The Fifth Season: Herbs for Wildfire Season
Guest student post by third year Cecemanna student Beth Sachnoff.
Here in California a fifth season has emerged. As we move from the warm months of summer into the dry winds of autumn we enter what has been the peak time for California wildfires. In this era marked by extreme drought, years of fire suppression and climate change, fires have raged up and down California and the Pacific Northwest. This year alone, 1,258,880 acres have burned in California.
Driving up north to the mountains last month I was met with gray skies and smoky hazy air. The land is on fire. There was a heaviness in my heart and a deep sense of grief for the lives, homes and livelihoods lost. Back home in the Bay Area the air hung heavy with pollution carried from fires miles and miles away. Schools were instructed to keep children in-doors, and air quality advisories were issued. The physical and emotional effects of the wildfires is felt near and far.
Short and long-term exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to lung irritation and damage the sensitive mucosa and tissue of the lungs. Common side effects include coughing, bronchial spasms, fatigue and increased inflammation in the respiratory tract. Those with respiratory issues such as asthma and seasonal allergies, as well as children and the elderly, are extra susceptible during wildfire season.
Exposure to smoke, fire, or the threat of fire is a scary and fearful experience. This exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system and our stress response (fight, flight or freeze) kicks in. During this time, we can support and work toward calming an activated nervous system.
The plant world offers many ways to support and care for ourselves and communities during wildfire season. Herbal remedies can help support damage to the lungs, soothe the nerves and move through grief. Below are some of herbs I turn to for support during this time of year.
Mullein – This respiratory tonic is often the first herb I think of for supporting the lungs. This useful plant grows like a weed in high elevation locations such as the pine forests of the Sierras and the Great Basin. It’s soft and fuzzy leaves are covered in a woolly hair which protect the plant from insect attacks and irritate the throat of potential grazing animals. Its stalk grows anywhere from 4-7 feet tall making it recognizable from a distance. The top of the stalk is densely adorned with small bright yellow flowers.
Mullein leaf is soothing and moistening, which are important qualities during fire season. Mullein helps to soothe a hacking cough, irritated or inflamed throat with its moistening and anti-inflammatory qualities. As a relaxing expectorant Mullein helps to expel excess mucus and phlegm. An infused oil of Mullein flowers has long been used as a folk remedy for earaches.
When preparing mullein leaf tea be sure to strain it well, as the little woolly hairs can irritate the throat.
Yerba Santa – This California native plant is a powerful decongestant. Yerba Santa is a desert plant that grows along roadsides in the lower foothills. The sticky resinous leave is a shiny dark green, with a yellow felt like underside.
Yerba Santa opens up the lungs and removes accumulated phlegm. I like to use it in a steam to help relieve congestion and excess phlegm. Yerba Santa is indicated for moist coughs, where the reflexes are too weak to bring up phlegm, when the throat is raw, and there is a general lack of strength. Since yerba santa dries up the membranes I like to combine it with moisturizing demulcent herbs such as marshmallow or licorice.
Energetically yerba santa can help us with processing repressed grief and allowing our emotions to flow. The flower essence is specific for profound loss and trauma, such as that experienced during a wildfire. Yerba santa is indicated for constricted emotions held in the heart and lungs.
Elder – This well-loved tree has many medicinal uses. The flowers are a powerful diaphoretic, which means it helps heat up the body to break a sweat. The skin is our largest organ and places an important role in eliminating toxins. Sweat is one of the ways we release toxins in the body. The flowers are also used for treating upper respiratory symptoms such as hay-fever and inflamed sinuses. I like adding them to facial steam blends for this purpose.
During wildfire season, when we are experiencing distress, our immune systems become more susceptible to infection. The berry of the elder tree is anti-viral and can help fight off and reduce the duration of a flu.
The Elder tree has long been associated with healers and witches. Energetically this plant can be used for grief, suffering, and heartbreak. Specifically, elderberry can help with connecting to the feeling of grief.
