Pennycress — Apé Mázaska

These are some late-summer pictures of Apé Mázaska / Pennycress / Thlaspi arvense. It is a Brassica-family green that was originally from Europe, but has naturalized all over in the Dakotas.

I mostly harvest the seed heads (which kind of look like a bunch of pennies on a stalk), because the seeds can be used like mustard — ground up as a spice, put into pickling mixes, etc. But Linda Black Elk has been talking about it recently as a delicious spring green, too.

This time of year (May), the greens are popping up across Dakota territory. (The seedheads will emerge later in the summer.) I’m even planting a few seeds in my garden this year, so I have a source of the greens close to home.

Yucca with Flower Stalk

This Hú Pȟéstola / Great Plains Yucca / Yucca glauca is just putting up its flower stalk. Within a couple weeks after the flower stalk emerges, it will be covered with beautiful and edible white flowers.

Although yucca plants are abundant in the Northern Great Plains, their survival hangs in a delicate balance with the survival of Yucca Moths. They are the only insects that pollinate yucca flowers, and yucca flowers are the only food source for these moths. If the moths hatch out too early, or the yucca flowers bloom too late, neither species will produce offspring for the next generation. With climate change causing sometimes-drastic changes to the timing of prairie plants setting flowers, this is a real concern.

In the In Defense of Plants podcast put out a great episode a few years back, “The Sex Lives of Yuccas,” that discusses this phenomenon.

(This picture is from early June in a previous year.)

Making (semi-)Old School Salve

In all the years I’ve been making salve with Indigenous North American plant medicines, I’ve been acutely aware of the fact that I was using European ingredients to turn our medicine plants into salve. The salve recipes I’ve been taught instruct us to infuse the plant into a vegetable oil (such as olive oil), then strain it, and mix in beeswax, then cool until it solidifies. But olive trees are from the Mediterranean. And although there are over 4,000 indigenous bee species in North America, I have never heard of of beeswax being an ingredient in our traditional medicine-making processes here.

When I asked elders and Native herbalists about what people used to use in the old days, I usually heard something like, “Oh, they probably used some kind of animal fat.” This makes sense, and I know a few Indigenous medicine makers who use bear grease in their medicines — but in small proportions.

I really wanted to learn to make salve the way they made it here in the old days. And the more I learn about bioregional herbalism, the more inclined I am to work with locally available ingredients.

After several years trying to track down a good source, I finally found a rancher who would sell me some high-quality bison fat last summer. I froze it, and one of my waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ (winter projects) this year was rendering about 20 pounds of bison fat, and jarring up the resulting tallow for medicine making. (This has been a slow process — and a messy, labor-intensive one.)

This spring, I have begun experimenting with making salve with the bison tallow.

My first batch, I infused some of my favorite herbs into the bison tallow overnight in a crockpot. At the end, I used beeswax to solidify it.

The end result was way too hard. And while it smelled faintly of the herbs infused in it, one of the people who tested it for me said it smelled too much like meat. The other said his dogs became way too interested in his feet once he put the salve on.

This is my second test batch: ȟaŋté & pteíčhiyuȟa (Cedar & Curlycup Gumweed) chest rub for a family with COVID. Realizing that the bison tallow by itself was too thick to spread, and too meaty, I did 50% tallow and 50% olive oil this time.

Adding the rendered bison tallow on top of the plant medicines.
Pouring in the olive oil, as the bison tallow starts to melt.
Stirring them together, before leaving them on Low to infuse overnight.

I forgot to take a picture of the final product before I sent it out to the family, but it turned out pretty well. The other people I sent samples to said it was better than the last one. I have since done another 50-50 bison tallow/olive oil salve that turned out well, which has been quite helpful for dry winter hands, especially with the constant COVID hand-washing. I will post pictures when I can.

So I haven’t figured out a perfect, all-indigenous recipe that works yet. But I am at least 50% closer to my goal. I have a product that works for now, and is getting positive feedback from people who are using it. I will keep trying.

How I Prepared for the COVID-19 Vaccine

Čheyáka (Mentha arvensis) growing near a creek (Akíčita Háŋksa / Long Soldier district of Standing Rock). Čheyáka tea can help to reduce fevers.

I have gotten several requests for info about how to prepare yourself for a COVID-19 vaccine — especially for the possibility of a minor negative reaction. This is a little off-topic from what I normally write about, but I have compiled a list of what I did, as well as the many great ideas that my friends shared with me.

First, a few disclaimers:

1. I am not a doctor, and this post should not be taken as medical advice.

2. I have only gotten my first dose of the vaccine, and I seem to be tolerating it fairly well so far. Is that because I’ve been doing what I described below? Did I just get lucky? Or both? I don’t know. Will I experience worse symptoms later? I don’t know.

Normally, I’d wait until I was fully through this experience in order to write about it, but lots of people are getting vaccinated now, so I don’t want to delay posting information that might help somebody. If anything changes, I will update this piece.

3. Every body is different. People’s reactions to the vaccine have varied widely. Some people have no side effects. For other people, the side effects can be pretty awful — but compared to the horrible things the virus or its after-effects can do to a body, I still think the vaccine is a good idea. Even the person I know who had the most severe reaction (someone with multiple serious autoimmune disorders) to the vaccine is still glad they got it — because, given their health conditions, they might not survive getting COVID. 

Another friend who had a rough time with the second dose of the vaccine accurately described their experience as the process as “making antibodies.” That’s a good thing for us to remember — some of the temporary symptoms we experience are the result of our bodies working hard to make antibodies. This is how we build up immunity to the virus.

4. In this post, I’m not going to debate whether COVID-19 is real, or whether the vaccine is safe/a good idea. The idea that COVID-19 is not real is a slap in the face to all of us who who have lost loved ones to this disease. As for vaccine safety, that is a real and legitimate concern. I have done extensive research, and will make a separate post with links to some resources I have found that convinced me this was safe. For now, this article on holistic vaccine support by Dr. Diana Quinn is probably one of the best I’ve found on this topic.

