STIRRING THE CAULDRON: THE WORT MOON
We have just finished lunar cycle known as the Wort Moon in
16th Century England. "Wort" is one of those wonderfully
old-fashioned Old English words that has fallen into disuse,
one that the dictionary will call 'archaic.' It is one of
those words that beckons me from history; a word that wants
to be remembered.
The first definition for wort in the Oxford
English Dictionary is "a plant, herb, or vegetable used
for food or medicine; often = a pot-herb." As early as
1605 the word wort was being replaced by the word herb, as
is shown in this quote from that year: "Woortes, for
which wee now vse the French name of herbes..." The word
was still understood and used occasionally throughout the
next centuries: in 1653: "It is an excellent pleasure
to be able to take pleasure in worts and water, in bread and
onions." In 1864: "We find the healing power of
worts spoken of as a thing of course." In 1888: "And
worts and pansies there which grew/Have secrets others wish
they knew" (a delectable tidbit that comes from a love
original meaning of wort survives to this day in the names
of many of our medicinal herbs, with perhaps the most commonly
known being Saint John's Wort [see photo to left, hypericum
perforatum flowers]-- an herb that bloomed and was harvested
on St. John's Day, around the summer solstice. But if you
begin to learn about medicinal herbs, you will find the word
wort in the common names of many others, including: lungwort,
mugwort, motherwort, gipsywort, soapwort, masterwort, Indian
birthwort, figwort, rupturewort, bairnwort, banewort, bloodwort,
bridewort, cankerwort, clown's woundwort, coughwort, feverwort,
fleawort, glasswort, and dozens of others. In some cases,
the name gives you a clue to how the herb was used: lungwort
is used to make a mucilaginous tea that soothes coughs; soapwort
root is loaded with saponins, and is used in treating skin
problems. But in others it can be misleading: fleawort is
so named not because it wards off fleas or cures fleabites,
but because the seeds look like fleas!
I find so much poetry and beauty in the names
of herbs. I also hear in their names a kind of ancient memory,
an ancient wisdom and knowledge that wants to be remembered.
I feel that the plants call to us through their names. They
remind us that once upon a time they were greatly honored
and valued -- they were the primary source of healing. The
herbs themselves and the gardens they grew in were our medicine
chests, instead of today's plastic bottles with brand names
filled with pharmaceuticals. They were a part of daily life
-- a familiar, everyday, working knowledge -- just as aspirin
and vitamin C are to us today.
I must admit that I have had my skeptical moments
about the real healing power of herbs. It has been difficult
for me to believe that the leaves of a certain plant could
really cure a cough, or that the flowers of another could
cure depression, or that the root of another could clear up
the skin. Plants seem like such mild, simple, common things
to have such powers. But anyone who has ever smoked marijuana
knows that a plant can have a very powerful effect. So does
anyone who's ever gotten poison oak or poison ivy. And of
course we all know that there are plants that can kill you
if you eat them. So whenever I find myself doubting the power
of plants I remember that if plants can make us high, or make
us itch like hell, or kill us, it is certainly within the
realm of possibility that they have properties that can help
I once experienced first-hand the amazing healing
powers of Chinese herbs. Many years ago I had a terrible case
of eczema -- an itchy, ugly rash that had spread, literally,
all over my body. Desperate, I went to see an acupuncturist
for the first time in my life. She treated me with needles,
and over the needles she burned a kind of smokey incense called
moxibution that was made, I found out later, from mugwort.
She then gave me bags of barks and seeds and pods and dried
roots and a small clay pot to boil them in. At home, I simmered
my clay cauldron filled with water and mysterious plants,
and then drank the vile liquid. I made and drank that nasty
medicine day after day for many months, filling my apartment
with the smell of distant forests, of unimagined places. And
it made me well.
Over the 12 years since then, I have seen half
a dozen different acupunturists. Chinese medicine has become
the medicine I rely upon whenever I have a health problem.
While in college, I had taken many courses of antibiotics
for chronic infections; I had taken pharmaceuticals for skin
problems, and pharmaceutical hormones for birth control. In
too many cases, these drugs caused more problems than they
solved. So since that first experience with the healing cauldron,
I have avoided the pharmaceutical medicine chest whenever
I could and stuck with traditional Chinese medicine.
I heard once that in the traditional Chinese
system, the doctor (acupuncturist) was responsible for keeping
you well, and so you paid him or her to keep you well. If
you got sick, your treatment was free. I have not tried to
confirm this story, but I carry it around with me as a reminder
of what a truly holistic, preventative system might look like.
Our bodies are always changing, and our well-being depends
on a balance of dynamic energies. Herbs and healing foods,
rest and acupuncture, exercise and moxibution all help to
keep the energies moving towards wellness. I love the idea
of a system that helps our bodies to weather all the changing
seasons, stages, and stressors of life, and that helps each
one of us to work with our individual excesses, weaknesses,
and constitutional quirks.
As grateful as I am to the Chinese system, I
have often wished that my herbal medicine chest could be made
up of the herbs of my own ancestors, the herbs of continental
Europe, the British Isles, and Colonial America. These are
the herbs whose names call to me. But while the Chinese materia
medica was being developed, researched, written down, and
made increasingly precise and effective over thousands of
years of widespread Chinese practice, practitioners of the
European materia medica were being burned as witches and their
decoctions and potions were put aside in favor of such enlightened
medical practices as bloodletting and leaches. Of course later
the Western medical establishment became increasingly powerful,
and pharmaceutical, chemical, and surgical approaches have
become the norm of healthcare worldwide. I definitely believe
that there is
a time and place for all these approaches to healthcare, and
I use them all, but I am glad that there is a resurgence of
interest in and use of the wise worts of yesteryear.
