(originally published in Pickens Progress newspaper on June 22, 2016. View online at this link.
Written By Crystal Merrell, Local herbalist
Free stuff is great. Everybody knows that. Backroad blackberries gathered on a hot summer morning taste better than those bought at the store. Squash and cucumbers gifted from your aunt’s overflowing garden come with a heaping helping of love on the side. And my favorite - free and plentiful wild local herbs. It is like your birthday combined with a scavenger hunt! You get the free gift of the herbs AND the joy and experience of the hunt and gather.
Earlier in the season, honeysuckle was in abundance. Sucking the sweet liquid from the white and yellow honeysuckles is a treasured childhood memory for so many in our mountains. But did you know that this familiar honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) was introduced to New York in 1806, is currently considered an invasive weed, and that it is still a highly prized medicinal plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
I harvested the white and yellow blossoms for several consecutive days and dried on a repurposed window screen until I had ½ gallon mason jar full. Several studies have shown our common honeysuckle to stop the replication of the influenza virus1. That’s big! It is free, available, and scientifically tested to be useful against flu and virus. Antiviral is not honeysuckles only traditional use, though. Honeysuckle tea has been used as a wash for the skin rashes and sores, and more.
In bloom now is Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) with it’s whimsical pink feathery flowers straight out of Dr. Seuss. This is an invasive and fast growing tree in the southeast which some find annoying, which is ironic as in TCM, Mimosa is the ‘tree of happiness’. Last summer I harvested enough to dry and fill a pint jar. Since the traditional use includes grief relief, I used that harvest to make a tea during my March workshop for Women of Lost Pregnancy. It makes a very light, yet not too sweet tea.
Other traditional uses include ‘relieving emotional constraint with bad temper, bad mood, sadness, and irritability’. I just want to go on record stating that the amount of mimosa flowers blooming this year seem to me to be double that of last year, and I will attribute it to the plant world picking up on all the ‘emotional constraint’ associated with this year’s presidential elections. (a bit of herbalist humor, haha!)
Honeysuckle and Mimosa flower teas are not one-cup-wonder medicines, but could be a useful and safe addition to your existing healing strategy.
Basic guidelines for gathering plants from the wild include a lot of common sense.
• DON’T gather from areas where any contamination could have occurred. This includes areas sprayed with chemicals, road sides, or an area exposed to water runoff that isn’t clean.
• DO properly identify the plant before gathering. Use an ID book like Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide or other respected guide. It DOES matter what genus and species you gather - Lonicera japonica with its white/yellow flowers is NOT the same as the native Lonicera sempervirens (Trumpet or Coral Honeysuckle) with it’s red flowers. Lonicera sempervirens is NOT medicinal or edible.
• DON’T take it all. Leave some for the critters and insects, as well as to ensure the plant community will survive and be there next year. It is nice to have a ‘spot’ that you can reliably harvest from every year rather than looking for new plant communities each season.
Even now, we have a handful of locals that will still harvest from the wild, and just a generation or so ago it was more common for everyone to do it. If you want to learn more about harvesting and drying medicinal plants, join me on July 23rd for a 2-hour hands-on class. More details at www.crystaldawnherbs.com
(originally published in the Pickens Progress newspaper May 2016)
ritten by Crystal Merrell, local herbalist
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you the worst poison ivy rash you’ve ever had, throw the herbal kitchen sink at it!
‘Life’ has a weird sense of humor at times. In January, I was offering the first in my series of free mini-class at the Natural Market Place with that month’s topic being Coughs and Colds: Your Herbal Toolbox. ‘Life’ had just in the weeks leading up provided my dear husband a very bad cold with lingering and stuck cough. Speaking as only an herbalist would - It was awesome! I was able to use my tried and true remedies along with new combinations that provided relief and support to my husband as he regained normalcy. Having a front row seat to the ailment, to stare it down, to get to know it, to gain a clear understanding of where the boundaries to care at home lie, and to see moment to moment how the individual responds to the herbs and care is something that is only available when you are the round-the-clock caregiver. To hear or read about an illness or remedy is one dimensional compared to being the one experiencing it. My husband and children have been the in-home test subjects for the past 10 years of my herbal path and I am a better community clinical herbalist because of it.