So, how can we prepare ourselves to get the vaccine?

These were the top tips that I found helpful:

1. Drink a LOT more fluids than normal. This one really helped me, and I highly recommend it. Herbal tea, water, coconut water — anything hydrating. (Pop/soda, coffee, and caffeinated tea are dehydrating.)

2. Be prepared for the possibility that you could feel sick and/or tired for a few days. Have the necessary supplies on hand to treat your symptoms, and prepare food for yourself in advance.

3. Plan for some time off work/school, if possible. Especially for the second shot — people seem to need more rest/recovery time after dose #2.

4. Exercise your arm as much as you are able, in the first 12 hours after your shot, to minimize pain at the injection site. Gentle stretching won’t do much, but heavier, weight-bearing exercise seems to help.

I will give more details on this below. But first, I wanted to share a personal story from a friend. Stefanie (Diné) gave me a great write-up of her vaccination experience, how she prepared for it, and what she wished she’d done differently. I am sharing it here with her permission:

First shot Pfizer – what I did – not a whole lot, honestly. I worked my arm after I received the shot the same day. I also talked it over with the person administering the shot and he helped me decide to get the injection in my non-sleeping arm, which in hindsight, was the best advice I was ever given. 

What I wish I had done – prepare for the soreness the next day. The day of the vaccine my arm was fine, but when I woke up the next day it was a brick. Luckily I live with my husband and he was able to reach high up things for me, but it was an effort to move it or do other tasks, like drive. 

Second shot for Pfizer – what I did – I tried to sleep eat and drink water for the week leading up to it to make sure my immune response was in the best shape and my body wasn’t stressed from other factors. I cut out alcohol, I cut down on red meat, I cut down my sugars, I went all out to reduce inflammation. 

I also prepared to be sick. I’ve had family members my age [30s] have some terrible side effects. I did see a community health center presentation that said they were seeing a trend where people younger than 55 had more side effects than those over. So I took the next day off, got some of my favorite sick foods, and pulled out an extra blanket in case I got the chills (a family member and my physical therapist had that reaction). 

Luckily, I did not have any of those reactions. Instead I was just TIRED. I could not stay awake for more than two hours at a time the day after. Two days out I was able to get back to work, but at the end of the day I was completely zonked. What I wish I had done – prep just a little more for the fatigue.

One more thing – before my second shot I communicated a lot with people I interact with to set boundaries and expectations. I told my boss and a few close colleagues that I was going to be completely unavailable for one to maybe two days, so to schedule meetings and work deadlines around that. I also had conversations with my husband about my fears, my concerns, and my expectations of what I may or may not need if I experience side effects. That helped prep the household. And then I had my cheer leading friends, which is always just nice. “

The following tips that friends shared with me may not be possible for everyone. Some of them require financial resources, a certain family/living situation, a flexible job/school arrangement, or an able body that not all of us have. So take what you can, and leave the rest.

Items to have on hand:
-Beverages with electrolytes (like coconut water or Gatorade)
-Herbal Tea (suggestions below!)
-Plenty of water
-Prepared meals (make a big crockpot of food, buy microwave meals, etc)
-Over-the-counter medication for pain, fever, & inflammation (such as Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, a combination of both)  
-Epsom salts for a bath
-Antihistamine allergy medication (if you tend to have strong allergic reactions)
-Ice pack
-Heating pad
-Blankets

Planning Ahead — Some Ideas:
-The process of getting the vaccine may take longer than you think — be prepared to wait. Some people are spending hours in line. If you’re in a cold climate and waiting in your car, make sure you have enough gas in your tank. And you won’t be able to leave right after your shot — if you have allergies, they’ll observe you for 30 minutes afterwards. And if you don’t, they’ll observe you for 15 minutes before you can leave.
-Take one (or several) day(s) off of work or school. People (especially younger people) tend to need more recovery time after the second dose — so if you can, take more time off after that one.
-Childcare: Arrange for someone else to watch your kids the next day, so you can rest.
-Get ahead on your paperwork, job, or homework.
-Make sure you have enough food and supplies for yourself, your kids, and your pets, so you won’t have to go out the next day.
-Put any hard-to-reach items in an easier-to-reach place, in case you have too much arm pain to reach high up after the vaccine. 
-If you live alone, arrange for someone to check in on you.

Ideas for minimizing pain at the injection site:
-Pain in your arm seems to be the most common vaccine side effect, so I would expect some pain. They’ll let you choose which arm to get vaccinated in. Two things to consider: which side is your dominant hand/arm, and whether you sleep on one side.
-One elder told me that icing her arm made it hurt less.
-An acupuncturist suggested a heating pad on the arm could help, too.
-Putting a couple drops of an anti-inflammatory tincture onto my skin around the injection site seemed to help me a bit.
-Some people have suggested working out the muscle, starting right after you get the shot, to keep the pain from getting too bad. I did 10 push-ups right when I get home, and did another set every few hours when it was starting to hurt. Now, 36 hours later, it hurts much less than other vaccines I’ve had. In fact, my arm hurts hurts less than my knee does, from kneeling on a tile floor for 2 minutes that same day. But I can’t say whether any of this is scientifically valid or not.
[Update 3/31/21, after shot #2: Exercising definitely seemed to make a difference for both shots. I did a lot of hard physical work in the garden in the hours following shot #2, and had minimal pain the next day. A friend of mine was having pain after her shot and found that gentle stretching didn’t do much — but then she vacuumed her whole apartment, and her arm felt much better after. So I think doing more vigorous/weight-bearing exercise is what makes the difference.]
-Someone else suggested rubbing your arm at the injection site, and doing exercise to keep it moving.

What about treating my vaccine side effects with plant medicines?

