Around here, black pepper is the most ubiquitous of spices, but we seldom if ever see the vine that it grows upon. In the esrly fifth century, Alaric and his Visigoths besieged rome and demanded a ransom that included, among other treasures, a large quantity of black pepper. His victory was one of the events that contributed to the decline and fall of Rome. 



Pepper was known to ancient Europeans centuries before that, and was cultivated and used medicinally in India since before people started writing things down. 




Medicinally, it promotes digestion, and promotes movement of fluids in the body. We’ve all noticed that it can make you sneeze, which is part of its decongestant and expectorant porperty. Topically, an oil made from pepper can promote healing of old sores. Internally, it can promote sweating and help to reduce fevers.




Still stalking that wild asparagus.

Wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis, et species) is the same plant as garden asparagus. It will grow where it is planted for decades if the growing conditions are good, and those little red berries contain seeds that can be distributed by birds. I have found it on Islands in the Little Missouri river, long-abandoned farmsteads in appalachia, the Badlands of the Dakotas, and many other places besides.  

I grew up gathering wild food as part of my family’s diet, and wild asparagus was a particular treat to find, a couple times a year. I had two different places that i would frequently check for it, which both cropped at the same time. I can vividly remember how proud i felt as a small child when asparagus that i had gathered was part of our family’s dinner.  


Later, the first book i ever read on wild edibles was called “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by Euell Gibbons. A good book if you haven’t read it, it helped to make wild edibles part of the ‘back to the land’ concept in the 1960’s. 


 Asparagus is good to eat before the shoot starts branching, when it is 5-10 inches tall. If it’s all tall and feathery like what’s pictured here, you can peel it with a knife (the outside is too fibrous to eat) and eat the inside part. It tastes just like asparagus from the grocery store.  


The root is the usual part to use medicinally. It is calming to the heart and soothing to the lungs, making it useful for some heart issues and also spastic, irritated, non-productive coughs. A tea made from either the root or the branches is diuretic and slightly laxative, and contains lots of antiinflammatory and chelating sulphur compounds. The entire plant contains inulin, a special starch that helps to nourish beneficial intestinal bacteria.

Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis). No relation to poison hemlock, which is not a tree and is a flowering plant instead of a conifer. 

Tsuga is something that all the older Appalachian herbalists i knew used, but it isn’t a common herb of commerce. The needles are useful as an expectorant and decongestant. The bark is a laxative. The sap can be combined with slippery elm bark to make a stong wound dressing. Tar can be made by burning the branches , and it has its own set of medicinal purposes, sort of an antiinflammatory when used topically. 

The leaves can also be burned as a smudge, to break up congestion and prevent contagion. The root inner bark can be used as a bandage, and has very good tensile strength as well as antiseptic properties. 

Sadly, the entire world population of this plant is under threat from an insect infestation, and much of it has already died. 

Lineage Lore — Dermot O’Meara

This is a poem about my family’s healing practice, written by a John Kelly in 1619, and published as a preface to a book my ancestor Diarmuid Ó Meadhra/Dermodius Meara/Dermot O’Meara wrote about hereditary diseases.
The poem is basically saying that what Galen and Hippocrates are for the classical world, and Avicenna is for the middle East, and Paracelsus for the German countries, O’Meara is for Ireland. Pretty high praise. Perhaps if i write a book i should look up John Kelly’s descendants and get them to write the preface.

Herb and Legend, pt. 1.

This is creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllium). In Irish it’s called ‘lus na mbrat’, which means the herb of the cloak.

The story is that, ages and ages ago, when the world was a different sort of place, there was a battle. And in this battle the great warrior Nuada, wielder of the sword of light, had his hand severed from him. So one of his physicians, Dian Cecht, made him a silver hand that could move and work just like his own hand. But the healer Miach, son of Dian Cecht, made a poultice for him that caused his hand to regrow.
This caused contention between the two physicians, the first claiming it was interference and the second claiming it was a better remedy. In a rage, the father murdered his son.
After he had been buried, his sister Airmid gathered 365 different herbs and laid them all on his grave. And over all of them she laid her woolen cloak. And from the grave, and from the cloak, and from the 365 different herbs, there grew this one new herb, spreading over everything in the shape of a cloak. 

In terms of pharmacology, the plant is very similar to the more common thyme, containing thymol, carvacrol, and other aromatic compounds. It’s a powerful antiseptic and decongestant.

Red cedar and passionflower

Passionflower and red cedar, frequent inhabitants of meadows and treelines here in Kentucky. 

The first belongs to the genus Passiflora, which you can find here and in many tropical areas of the world. 

The second belongs to Juniperus, and you can find its close relatives around the arctic and in mountains to an elevation of nearly 5,000 meters. 

But here in this field, by this old wooden fence, you can find both.


overview from Evidence Based Herbal Medicine

Ginkgo is used to support healthy brain function and circulation
Its primary mechanism of action appears to be vasodilation/anticoagulant properties
Ginkgo may increase bleeding, when taken with other anticoagulants
Hundreds of studies have been conducted on proprietary ginkgo extracts over the last four decades.

Lichen Medicine


Cladina lichen.

Last weekend, at Whippoorwill festival, i led a group of people into the woods to show them some medicinal lichens. Lichens are simultaneously familiar and alien to most people. They grow nearly everywhere, on rocks and trees and old fenceposts and bare ground, and yet few people have names for them or know much about them.

A lichen is a single organism, consisting of fungal tissue and algal tissue working together. Lichens contain two sets of dna from two distant branches of the family tree of living things. They contain some substances that you might find in medicinal mushrooms like Reishi or Maitake, some substances that you might find in algae like spirulina or chlorella, and some substances that are only found in lichens.

There are many, many types of lichens, some very common and some known only from a single stand in the entire world. Here are a few of the lichens we encountered on our walk in the woods.

Usnea– probably the best known medicinal lichen, one of only a couple used commercially in the western world. Usnea contains lichen acids with a broad spectrum of antiinfective properties, as well as β-glucans that nourish the immune system. It also contains oil-soluble substances that are potent, novel pain relieving substances. Usnea is a stringy, mossy lichen that grows on tree branches.

parmelia and parmotrema– these are the common papery lichens that grow on tree bark and old fenceposts. They have similar antiinfective properties to usnea, and also contain a strong, non-sedating antihistamine.

Cladina– known as deer moss or reindeer moss (two different but possibly overlapping species), cladina grows on the ground in rocky places and in areas where the ground has been exposed by erosion. It often grows under conifers. Cladina is a diuretic, and has traditionally been used to dissolve stones in the kidneys. It’s also quite nutritious (though very acidic) and forms a staple of the diet of barren ground caribou and reindeer.


Evernia (oakmoss) on a tree branch. An Spiddal, Ireland. We didn’t see this one on the walk but it does grow around here. It can be made into a liniment for fungal infections.