June’s free mini-class is Skin Soothers. I will be presenting my favorite natural remedies for common skin problems such as dry skin, acne, scrapes and scratches, sunburn, insect bites, and, yes, poison ivy rash. Little did I know back in December when I decided each month’s topics that I would have a very personal and in depth crash refresher course in poison ivy relief weeks before the Skin Soothers class.
My ‘bright’ idea was that even though I’ve had small reactions to poison ivy in the past and would probably have a bit of rash this time too, I would work hard and fast to remove the poison ivy that was creeping into the parking area and beside my house. It would be worth it, I thought, to reclaim this space without the use of pesticides as I use my yard to harvest medicinal and edible herbs and therefore avoid all poisonous chemicals for health and safety. I worked for about an hour with clipper, rake, and shovel, and then went directly to the washing machine with my clothes and the shower with myself. Ahh, what naive enthusiasm!
Not only was this the worst reaction I’ve ever experienced from poison ivy physically, but it took it’s toll emotionally and mentally as well. Big, red, weepy, rash on my right wrist and another in the bend of my elbow on the left arm. Smaller spots all along my arms, some itchy, some painful, the combined effect was quite distressing. But it was the weeping - the constant free flowing liquid from my wrist and elbow rashes that troubled me the most, and especially at night. I used my go-to poison ivy remedies, and although in some spots it offered great relief in others it did not. It was a constantly changing terrain on my arms - and keeping up with the appropriate remedy was a good challenge. Jewelweed, plantain, activated charcoal, calendula, hot water, cold water, oatmeal, chamomile, skullcap, passionflower, lavender, thyme… all were useful for my skin and my mind at different times during the two week rash and recovery.
Poison Ivy is a plant that everyone should learn to identify in all it’s forms. This plant loves to be a chameleon, as it can look like a vine, shrub, small tree, or single plant that is similar to the plants around it. The best visual explaination I’ve found it at http://www.poison-ivy.org/poison-ivy-quiz The oil (called urushiol) from the disturbed plant leaves, stems, or roots causes reaction in 50% of humans. The reaction severity can vary greatly, and the specific way our immune system reacts causes a lot of confusion and myths about poison ivy. I’ll cover these and more in the mini-class, along with herbal remedies I’ve used.
Learn more about herbs and home remedies for your skin during the free mini-class Skin Soothers on Tuesday, June 14th from 1:30PM-2:00PM OR Saturday, June 18th from 11:30AM-12:00PM at the Natural Market Place, 69 North Main Street, Jasper. The class will contain useful and interesting information on caring for poison ivy reactions at home (and when a trip to the doctor is called for), but also cover other common skin issues like dry skin, acne, insect bites, scratches, and more. Looking ahead, July’s topic is Cooling Herbal Teas and August’s is Summer Lovin’: 4 Herbs for the Heart.
- Crystal Merrell is a Pickens County native with a passion for helping her community. She is a clinical herbalist helping people through holistic consultations and community education. Visit www.crystaldawnherbs.com to learn more.
(originally published in Pickens Progress on 3/3/2016)
by Local Herbalist Crystal Merrell
I find making New Year’s Resolutions on December 31st challenging. First of all, I will confess I don’t make my best decisions close to midnight any given night of the year, not just New Year’s Eve. And after the holiday hustle-n-bustle plus the kids in the final days of a 2 week school break, I tend to be seeking a quiet and calm moment - not to start a new ‘self-improvement’ project complete with goals and 10-step plans.