The two most common symptoms seem to be pain/inflammation, and fever. Below, you’ll find a list for each. As usual, you don’t need everything on the list — one or two from each category should be more than enough. Some of these plants do double duty, and are on both lists.

The other symptoms that people have reported, besides pain/inflammation and fever, are so varied that I am not going to try to address them in this post.

Wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa (Cottonwood buds) and Willow bark both contain salicin, a powerful anti-inflammatory compound.

Plant medicines for Pain and Inflammation that can help:
-I have been drinking a spicy Čhoȟwáŋžiča / Willow [Salix species] bark tea blend with cinnamon (both herbs are anti-inflammatory), and a few other spices. Make your own blend, according to your personal needs.
-I have been using a Meadowsweet tincture (taking it internally, and also applying a drop to the injection site).
-I haven’t needed it, but I have a stronger anti-inflammatory Wáǧačhaŋ / Cottonwood bud tincture prepared.
-Other herbs that could work: Prickly Ash (tincture or topical), Arnica (topical), Turmeric (internal), Garlic (internal), Rosemary (internal), Black pepper (internal).

Plant medicines for Reducing Fever that can help:
Čhoȟwáŋžiča / Willow (Salix species) Bark as a tea (any willow species)
Wáǧačhaŋ/Cottonwood (Populus species) inner bark as a tea, or buds as a tincture
Čheyáka / Mint (Mentha arvensis) leaves as a tea
-Waštémna / Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) flowers or leaves as a tea
Igmú tȟačhéyaka / Catmint (Nepeta cataria) leaves as a tea
Siŋkpȟé tȟawóte / Wiike / Bitterroot / Sweet Flag / Acorus Calamus root as a tea
Waȟčá pȟepȟéla / Boneset / Eupatorium species leaves and flowers as a tea

But wait…aren’t we supposed to avoid anti-inflammatories with this vaccine?

There’s a lot of mixed messaging out there about this. The general recommendation seems to be to avoid taking anti-inflammatories before your shot. There is confusion about whether it’s ok to take them after your shot. This article explains the recommendation for avoiding them before you get the vaccine.

Marc Strong (Sičháŋǧu Lakota), a scientist who has read and interpreted a lot of the available research on this issue, explained to me,
“The CDC is recommending that you not take anti-inflammatory meds before getting the COVID vaccine. There is a concern that your immune response will be slightly suppressed if you do. Though there isn’t a lot of evidence that this happens. Better safe than sorry, I suppose. HOWEVER, the CDC says that if you develop symptoms after the vaccine, it’s fine [to take anti-inflammatories]. Your immune system has already started a response and is making the antibodies already.”

Conclusion

I hope this information is useful. Please feel free to comment or contact me if you see any errors, or have any questions.

Thank you for getting vaccinated, and doing your part to protect our communities and end this pandemic!

Taŋyáŋ úŋ wo — be well!

Indigenous Seed Acknowledgements, Present & Future

I just attended the virtual Slow Seed Summit, a project of Slow Food USA. (They’re a great organization doing important work, with a goal of “good, clean and fair food for all” — please check them out.) It was an excellent, educational event, highlighting the work of many seed stewards who are safeguarding one of our most precious resources on the planet. I especially appreciated all the news, ideas, current projects, and stories that were shared — and how they highlighted the voices of elders, Indigenous people, and African and African-American seedkeepers.

At the end, they had an open session. I decided to speak up about something that has bothered me about the mainstream seed movement for years: acknowledging Indigenous origins of seeds. (I also mentioned this in my recent piece on seed rematriation, published in Red Rising Magazine.) I wanted to share my comment here, in case anyone else is also interested in this issue.

“A request I’d like to put out there, as an Indigenous person and seedkeeper:

Please acknowledge the Indigenous origins of any seeds you are stewarding. When you share these seeds, please share the name of the people/tribe/nation where your seeds originated. Too many organizations that work to preserve heirloom seeds don’t acknowledge those seeds’ Indigenous origins. (For instance, many heirloom seed catalogs give the impression, in their descriptions, that tomatoes are from Europe.)

Also, when sharing these seeds, please refer to the Indigenous people who they are from in the PRESENT tense — even if you don’t think we exist any more, and even if you don’t think that we grow them any more. (ie, say “X Tribe grows these seeds” — not “X Tribe used to grow them”). This leaves open the possibility of our present and future relationship with our seeds.

All the speakers at this conference done an excellent job of this, which is such a refreshing change. However, our larger seed movement often uses language that erases Indigenous people and seed origins.

Thank you for considering this request.”

Update:

After I said this, there were a couple comments from attendees about how it can be difficult to correctly credit the origins of certain seeds, in situations where multiple tribes/Indigenous Nations claimed the seeds as their own. This isn’t really what I was talking about. If you run into this problem, it means that you are trying to acknowledge the origins of the seeds you steward — which is exactly what I am hoping everyone will do. The organizations/people I was referring to are not trying; they publish seed catalogues that say their tomatoes originated in Russia, or they say that their corn was developed in Italy, without giving any credit to the Turtle Islanders who first developed these crops.

I don’t have all the answers here, I can’t speak for anyone besides myself, and I am certainly no authority on the right way to do this. But what I wish I had seen, as a young person browsing through seed catalogs, talking to seedkeepers, and learning about crop origins, is an honest accounting for where the seeds originally came from.

What do you do if you’re not sure which tribes/Indigenous people first grew the seeds you currently steward? Keep researching — and in the meantime, make sure you pass on as much information as you currently have about the geographic origins of your crop. (Even if you can only point to the continent of origin, please give credit where credit is due. For example, I wish more people knew that black-eyed peas originated in Africa — too many people think they’re from the Americas.)

What do you do if the seeds you steward have multiple origins? (For instance, a cowpea that originated in Africa, and was developed into a regionally-adapted variety of black-eyed pea somewhere else, or a Native American bean that an immigrant community has grown for centuries?) Personally, I would like to see stories of all the groups of people who have worked with, saved, and passed along a seed honored and acknowledged when we talk about, or share, our seeds.