It seems that now my wish to experience the
healing power of the herbs of my ancestors is finally coming
true. The acupuncturist I went to see most recently has her
office across the hall from where I work. She is an older
Chinese woman trained in Beijing, and these are the credentials
I seek in an acupuncturist. But during our first appointment
she explained to me that instead of using the usual dried,
imported Chinese herbs in her practice, she worked together
with an herbalist in Marin who makes tinctures of fresh organic
and wild-crafted herbs grown locally, most of which are from
the European tradition. I was both surprised and excited.
A couple of days after my needle treatment,
I went back to her office to pick up my bottle of tincture,
and was even more excited when I began to read the label.
The names of the ingredients were in Latin, but I have been
studying and growing medicinal herbs for a number of years,
and on first glance I recognized at least half the names as
plants I already knew well: Achillea is Yarrow [in
photo above right]; Alchemilla is Lady's Mantle;
Artemisia is Mugwort; Capsella is Shepherd's
Purse; Urtica is Nettle; Rubus fol is Blackberry
Leaf; Vitex is Chasteberry; Zinziberis is
I knew these herbs because they were all ones
that I had identified as being appropriate medicines for my
constitution, and most of them I had tried to grow in my garden
at one time or another. It has always been a dream of mine
to grow the plants that are medicinal for me, and to know
how and when to harvest them and tincture them, and to be
able to keep myself well. A few years back I had taken a course
at the California School of Herbal Studies that was an intensive
introduction to herbs. Since then I have experimented with
growing herbs, making herbal teas, drying herbs, and with
making herbal tinctures and herbal salves and herbal capsules.
But I am only now beginning to feel that my hobby-like interest
in the herbs of the Western pharmacopeia is coming together
with my experience of true medical healing based on herbal
knowledge. From the long list of herbs in my latest prescription,
I already have planted Yarrow and Lady's Mantle, and Blackberry
Leaves are such a rampant weed that I'll never want for them.
Soon I'll plant Mugwort and Shepherd's Purse and Chasteberry.
Nettles are plentiful at the farmers market and I get organic
ginger at my neighborhood grocery.
The course I took on herbs was called "The
Technology of Independence" -- a name I always thought
a bit odd. But I do feel that I am evolving towards a kind
of medical independence, an ability to treat myself with the
worts of my people. There is an old English phrase for the
knowledge of herbs and how to use them: "wort-cunning."
And there is an old English term for an herb garden: "wort-yard."
I have begun my wortyard and am developing a bit of wortcunning,
and by the time I am old I hope to be familiar with the plants
and a bit wiser in their use. I don't expect that I'll ever
be an herbalist or a healer, but if I am able to help keep
myself healthy with the plants that surround the place I live,
I will be carrying on a tradition not only of my foremothers
and forefathers, but of wise cultures around the world who
looked to plants for medicine and healing, and became intimate
with their roots and seeds and bark and leaves, and called
them by name.
Blessings to you all,
THE CAULDRON: New Moon newsletters by Jessica Prentice ...dedicated
to keeping culinary traditions alive; promoting a local, seasonal
food-system; supporting small farms and sustainable agriculture;
celebrating the radical act of cooking at home; savoring life;
being human; keeping a fire in the hearth. www.wisefoodways
Jessica Prentice is a professional chef, a
passionate home cook, and an educator in the field of sustainable
agriculture. In her cooking and writing, Jessica brings together
creativity and imagination with a deep respect for traditional
cuisine and time-honored culinary practices. Through her work,
she seeks to provide a model for how communities can feed
themselves in a way that is satisfying and health-supportive
on all levels: delicious, environmentally responsible, and
grounded in the wise nourishing traditions of our forebears.
The Summer is ending and
our harvest baskets are getting full.
Here is a recipe to cook so to share your bounty.
Calabacitas with Herbed
by Jessica Prentice
2 tablespoons olive oil, butter or other fat
2 large leek or onion, diced
5 medium summer squash such as crookneck, yellow zucchini
or zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and sliced on the diagonal
3 ears of corn, kernels cut off of the cob
the leaves from 1 sprig fresh marjoram or oregano, minced;
or 2 sage leaves, minced
a cup hot water (or mild broth such as chicken); more as needed
2 medium heirloom tomatoes (or 1 large, or a few small), diced
into small cubes
generous pinches of salt and pepper, to taste
3 scallions, a small bunch of chives, or the tender inner
greens of leeks
a bunch cilantro
a cup crème fraiche, sour cream, or Mexican crema
1. Heat olive oil (or other fat) in a heavy bottomed shallow
pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add leek or onion and
sauté until translucent but not brown.
2. Add squash and sauté until it just begins to brown.
3. Add minced marjoram, oregano or sage to pan, then immediately
add corn kernels. Stir for a minute.
4. Add water (or broth) and a generous pinch each of salt
and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Add more liquid if it gets
5. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, then add tomatoes. Heat tomatoes
through, then taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
1. Slice scallions, chives, or leek greens into small rounds.
2. Cut the leaves off the cilantro.
3. Mince the scallions (or chives or leek greens) and cilantro
together on a cutting board, or process in a food processor.
4. Stir the minced herbs into the crème fraiche (or
sour cream or crema)
Ladle the calabacitas into a shallow bowl, and serve with
a big dollop of herbed crema.
Eat with tortillas or quesadillas, if desired.
click here to learn more about nourishing yourself
in Wise Woman Ways
We have just begun the lunar cycle known as the Fruit Moon.
Go to www.wisefoodways
to read Jessica's piece about the Fruit Moon, find a recipe
for a dreamy peaches-and-cream
(in case you were wondering what to have for dessert)
and check out Jessica's website...