Yet, there is great value in taking stock in your life and pondering on ways to direct things in a way you desire. Otherwise, each day rolls into the next and you end up wondering how you got (or didn’t get) to this place.
Nature makes new year’s resolutions too. In the Fall, she takes stock of what was. In Winter, she rests and dreams of possibilities. In Summer, she celebrates life. It is in Spring, right at the start of the season, that she makes her resolutions. The promises of the plants and seeds breaking through the dirt are full of hope, plans, and goals of a fruitful year ahead.
Timing your own personal goals in health and life with the rhythm of the natural world is quite logical. Our human bodies are responsive and smart about utilizing the resources available for our needs throughout the year.
Red bud tree blossoms are not only a beautiful sign of the season, but also a great vitamin C source, with more mg vit C than an orange by weight. Dandelions - yes, those ‘weeds’ in your front yard - are amazing springtime nutrition and of benefit as a traditional and scientifically proven herbal therapy (make sure you are getting dandelion greens, flowers, or roots from land that has not been sprayed or poisoned for 3 or more years). Chickweed, plantain (not the banana like food), cleavers, violets - all beneficial free food growing around you. Even poke salat and ramps are spring time cleansing plants that many North Georgians recall having eaten for health.
Exercise plans are easier to start in the Spring as well with longer daylight, warmer temperatures, and a clockwork yearly nudge to get outside to see the wonder returning. And especially in North Georgia, Spring means a return to the ball field for many families. A perfect opportunity to walk a few laps at Roper’s Park or Jasper City Park.
Spring cleaning is famous for a reason. Fresh new starts this time of year are comforting. We all understand that. So, try using Spring to be your NEW new resolution time of the year.
Learn more about partnering with the plants of Spring in my March 8, 2016 free mini-class ‘New Beginnings: Herbs of Spring’ from 1:30PM-2:00PM at the Natural Market Place, North Main Street, Jasper.
- Crystal Merrell is a Pickens County native with a passion for helping her community. She is a clinical herbalist helping people through holistic consultations and community education. Visit www.crystaldawnherbs.com to learn more.
(Originally published in Pickens Progress newspaper 2/4/2016 by Dan Pool. Click link to view on Pickens Progress site. )
Written by Dan Pool, Editor, Pickens Progress
My tongue looks pretty healthy, a little shiny in a few spots which means its dry and could be a clue to a deeper condition if other symptoms were present.
But, all-in-all, Pickens County herbalist Crystal Merrell says medically speaking my tongue is fairly unremarkable.
Merrell also checked the shape of my wrist and ankles to determine that I was a “water” person – again nothing requiring action but something to note in case I had issues with my constitution.
I approached my January appointment with Merrell, a Pickens native, by letting her know that I was skeptical of herbalism, but it might make a good article. She works out of the Ball Ground office of Bruce Chiropractic.
She said my skepticism was fine as she had been a skeptic prior to 2006. She recalled going to a health food store in 2006 for recommended pre-natal vitamins while carrying her second child. Regarding some helpful advice at the health food place, Merrell recalled thinking to herself, “I don’t speak herb.”
Merrell said she didn’t come from a hippie background. She holds a degree with honors from Reinhardt in natural science and a mechanical engineering degree from Southern Tech and had worked for 10 years as an engineer.
“With my first child I was the type that went to the doctor for every sniffle but I would walk away feeling they didn’t have the answer [for minor problems],” she said. “I wanted something that would comfort and help somewhere between a doctor with antibiotics and doing nothing.”
Merrell said her herbalist practice is about finding the “in between,” which is the province formerly held by grandmothers who had folk remedies to make someone feel better, even if they weren’t a doctor and didn’t have a true cure.
At her practice, Crystal Dawn Herbs, Merrell makes it clear she is not a doctor and is not opposed to doctors.
“I am very thankful for doctors,” she said. “I use doctors.”
But Merrell also believes that more can be done to make people generally more healthy by a combination of healthy lifestyle with the use of herbs in teas, tinctures and pill form to build up immunity and address some conditions.