What do you do if multiple groups claim that the seeds you steward originated with their community? Again, I am not an authority on this — but if it was me, I would pass along both origin stories whenever you share your seeds. Unless you can personally trace the lineage of the exact seeds you steward back to a particular tribal community of origin with 100% certainty, I would not attempt to judge which community might be “correct” when claiming the seeds were originally theirs. I would also be open to the possibility that multiple origin stories for a single seed could be true.

A story to illustrate that last point:

A few years ago, I met a seedkeeper from Anishinaabe territory who had been taking care of a rare corn variety. He told me it was called Bear Island Flint Corn. I’d never heard the name before, but as soon as I saw it, I knew this corn. It was a multicolored corn with a very particular color palette. Some kernels had an unusual, distinctive, familiar pattern of stripes. It looked exactly like the corn I had been stewarding. I must have asked him at least 4 times, “Are you sure this isn’t Mandan Bride corn?” He was very polite, and allowed me to ask a lot of questions about his corn. Not only did it look identical to what I had, but the two types had some other important traits in common: 85-90 days to maturity, and a reputation as a superior, high-protein flour corn. I couldn’t identify any differences between the two corns, besides the geographic origins.

Bear Island Flint Corn has a long historical relationship with Anishinaabe people in Michigan. And Mandan Bride Corn has a long historical relationship with the Mandan people in North Dakota. Are they the same corn? Maybe yes — people have been trading and sharing seeds for a long time. But also, definitely no — even if DNA tests were to show that these 2 corn varieties were totally identical, the exact seeds that my friends carries have deep roots in Anishinaabe communities and the soil of the Great Lakes region, and the exact ones that I carry are just as deeply connected to Mandan people and the northern reaches of the Missouri River. The seeds, and their histories, are not interchangeable.

I realize that this story — two known, definite origins for what may (or may not) possibly be one type of corn — is not exactly the same situation as the conundrum that the seedkeepers at the conference posed. But I share it as an illustration of the fact that multiple seemingly-contradictory seed stories can be true. If I wasn’t sure of my corn’s genealogy, I would share both origin stories whenever I shared my seeds. I would share all the information I had — because when someone is taking responsibility for the life of a seed, and all the generations of descendants that seed carries within itself, I think it’s important for us to pass along everything we know about the seed to any new seed steward, so they can care for it in a good way.

Other Resources from the Slow Seed Summit:

Here are several other resources I found out about from this conference, that I wanted to share:

Slow Food USA’s “Share a Seed” initiative:
I love the idea of this program — to redistribute people’s extra seeds to others who will plant them, so seeds are not wasted.
https://slowfoodusa.org/plant-a-seed/share-a-seed/

Slow Food USA’s “Plant a Seed” campaign:
This is a great campaign, where you can purchase a set of 5 seed varieties”endangered and biodiverse seeds that tell a story,” grow and enjoy them in your garden, and join other seed stewards the work of preserving them.
https://slowfoodusa.org/plant-a-seed/

True Love Seeds‘ African Diaspora Seed Collection:
This is the work of my friend and his partner, who started an amazing project of connecting people with the seeds that their ancestors grew. This particular collection is focused on seeds from African and African-American communities.
https://trueloveseeds.com/collections/african-diaspora-collection

True Love Seeds’ African Diaspora Seed Bundle & Postcard collection:
This is a pack of 4 seed varieties, 5 seeds each, and accompanying art postcards. Perfect size for a gift, or for beginning seed gardeners.
https://trueloveseeds.com/collections/print-shop/products/african-diaspora-collection-seed-packets-and-postcards

Forest Gardens of Europe: Someone at the conference shared this link. I was really intrigued to see this. When the Europeans first came to North America, they thought they were seeing a vast, wild wilderness that was untouched — “unspoiled” by any human hands. What they failed to notice was that a lot of the land here was actually a carefully cultivated forest garden. It just didn’t look like a European garden, with rows of crops, so they didn’t have a reference point to understand what they were seeing. Well, apparently, Europe has (or had) its own forest gardens, too. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, but I found it very interesting.
https://www.shelterwoodforestfarm.com/blog/the-lost-forest-gardens-of-europe

Oscar Will, a North Dakota seedman from the early 20th century who I hadn’t heard of before (but probably should have):
https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr4/north-dakota-agriculture/part-2-production-agriculture/profile-oscar-h-will

This Native American Ethnobotany database:
The interface is pretty bare-bones, but there’s an impressive amount of info on here: 44,691 listings of plant uses, for 291 tribes. You can use it to search for the name of a plant (ex: “nettles”), a tribe (ex: “Apache”) or a symptom that you need a plant to treat (ex: “inflammation”).
http://naeb.brit.org/

More Winter Projects: Winnowing Teachings

This is another post in my waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ, or winter projects series.

A few years back, at the Indigenous Farming Conference, Potawatomi knowledge keeper Kevin Finney taught me how to winnow corn. The conference takes place on White Earth reservation in late winter, when the snow is easily hip-high. Nobody else wanted to go outside in the snow, so Kevin and I went out alone to winnow the corn.

I wasn’t very good at first. I spilled a lot of corn.

I knew Kevin grew a rare variety of corn, and I knew that he had worked hard to grow it. I felt bad about all the corn I had clumsily scattered in the snow, so I apologized to him.

But Kevin told me that was actually supposed to be part of the process.

These kernels we leave behind are offerings — offerings of gratitude to the ancestors and spirits, and offerings to the hungry birds who are trying to get through the cold, long winter.

So I have incorporated this teaching into my own winnowing practice. While I’m not careless when I winnow, I do make sure that at least some of the seeds wind up on the ground. When I spill corn kernels or beans, I don’t pick them up — no matter how few I have, or how rare the seeds are. I leave them behind as offerings.

