for 5-10 minutes, and drink. If you want to up its stomach calming power add in fennel seeds, chamomile, or ginger. You can also substitute a drop of sweet marjoram oil in warm water, or cool.

Marjoram not only helps with pain and stomach complaints it is also a great tea to have before bed time. It has a slight sedative quality, since it contains linalool, and if you need to be super sharp it is probably not the day time herb for you to use for pain or otherwise. Night time though, is its time to shine! It helps to calm the mind, like Tulsi (Holy Basil), and helps the mind to relax as well as the body. This means that sleep will come easier for those that have a hard time shutting down, and if all you can focus on is pain, sometimes helps the mind let that go so sleep can take hold. For stress reduction, it pairs extremely well with lemon balm and really helps to release stress.

SleepyProTip: Add a teaspoon of one or a few of these – Tulsi, lavender, or chamomile for a more relaxing sleepy tea.

I have brought up a few sleep aids before, and I can not stress enough how very important an adequate amount of sleep is. Sleep is your rest, repair, and recharge cycle for your body. This is when repairs and housecleaning is done, think of it like a computer defragging every night, the body asseses things, does some spring cleaning and if repairs are needed they can be done. Your body requires this time to function normally and it also has a great effect on your mental well-being. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability, depression, anxiety, moodiness, and even hallucinations. If you are in pain why add all of those issues to your existing ones? This is why I find that finding and using gentle, non-addictive, herbal sleep aids, since these are better than me up roaming the house at all hours of the night, because I can’t shut off.

Sometimes though, all you need is a hot calming bath, to shut off your mind or to ease pain in muscles and joints. Marjoram is a great bath addition, and it is so lovely smelling, you will want to bathe with it all the time. Its scent was used to freshen the air in the past, like I mentioned above, and is widely used in perfume and soap making. Believe me once you start, you will see why it is so widely used. After you use it, there is no going back, and it will be hard to go without a bit of marjoram in your bath.

Marjoram Epsom Salts

  • 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
  • 5-15 drops Sweet Marjoram Essential Oils
  • optional: 1 tablespoon of dried marjoram, or any other oils to increase stress reduction, reduce pain, or give sleepiness

Mix well and store in a dry, airtight container. Add a cup to a hot bath and soak that pain away! You can throw in a tablespoon or so of the dried herb as well in this to boost the potency. If you are suffering from some heinous lady cramps, this is a great way to help you through the pain, and it also helps if you have inflamed muscles from over exertion. It can make you drowsy though so this is best done at night, or when you have time to take a nap if you need it.

Marjoram Bath Tea

  • 2 tablespoons Marjoram, fresh or dried
  • 16 oz Boiling water

Brew like you would tea, in covered pot or cup and add to hot bath water. Just like the Epsom soak above this is also a great soak for sore muscles, lady cramps, muscle spasms, joint pain and inflammation.

Marjoram Compress

  • 2 tablespoons Marjoram, fresh or dried
  • 16 oz Boiling water
  • a towel or rag, large enough to cover the painful/sore area

Prepare like you would the bath tea above, but instead of adding to a bath allow to cool enough to be tolerable. Soak the towel in the infusion and apply to affected area, repeat as necessary. This is a great option if you are on the go, or don’t have access to a tub to soak in.

I am always a big fan of taking your medicine in your food so here is a few recipes that are great ways to integrate marjoram into your diet. First up is a delicious soup that is good for a cold winter night to lift your spirits and keep you warm.

Marjoram Lentil Soup

  • 2 cups of Puy Green lentils, soak for an hour prior to starting soup
  • 1 Yellow onion diced
  • 2 Stalks celery diced
  • 4-6 White or Red potatoes, diced
  • 2-3 Carrots diced
  • 2 cups of Broccoli florets
  • 2 teaspoon Marjoram, dried or minced fresh
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon Black pepper, ground
  • 2 teaspoons Cilantro fresh (may be omitted, or reduced to 1 teaspoon)
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1 tablespoon Olive oil
  • 8 cups Water (you can use Chicken or Beef stock instead for a more hearty soup)

In a heavy soup pot, or dutch oven, add olive oil and heat until hot. Add onions and cook until clear, add in water and lentils. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 1 hour, after the hour add potatoes and celery.  Add broccoli and carrots after potatoes begin to soften, then add in herbs, salt and pepper. Simmer for a few minutes to combine flavors. Serve warm with crusty bread, or naan.

Since they are the most well known marjoram blends, I am going to give a za’atar recipe and herbs de Provence. Herbs de Provence are great for meatloafs and other meaty dishes, it goes great sprinkled over potatoes then roasting them, and loads of other delicious culinary things.  Za’atar is possibly lesser known in the west, but it is just as awesome. It is a common spice blend in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. It goes great in meat, vegetable, rice and bread dishes, I find it is fantastic rubbed onto some flat bread and baked. Or just a teaspoon or so of it with some olive oil, and some bread for dipping, is a good snack for having a drink with friends or right before the main meal. Not only do they both taste great, but these are both great ways to have your food be your medicine, as I said above.


  • 1/4 cup Sumac (you will find this in most Middle Eastern style markets, it has a citrus flavor and you can in a pinch use some lemon zest but real sumac is best)
  • 2 tablespoons dried Thyme
  • 2 tablespoons dried Marjoram
  • 2 tablespoons dried Oregano
  • 1 tablespoon Roasted Sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Grind sesame seeds in mortar and pestle with the salt, or grind them in a food processor or blender. Add the remaining ingredients and give a quick pulse in a blender or processor, or a few good grinds with a pestle until you have a fairly uniform chunky mixture. Store in an airtight container for 3-6 months.

Herbs de Provence

  • 2 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon dried Oregano
  • 2 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon dried Thyme
  • 2 tablespoons dried Savory
  • 2 tablespoons dried Lavender
  • 1 teaspoon dried Basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried Sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried, crushed Rosemary

Mix well and store in an airtight container, stores for about 3-6 months as well. This goes great as a crust for roasts, on roasted potatoes, even in bread! And like za’atar, is a great way to get an extra boost of marjoram and its healing properties in your diet.

Marjoram while considered to be “mostly harmless” can have some reactions with medications or if you are pregnant. So do make sure that you always check, even the mostly safe herbs, on WebMD just to be sure there will be no interactions with medications and so forth. Remember even water becomes poisonous if you have too much of it, so always use herbal medicine sensibly, with caution and respect. As always if you are in doubt about anything, ask a professional!