Merrell’s transition from skeptic to herbalist was one step at a time. Back with her second child, she was given some herbs by a midwife for a condition with her following the birth and had to call someone to ask what to do with a bunch of dried leaves.
From there, she found a book, Naturally Healthy Babies and Children by Aviva Romm, which moved her further along the path.
Realizing she wanted to move deeper with her studies of traditional herbal medicine, Merrell took a year-long class in Rabun County with Patricia Kyritsi Howell, the author of Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians.
Merrell holds a certification from the Rabun County studies, but there is no registration for herbalists. She has attended numerous conferences to glean new information on old remedies.
While China is well known for ancient herbal practices, Merrell’s studies showed her a rich Appalachian folklore tradition of herbalism. Coincidentally, the Appalachians and China see many of the same plants pop up in their age-old prescriptions.
Merrell actually uses both styles of medicine - her tongue gauging skills follow mostly Chinese style diagnosis, as opposed to the Appalachian style of reading the tongue, which really does exist.
At present Merrell is keeping the bills paid through work at her family’s Mountain View Pet Lodge, but believes 2016 is the year for her to push into a regular practice that supports itself. She felt that the timing is going to be right this year.
But, establishing enough paying clientele (she charges on a sliding scale) to support a full-time herbalist is not going to be any easier than bringing back a component of healthcare not seen in the Appalachians for several generations.
“It’s hard to become a community herbalist,” she said. You can’t follow the path of someone else and I have to validate myself at every meeting.”
Merrell began officially seeing people and charging for consultations a year ago and it has built slowly as she spread awareness. Good word of mouth is the best thing to encourage people to try it, she said.
“This is my passion,” she said. “But I need enough [clients] to make it viable.”
Merrell states clearly that she does not claim to be a doctor. She said her disclaimer says that she does not treat, diagnose or cure disease.
What she does do is make recommendations for people who are also being seen by doctors or who are looking for that “in between” - something less than a full blown doctor’s visit but more than doing nothing.
She will offer herbalist remedies for afflictions such as colds, coughs, indigestion and other common ailments.
“From teenage acne to depression to PMS to feeling disconnected to digestive problems to forgetfulness to menopause and everything in between and out of between,” she wrote in a follow up e-mail.
However, she does not hesitate to recommend a doctor’s visit when the symptoms call for it. Nor does she claim to have any miracle cures.
“We can’t cure cancer,” she said, and wants it known that herbalism’s effects are typically “slower but deeper” than traditional medicine. She notes that her goal is leave someone “built up” overall, pointing out several herbs that may improve the immune system.
Merrell’s initial consultation with me lasted about two hours and she made various observations on diet, exercise, sleep, spiritual practices - in addition to surveying my tongue, wrists and ankles.
As I told her when I set up the interview/appointment, I wasn’t really sick so I didn’t give her much to work with.
That being said I do believe she provided practical health advice that was pretty obvious when looking over everything but also a few ideas that were a little unusual. She quickly picked up on the food log I was told to bring that I didn’t have a single fresh vegetable on it – I had already suspected that was a bad sign.
But she went on to recommend I add some ground up dandelion root to my daily cups of coffee – which was a simple suggestion that I fully intend to try. She also advised that I drink hot herbal teas or something else in place of diet sodas.
Merrell can be contacted at 678-654-6449 or at her website, www.crystaldawnherbs.com.
(originally published in Best of North Georgia Mountains, May 2015)
Being “born and raised” in North Georgia, I have quite a bit of pride when it comes to the people and history of these mountains. Sometimes though, you forget. You forget when you are driving past the chain resturants, box stores, and strip malls. You forget when you rush from one moment to the next always moving forward toward the next thing. This is happening all over our U.S.A., but if you are lucky enough to be in the North Georgia mountains, you will occasionally find yourself traveling down a dirt road on a spring day driving past old wood barns, farmers working a garden to get it ready for planting, and green fields that are so green it makes you take a deep breath just to taste the fresh air. It heals you. Just the sight of all this heals you and helps you remember.