Napé Oílekiyapi Wíkȟaŋ — Dogbane Cordage

This is another one in my waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ (winter projects) series: making cordage out of dogbane harvested on the prairie outside of Fort Yates. This thin piece was the first one I ever made, a few years ago. Despite being kind of lumpy and uneven, it was surprisingly strong, and was the perfect thickness for a necklace.

This cordage is made out of Dogbane — napé oílekiyapi in Lakȟól’iyapi, and Apocynum cannabinum in Latin. Both names have stories behind them, but I’ll be able to tell the story of the Lakota name better once I get a good picture of the plant in late summer.

There are several great fiber-producing plants in the Dakotas. The ones I have personal experience with are Dogbane, Milkweed, and Nettles. Thick ropes made from the fibrous stems of these plants can be quite strong. They have many traditional uses across North America — just about anything you might need string or rope for.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Dogbane patch in the Santa Rosa area of California, which is traditional Pomo territory. Pomo people, such as Edward Redbird Willie, care for this patch today, and harvest from it for traditional fishing nets and other things. (There is a great episode of the Native Seed Pod podcast about Willie and the dogbane patch.) While the dogbane they have out there is technically the same species, the plants are slightly different. One thing I noticed is that the fiber had a reddish, coppery tinge to it. The Dogbane in the Dakotas is more of a brown color.

Depending on what kind of final product you are hoping for with your cordage, you might make different decisions about which stalks of dogbane to harvest. I’ll make a follow-up post with some harvest pics. But for now, I’ll say that if you want a sturdier, but rougher cord/string, you’ll pick the newer stalks — and if you want a softer, more wearable, but less sturdy string, you’ll go for the stalks that died at least a year ago, and spent a winter exposed to the elements. The cord in the picture above was made from the stalk of a plant that had sat out in the prairie for at least 1 winter.

My Observations: Supporting COVID-19 Patients Herbally

I wanted to share some of my observations from supporting COVID-19 patients, and researching this disease and its effects. I will write a longer, more detailed post on this soon. In the meantime, here is what I have learned so far.

The key phrase here is “so far” — not only is our understanding of the virus still developing, but this virus itself is evolving quickly. It’s only been around for a little more than a year. It is possible that scientists will look back at what we think we know about the virus a few months or years down the road, and realize that we had some important things wrong. Therefore, I am certain that my understanding of this virus will grow over time. So, what I believe to be the best recommendations for treating it may also change. If it does, I will update this post, or write a new post.

(Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor, and nothing I am writing here is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

This post was originally a text message that I sent to a colleague who asked for help supporting a relative who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. I have subsequently copied and pasted it so many times for other people who asked me the same question, that I decided to make it into a post. There is a lot more to say about this, and hopefully I’ll have time soon; for now, this is an overview.

In my understanding, the best ways to support someone with COVID-19 herbally are:

1. Antiviral herbs the whole time, but especially in the first few days. (If you need suggestions, see the list of antiviral herbs that I wrote.)

Caregivers, and anyone else who is in contact with someone who may have this virus, can also benefit from taking antiviral herbs regularly.

2. Many sources I have studied advise against taking fever reducers (herbal or otherwise) in the first days of a COVID-19 infection. They say that in the early days, if you can stand it, don’t take medicine/herbs to reduce your fever.

Why: the fever is the body’s response to the virus is replicating the body. Lowering the fever allows the virus to replicate more. 

According to an early COVID-19 study by a doctor in China, they have found that people who take fever-reducing drugs in the early stages of the virus take 36-48h longer to recover from the virus, compared to those who don’t. (Link to a great source here.)

3. Anti-inflammatories: inflammation is how the virus really does the worst harm to the body. Steady, strong doses of anti-inflammatory herbs from the beginning can help to keep things from building up too much.

4. Lung support herbs: both for teas, and steaming pots of water + herbs to diffuse throughout the home.

(This point needs expansion in a later post. If you aren’t experienced in working with lung support herbs, please be careful. COVID-19 patients need moistening lung support herbs, not drying lung support herbs. Using the wrong ones could potentially harm someone, so it’s important to know the difference.)

Wínawizi Čík’ala / Wild Licorice (Glycrrhyza lepidota), a great lung support herb.

The things to avoid for people with COVID-19:

1. Elderberry, especially if the patient is immunocompromised.

Taking elderberry can help with preventing illness, but once someone has become infected with COVID-19, I would not recommend taking elderberry.

(I know that some people will disagree with me on this. I need to write a longer post on this at some point. For now, I will say that I have researched the pro- and anti-elderberry arguments extensively, and in my opinion, it’s not a good idea to give it to COVID-19 patients unless you have a good understanding of the individual’s immune system. I want to avoid recommending anything that could possibly do harm.)

2. Any other herb that can boost the immune system (such as echinacea). 

Many people do not understand how the immune system works. We have been taught that boosting the immune system is always a good thing, so we immediately reach for immune-boosting herbs when someone is sick. In reality, if your immune system is too high, that can be just as dangerous as it is when your immune system is too low.

So if you don’t know someone’s baseline, immune-boosting herbs can be dangerous here — especially for people with autoimmune conditions. 

This disease tends to boost people’s immune systems to out-of-control levels, resulting in serious and sometimes life-threatening inflammatory conditions, such as cytokine storms. 

Good medicines to give someone throughout their illness:

1. Fermented foods: A lot of people have put out great tutorials on making kimchi, kraut, and other fermented foods. This is also a great recommendation for people who are trying to avoid getting sick.

2. Nervines & adaptogens: This virus takes a toll on the nervous system. Nervines are herbs that calm the nerves, and adaptogens help us respond to stress and keep our systems in balance. 

Passionflower (Passiflora species), one of my favorite nervine and sleep aid plants.

3. Herbal sleep aids: The virus tends to disturb sleep. There are lots of excellent herbs out there that can help people to sleep better. 