The seeds of the berry can be toxic. The berry’s and are best worked with when heated and strained.
Marshmallow – This cooling, gooey and slimy root is much appreciated for its demulcent (moisturizing) capabilities. It helps to coat and soothe inflamed tissues and is great for a sore throat. Marshmallow root is anti-inflammatory and excellent for hydration.
To get all the mucilaginous benefits prepare marshmallow root as a cold infusion. Add 4 Tbsp of dried root to a jar and cover with 4 cups cool water. Cover and leave overnight. Strain in the morning, making sure to squeeze all the gooey goodness out. Store in the fridge and drink over the next couple of days.
Licorice Root – This sweet tasting root is an important plant in the Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacopoeia. Licorice root is demulcent and anti-inflammatory. This moisturizing quality helps protect and sooth the mucus membranes of the nose and throat. It is commonly used for respiratory ailments such as coughs, sore throat, bronchial congestion, catarrh, and bronchitis. As an adaptogen Licorice helps relieve adrenal exhaustion. Licorice root can be used to help sweeten the taste of less pleasant herb formulas in tinctures, teas and powders.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine licorice root is considered a harmonizer when combined with other herbs. It is thought to help the herbs work with one another. Energetically this plant is thought to help release stuck light and open the flow of light. It is useful plant ally for those experiencing burnout, when feeling wired, stressed, and unable to function.
Licorice is contraindicated and not recommended for those with high blood pressure.
Oats – This wild grass grows all along California’s hillsides. The oat tops containing the seeds are harvested while they are still green and release a white milky sap when pinched. The dried stem, known as oat straw is also used in tea blends.
Oats are nutritive and are high in minerals and trace minerals. They help nourish and strengthen the nervous system by coating the myelin sheath, which covers the nerve fibers. Think of oats when you are feeling frazzled or your nerves feel zapped. Oats help to revitalize & restore balance when feeling exhausted, or experiencing prolonged illness, or adrenal fatigue. Consider milky oat tincture or oat straw in your tea to support your nervous system during wildfire season.
Nettles – This stinging plant is found everywhere in the Pacific West and is usually found growing near water. Its bright dark green leaves are covered with stinging hairs on the underside, as well as along the stems.
Nettle is extremely nourishing and high in minerals and vitamins. It is considered a tonic for the overall body, and specific for nourishing the adrenals & kidneys. Regular long-term use supports energy building. As an antihistamine it useful for seasonal & animal allergies. Nettle helps the body break down waste, which is helpful for during wildfire.
Lung Tea Blend – Here is recipe for a tea blend for wildfire season:
2 Tbsp Mullein leaf
2 Tbsp Marshmallow root
1 Tbsp Oat straw
1 Tbsp Nettle
1 tsp Licorice root
To prepare the tea add 1 Tbsp of the herb mixture to 1 Cup of water. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes or longer. Strain well and enjoy. You can prepare larger quantities of tea to have on hand and store it in the fridge for 3-4 days.
Herbal Facial Steam
Another way to support your respiratory system is with an herbal steam. Steams help to moisten the respiratory tract, help break up mucus and expectorate gunk out of the lungs.
To prepare bring a pot of water to steam and add in a handful of respiratory herbs or 2-3 drops of essential oil. Lean over the pot and cover yourself and the pot with a towel. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Some of the herbs I like to use in my steams include yerba santa, thyme, rosemary, elderflower, chamomile, lavender and mullein.
As wildfire season continues, herbs can be an important ally in processing the emotions and physical ailments that surface.
Beth Sachnoff is a third year Cecemanna student at Ancestral Apothecary. She is a San Francisco native who nurtured her relationship with plants amongst the redwoods and strolling through the Bay Area hills. Beth loves sharing the wisdom and knowledge of the plants and teaching people how to make their own herbal remedies. Learn more about her work over at www.wildchildapothecary.com.