Spring and Summer time in the mountains was a time to harvest all that nature provides for food, for tools, and for health. Poke salat, creasy greens, redbud tree blossoms were a few of the first fresh foods after the winter. These ‘weeds’ were free and readily available to anyone who cared to look. But they weren’t only food, they were also a benefit for health. Redbud blossoms (Cercis canadensis) contain a high amount of Vitamin C. Poke salat (Phytolacca americana) and creasy greens (Barbarea verna) would ‘clear your liver’ after the richness of winter meats. The people of North Georgia used the plants available, like these, to treat themselves, their families, and neighbors for many different types of illness.
As a modern herbalist, I have studied many historical texts and references about plant use in many areas of the world. Now, what I want to know is how did the people of my mountains use the plants around them. I created a survey to gather info and give credit where due to the healers around here - be it a mom or dad for their children or a community healer. These are a few of the treasures I’ve been given so far.
Hickory sap (Carya sp.) as an earache remedy - “The hickory sap was gathered from the hickory firewood that was warmed by the wood heater. The sap would look like little drops of honey on the cambium layer of the bark at the ends of the firewood. My Daddy told me that his father, Clyde Low, would use this for the small children with an earache in the family.” - Donnie L (Pickens/Gilmer/Towns)
Calamus root (Acorus calamus) for upset stomach - “My mother and grandmother used what they called Calamus root for stomach upsets. I remember seeing roots in some sort of suspension in grandmother's cupboard.” - Rhonda L (Pickens)
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) for mouth sores - “Daddy always gathered yellow root for mouth sores or sore throat. Tastes nasty but works great. He would gather it from near the creeks above our house. Bring home a few sprigs, put in a kettle to boil for a tea to rinse our mouth out. “ - Cathy H (Pickens)
Apple (Malus domestica) for injury - “When my grandfather was a small boy, his brother hit him in the eye with a stone. His father mashed up an apple and put it in his eye for two weeks and wrapped it up. When he became an adult and went to an eye doctor, the doc said he should be blind and couldn't believe how his dad saved his vision.” - Phillip W (Cherokee)
Kerosene and Pine (Pinus sp.) for cuts - “Pulpwood cutters, Dad included, would keep a coke bottle full of kerosene with a wad of green pine needles doubled and stuffed down in the bottle. The pine needles would let them turn the bottle up and shake the kerosene out onto their saw blades. It served a dual purpose though, as they also used it on cuts, which were inevitable in that sort of work. Kerosene, or coal oil as it was also called, was often used to put on cuts and scrapes, to keep infection and soreness away (sped up healing) ” - Ronnie D (Pickens)
Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) for bee stings - “My grandmother Mrs. Minnie Johnson taught me. She used chewing a little tobacco from a cigarette and putting it on a bee sting to draw the poison out. Also, there was red oak bark boiled in water and gargled for sore throat , WD 40 for arthritis pain, heating green pine needles and breathing the smoke for asthma and on and on. She was born in Alabama in 1903 and moved to Pickens in about 1913 with her family in a covered wagon.” - Roger D (Pickens)
It is important to note that some of these quotes are memories from long ago or handed down, and can not be considered to be complete or safe from such a brief telling. I encourage anyone interested in folk remedies to research, research, and research. Most people have stepped away from folk remedies, and although they are just as useful now as then, many people now don’t have the skills or knowledge to properly use these remedies or even properly identify the species of plant needed like our ancestors who lived closer to nature and were continually using the remedies. It is exciting and very rewarding to learn more about plant identification and use. Please consider doing so!
Got your own Folk Medicine stories? Please share them with me and I will in turn share them with others in future articles. Visit my website www.crystaldawnherbs.com and click the link for Survey.