4. Bitter herbs: This can include antivirals and other classes of herbs. I will explain more about this one in a later post.

Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana), an indigenous California bitter herb.

I realize that these 3 points may not be very useful without naming any specific herbs. I will try to write follow-up posts with some herb suggestions later.

The symptoms of COVID-19 infections seem to range widely, from toe pain to meningitis in adults, and from skin rashes to painful systemic inflammation in children. Individual cases should be treated with medicines that are appropriate to an individual’s specific conditions, age, overall health, and immune system.

This is just general information, based on the commonalities we are seeing across many COVID-19 cases. As many people have observed, mild cases can often be treated at home, and herbal support can sometimes help make someone’s symptoms less severe.

However, none of this is a substitute for seeing a doctor. This virus has killed many of my loved ones, and I take it very seriously — in fact, I just heard about yet another death as I was drafting this post. If you are experiencing serious symptoms, please seek medical treatment ASAP.

Anti-viral Herb List

Reishi/Ling Zhi and Olive Leaf: ingredients for an antiviral tea.
Reishi & Olive Leaf tea

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about antiviral herbs for COVID-19 prevention & support lately. This is a list of antiviral herbs that I have personally worked with, and feel comfortable suggesting to people. This is not an exhaustive list; there may be other great herbs available in your local area.

Note: while it’s not botanically correct, I am including mushrooms when I use the word “herb” in this post.

How to use this list:

1. Pick one or a few herb(s) that are locally available.

2. Tip: If you’re making tea, pick herbs whose flavors blend together well (for example: reishi, star anise, ginger, and cinnamon would make a great tea).

3. Do not buy everything on this list! I don’t recommend mixing everything listed here all together. You do not need a huge number of herbs for your antiviral medicine to be effective. (Plenty of other people have already written about pandemic hoarding; please don’t do it.)

Indigenous North American Herbs:

Disclaimer: Please take only what you need. If you are not familiar with your local protocols for harvesting ethically, sustainably, and with consent, please do not wild-harvest these herbs.

Cedar
Lakota name: Ȟaŋté
Scientific name: Thuja plicata, Thuja occidentalis
Part used: Leaves
How to use: Infusion (Tea — pour hot water over leaves in cup/jar); Boil on stove & breathe in the steam

Boneset
Scientific name: Eupatorium perfoliatum
Part used: leaves, flowers, stems
How to use: Infusion (Tea — pour hot water over leaves in cup/jar). Stronger infusions (more plant material) are more effective, but it is quite bitter.
Note: Boneset was a commonly used plant medicine during the Spanish Flu Pandemic. It is also available commercially.

Wild Licorice
Scientific name: Glycyrrhiza lepidota
Lakota name: Wínawizi Čík’ala
Part used: Root
How to use: Decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 min) 

Herbs you can find in a grocery store:

Star Anise
Scientific name: Illicium verum
Part used: Star-shaped seeds
How to use: Decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 min)

Cinnamon
Scientific name: Various species; Cinnamomum cassia, C. loureirii, & C. verum are most common
Part used: Bark (either powdered or in curled cinnamon sticks)
How to use: Drink in a cold infusion (soak in cold water for 6-12 hours), or or drink in a decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 minutes)

Garlic
Scientific name: Allium sativum
Part used: Bulb
How to use: Eat cooked or raw, ferment, juice, or drink in an infusion or decoction

Ginger
Scientific name: Zingiber officinale
Part used: Root
How to use: Eat cooked or raw, ferment, juice, or drink in a decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 min) 

Rosemary
Scientific name: Salvia rosmarinus
Part used: Leaves
How to use:  Infusion (Tea — pour hot water over leaves in cup/jar)
Note: Easy to grow in a home garden.

Oregano
Scientific name: Origanum vulgare
Part used: Leaves
How to use: Infusion (Tea — pour hot water over leaves in cup/jar)
Note: Easy to grow in a home garden.

Herbs you can find in a specialty/herb store or order online:

Asian Licorice
Scientific name: Glycyrrhiza glabra
Part used: Root
How to use: Decoction (Tea — boil for 15 min)

Olive tree
Scientific name: Olea europea
Part used: Leaves
How to use: Decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 min) 
Note: Popular street tree in some parts of the US.

Lemon Balm
Scientific name: Melissa officinalis
Part used: Leaves
How to use: Infusion (Tea — pour hot water over leaves in cup/jar), tincture
Note: Easy to grow in a home garden.

Reishi / Ling Zhi
Scientific name: Ganoderma lucidum
Part used: Fruiting body (mushroom)
How to use: Decoction (Tea — boil for at least 4 hours) 
Note: Found in some forests in North America — but DO NOT wild-harvest mushrooms unless you are 100% sure you have identified it correctly!

Turkeytail mushroom
Scientific name: Trametes versicolor
Part used: Fruiting body (mushroom)
How to use: Decoction (Tea — boil for at least 4 hours) 
Note: Found in some forests in North America — but DO NOT wild-harvest mushrooms unless you are 100% sure you have identified it correctly!

Shiitake mushroom
Scientific name: Lentinula edodes
Part used: Fruiting body (mushroom)
How to use: Eat cooked or in soup, or drink in a decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 minutes)
Note: May be available at some grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

Maitake (Hen-of-the Woods) mushroom
Scientific name: Grifola frondosa
Part used: Fruiting body (mushroom)
How to use: Eat cooked or in soup, or drink in a decoction (Tea — boil for at least 15 minutes)
Note: Found in some forests in North America — but DO NOT wild-harvest mushrooms unless you are 100% sure you have identified it correctly!

If you have any questions about any of these herbs or mushrooms, please feel free to ask me. I could go into a lot of detail about each of them, because there is a lot to be said — but I wanted this to be a brief, accessible overview.

If you see any errors in this document, please let me know ASAP — I usually take a lot of time with my posts, but given how many people are getting sick right now, people have asked me to put this one up more quickly than I normally would. As always, any errors here are my own.

Zaníya úŋ wo! Stay healthy!

Legal Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. Any advice given on this blog is not intended to prevent, treat, or cure any disease.

Psíŋ / Wild Rice

I grew up eating wild rice (Zizania palustris), and I have always loved the nutty, smoky flavor of fire-parched wild rice. (Personally, I believe that the rice from the area around White Earth in Minnesota tastes the best, but everybody has their preferences.)


Psíŋ (Dakota word for “wild rice”) or (Manoomin, “the good berry” in Anishinaabemowin) is the seed of an aquatic grass that grows in lakes and rivers in the heart of Turtle Island. Today, many people associate wild rice with Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe) people. But Dakota and Lakota people, as well as many other Native Nations, have a long history with it.

Wild rice, which people have hand-harvest by canoe for millennia, is an important traditional food for many indigenous peoples. It is an excellent source of protein and minerals, and has many health benefits

Here is a basic guide for cooking wild rice. Here are some of my favorite ways to eat it, as well as some serving suggestions from friends who are Native cooks:

Breakfast:
-Wild rice porridge
-Wild rice pancakes
-Wild rice muffins

Snack/Dessert:
-Puffed wild rice
-Wild rice flour cookies
-Eat with berry pudding (wóžapi)

Lunch/Dinner:
-Delicious by itself
-Add to soups & stews
-Wild rice casserole
-Put cooked meat/fish/veggies on top
-Cook with mushrooms, dried fruit, nuts, & other local foods!

Wild Rice is one of the few Indigenous North American traditional foods that I consume regularly but have never harvested myself, or (knowingly) seen in the wild. I was planning to go to Minnesota last summer to help a friend with the harvest, but the pandemic made that impossible. Fortunately, she shared pictures of her process, so I am grateful to be able to share her photographs with you. Hopefully I will be able to visit in person next year.

The photographs and slides I share here are part of a presentation I am doing on Monday, 2/15/21 as a fundraiser class for Ancestral Apothecary’s Student of Color Scholarship Fund.

One thing I found interesting in her pictures was noticing that the raw rice, at the time of harvest, was not a uniform color. Some of the grains were actually bright pink! This color fades when the rice is parched (more about that later) but I found the variety of colors quite fascinating, and beautiful. These pictures, and almost all other rice pictures on this post, are from Star Lake in Minnesota. (The rice from different lakes can have slightly different qualities.)

I want to share some of the things my friend shared with me of her wild rice harvesting experience this past year. First of all, here are some pictures she took was she was waiting for the rice to ripen:

As you can imagine, when the rice is ready to harvest, it doesn’t take a lot of force to knock it off of the seedhead, and into your canoe. One poorly-timed summer storm can seriously compromise a year’s rice harvest. (Not all the grains are ripe at the same time, but a storm can still do significant damage.)

Some people go out to harvest rice in pairs. This has the advantage of making the work go faster. But it’s still possible for someone to efficiently harvest rice alone. Here is my friend’s setup:

The traditional method of harvesting rice involves bending seedheads over the canoe, knocking the seedheads with a set of two “knockers” (short poles), and letting some of the grain fly into the canoe. Some of the grains will fall back into the water. I’ve heard stories of salespeople, inventors, and university scientists trying to convince Indians to pursue more “efficient” harvesting methods. One of their big arguments seems to be that it’s a waste to let so many grains fall back into the water. But people who propose these new methods (or those who use them) are making a big mistake: if you don’t let some of the seeds go back into the water, there won’t be any new plants taking root to provide us with rice in the coming years.

Another thing that I learned about the canoe-harvesting wild rice from my friend: it is extremely hard work. Not only do you need a lot of strength to propel your canoe through the rice beds with a long pole, but your hands can blister up from the pole and the knockers. It’s hot and humid, but you have to wear long sleeves and multiple layers: you surrounded by mosquitoes, and there are also worms in the rice beds, who bite — hard. Then, at the end of the day, you have to haul your canoe out of the water, pour out and pack up the rice you harvested, and (assuming you’re not fortunate enough to live right on the shores of a rice lake, which most people aren’t), lift your canoe, tie it to the top of your vehicle, and go home. When I consider everything that goes into the process of harvesting wild rice, I now believe that paying (what seemed to me like) a “high” price of $15-20 per pound is actually a bargain!

Once you’ve harvested the rice, the next step is to dry it. Here, my friend laid it out on her deck to dry in the sun. In the middle picture, you can see the long hulls still attached to each seed. The purpose of drying it is to lose water weight, which will make the parching process go more easily.

The next step is parching the rice. There are different methods for doing this.

When I was 18, living away from my mom, and buying wild rice on my own for the first time, I was surprised to see that some of it was a shiny, dark, reddish-black color, instead of the tan color of the rice I’d grown up with. I thought this difference must just be due to the fact that it was from somewhere different. But I was wrong — my rice-harvesting friend explained to me that the final color is determined by the parching method.

Parching, if you’re unfamiliar with it, means drying the wild rice. The main reason for doing it is to dry out the rice enough to separate the hull from the grain. Traditionally, people parch rice over a wood fire. This explains the slightly smoky, toasty flavor of the rice I grew up with. But these days, some people opt to parch their rice over a gas flame. This, my friend explained to me, causes the rice to turn reddish-black. In my opinion, it also imparts a different (and not as good) flavor to the final product.

The next step is winnowing the rice, to separate the hulls from the edible seeds. This is traditionally done in a big, sturdy, birch bark basket. I don’t have any pictures, but the process is similar to what I have previously blogged about with corn and beans.

Once your rice is parched winnowed, it’s ready to be put away for storage. I’m not sure how long wild rice is supposed to last, but I’ve eaten some that I’d stored in a sealed jar for 6 years, and it was still perfectly good and fresh.

California Colonizers and GMO Rice

When I started talking to non-Native friends about wild rice, I realized that many of them had purchased a product from the supermarket that was labeled “wild rice” — but the price was way too cheap. And I also started seeing “wild rice” that was grown in California, a place where there is no indigenous wild rice. Something seemed off, so I decided to look into it.

In short, what I found was that the University of Minnesota and Norcal Wild Rice Company worked together to genetically engineer Zizania palustris, the wild rice plant. They developed varieties that could be grown in paddies. They got a patent for this new variety — and, for reasons I do not understand, they are still allowed to call it “wild” rice. This innovation allowed them to drive down production costs, resulting in more profit for them, as well as a cheaper product. Today, according to several sources I examined, the vast majority of wild rice that we eat is grown in paddies. However, they often disguise this fact, and use images of Indians in a birch-bark canoe to market their products. Also disturbing: my sources indicated that more wild rice is grown today in California than Minnesota.

(Side note: Lundberg, the main manufacturer of California-grown “wild rice,” has marketing materials filled with wholesome-looking, feel-good images and slogans. Their website proclaims that their product is organically grown, sustainable, a family business, and “Goodness.” Sounds great, right? But if you look beyond the greenwashing and marketing hype, you see a definite colonial bent to their messaging. They use language like “pioneers” and talk about “founding fore-farmers” with no acknowledgement of whose land they’re on. They do not mention from whom, or from where, the “wild” rice they grow originates. And I also have serious questions about the sustainability of growing a thirsty crop like wild rice in a water-deprived place like the region of California where they farm — a place that was devastated by recent wildfires and droughts.)

But this is about more than corporate theft, identity politics, or a battle between old and new ways of doing things. The genetically modified “wild rice” poses serious threats to the real wild rice population. This is because of the possibility of gene drift. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, there’s a really good, easy-to-understand article on gene drift by Heather Landry of Harvard that I recommend.)

Gene drift is an especially big concern with wild rice because of a particular quality that has been bred into the GMO rice. Namely, Norcal Wild Rice Co. patented GMO wild rice with “cytoplasmic genetic male sterility” (a male terminator gene). In other words, the male plants are sterile, and can’t reproduce — meaning, they can’t produce a next generation of plants. If this escapes into the wild, it could kill off the wild populations of rice.

According to an article I read by Winona LaDuke (I can’t find it at the moment, but I’m still looking for the original source), the field tests they did on this rice were just on the distance that the wind could carry the pollen. They determined that the wind wouldn’t carry the pollen far enough to drift from GMO rice paddies to rice lakes and rivers. Therefore, they concluded that it would not harm nearby wild rice populations.

But in their studies, they left out the key piece of the process of how rice gets transferred from one body of water to another: the ducks. According to LaDuke, in the Anishinaabe stories of how rice came to the people, the Duck was the one who distributed rice throughout the northern waters. Ducks play an important role in how wild rice seeds move around today — and ducks do not distinguish between a wild rice lake/river, and a paddy of GMO rice. (I found at least one seller of GMO rice that included images of ducks on their packages.)

But in my research, I also realized some ways that you can help, if you want to support psíŋ/wild rice.

1. Boycott paddy-cultivated “wild” rice. Make sure that the rice you are buying does not say “paddy grown.” Also beware of the word “cultivated,” another common word used to describe paddy rice. Become an informed consumer, and pay attention to make sure you are getting the real thing: wild-harvested wild rice.

2. Support Native harvesters instead of big corporations. While a lot of us buy rice from our friends, you don’t have to know someone to get good rice. Several tribes sell rice to the public, and are willing to ship. I will put a list of sources I know for rice at the end.

3. Be willing to pay a fair price. This is a big one. I mentioned earlier how much hard work it is to harvest rice. Personally, I believe in paying people what their time and labor is worth. The going price for wild rice these days is $15-20 per pound. That’s a lot, but I believe it’s well worth it — and you can get more meals out of a pound of dry rice than you might think.

Is it possible that you can find someone selling wild-harvested rice for $10 or $12 per pound? Maybe, depending on where you live and who you know.

But is that person getting a fair price for their rice and their labor? Probably not.

And is buying rice too cheaply driving down the cost that other Native harvesters are able to get for their rice (which, for people who live close to the land, can be a major part of their yearly livelihood)? Yes.

So, out of respect for Native harvesters and the rice plant itself, I am not going to seek out bargain rice any longer.

Here are a list of wild rice producers/resellers that I personally know of:

Nett Lake Wild Rice: According to my ricer friend, Nett Lake rice is known to be particularly good for popping. It is isolated from major pollution sources, and protected by the tribe from fertilizer runoff, outboard motors, etc. In the pictures, you can see some beautiful traditional winnowing baskets.

White Earth Wild Rice: This is the stuff I grew up with. This is a White Earth Nation tribal enterprise, selling canoe-harvested, wood-parched wild rice and several other local traditional food products.

Native Harvest: Another source for White Earth wild rice. This is a division of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. They sell other local products, too.

My friend Dana’s Etsy shop: A one-woman operation, with canoe-harvested, wood-parched wild rice from Star Lake, MN. The photos I showed here are hers — please support her business if you can! She also makes wonderful local fruit vinegars and other wild foods, as well as stunning quillwork on birch bark.

Spirit Lake Wild Rice: This is another Minnesota source. They are currently sold out, but they have a few other things for sale now. For rice, I’d check back next fall.

All the other sources I found, I decided not to include, because one or more of the following was true:
-They sold both true wild rice and cultivated paddy rice. Because of how I feel about paddy rice, I didn’t want to promote businesses that sell it.
-They were a non-Native reseller, who bought rice from Native harvesters (rather than a Native reseller or Native harvester).
-I didn’t find enough information to verify that they were legit.
If you have any suggestions for businesses to include that sell true wild rice and support Native harvesters, please feel free to comment or message me so I can update this list.