summer 4

On the care and upkeep of ferns in the desert, part one. 

(herbs for hot days)

summer3Dried out grass, leaves and acorn shells crunch under my feet as I head off the trail up a hill to what, in previous years, has been one of my best wildcrafting spots. The changes, from last year to this are staggering: what was a carpet of chickweed and cleavers is still hard and dry; what was a canopy of bay and oak is patchy and stressed. 

Dried seed pods crack and splutter their contents onto parched ground, to lie dormant in wait for water or fire, or both. Heat radiates up from the ground in a constant stream. The air is hot, the sun is hot, the wind is hot, the ground is hot under your feet and through the soles of your shoes. It is relentless, pervasive, never-ending. Out here there is no water, only rock and sun, that relentless sun. It is the rhythm of death looming on the horizon— an element taken to its extreme, deprived completely of another. And it makes me think of how much, even taking into account different constitutions, balance is so necessary for our survival. 

I think about stress, and those little ranges of pressures we all have. And how unconsciously, when the world around us is more stressed than usual it will reflect on us, we’ll pick up on it. The dryness in the landscape is reflected in the dryness overall (I’m seeing SO many clients who need moisture right now) and this relentless heat, this dryness, this hot wind, and the lack of end in sight has been causing a low-level tension, a borderline panic in me.

A panic that is instantly relieved by moisture. 

This, to me, brings to mind the importance of herbal energetics: to look up a list of ‘herbs for anxiety’ you’d probably see things like kava kava, valerian, pulsatilla, possibly rose. Maybe some GABA (SO not a herb), definitely to lay off the caffeine. But what if the anxiety is caused by irritation and dryness? A vat of kava kava wouldn’t address the underlying cause in that case. Which brings me to summer, and heat, and dryness and the misery that arises from all of them. I’ve found coping with summer heat to be infinitely more manageable if I address some of the imbalances directly— moistening the heat, tightening the tissues, replenishing the lost electrolytes. Its the principle behind the Summer Heat Elixir I make (and take all summer) and also behind almost every meal I have at this time of year (watermelon? check!). Here’s some energetic things to look at for hot, dry summers:

Dryness and demulcents:
Dryness and tension go together like pirates go with rum. Because the more you dry something out the more brittle and hard it becomes. I don’t know if you see it a lot where you are, but here in Southern California, I see a lot of brittle people. People who are so wired and tense and frazzled that they look like they could snap. Its not ‘classic’ anxiety, its tension and dryness and its affecting the nervous system. The best thing to give someone like this is a cooling demulcent, because demulcents relieve inflammation and irritation by cooling, soothing and moistening.

Think about how soothing jumping into the ocean feels on a hot summer day. Think about a cracked and parched river bed in the hot summer sun, and then how relieved that river bed would feel when the deluge of a monsoon came. Think about the water filling in the cracks and seeping deep down under the surface and how that hardness and tension will slowly soften.

Demulcents are discussed a lot in terms of lung, gut and UTI treatment, in terms of softening hardness and constitutional dryness, and not very much in terms of how it can ground out a fried nervous system*, but I’ve seen it over and over again. I make up big jars of extra slimy marshmallow infusion and pass it around my classes on energetics, and the collective sigh of relief is amazing to watch, and is also a really good teaching tool.

Another nice thing about demulcents, other than the fact that they feel like absolute heaven, is that they are pretty clever and also systemic. That is, if you have dry lungs and drink a demulcent then it will affect your lungs. If your guts are dry then it’ll affect your guts. Nature abhors a vacuum but I think it also abhors being out of balance…

Try a hibiscus and mallow cold infusion. Or watermelon juice with mint. Try violet + mallow + peach leaf, or you could get fancy and try peach and hibiscus in a glass of chilled white wine. There are possibilities and they are endless.summer1

Moistening + cooling herbs and foods
cholla buds
mallow (also, hollyhock, globemallow, etc) leaves or roots
aloe (just the gooey middle bits, not the bright yellow bits around the skin unless you want to be on your toilet pooing all night)
evening primrose

Dryness and astringents:
Another action to think about at this time of year is astringency. You think astringent, and you think drying, because everyone here has sucked on a banana peel and regretted it, right? But when you think about what that astringent does: its tightening and toning the membranes that it comes into contact with, making it more efficient, more parsimonious with its expenditure of moisture, and this is actually systemically moistening** because you’re no longer losing water. This can be incredibly helpful during the summer, especially for those who sweat a lot.

There’s also the issue of swellings. You know, hands and feet that go up a size when the temperature gets up over seventy degrees. Once again, think of that leakiness, and the water leaking out of the cells. Gentle astringents, slowly nudging the body back into balance. You don’t want to over-astringe, but gentle sour things are good things. 

Try sumac lemonade, or berries for breakfast. Try a hawthorn and strawberry leaf elixir, or potentilla, rose and raspberry infused in vodka. Or try mixing some of these with some of the things from the demulcent category…summer2

[Gentle] astringent food and herbs, to moisten by holding the water inside the body:
sumac (lemonadeberry)

Dryness and electrolytes, because salts are good:
The balance of salt and water is a complicated thing. There are those of us who sweat too much and those of us who sweat very little and interestingly, we (I fall into the latter category) all seem to suffer during the summer. I’ve fainted at the gym, almost collapsed while hiking, and generally have quite a hard time of it during the hot months. One of the things that helps me the most is ingesting foods that are high in electrolytes. Sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, these minerals need to be in a certain balance in our blood and while its obvious that those who sweat a lot need to replace them, those of us who don’t sweat still need to, as ingesting them makes us feel a whole lot better.

Try adding a pinch of sea salt and half a lemon to your drinking water, or having a watermelon, mint and sea salt salad, or munching on seaweed as a snack, or this coconut cooler recipe. If you’re exercising and getting faint, up your fruit intake, or try a sports drink, or even make your own oral rehydration salts

.summer 4

Electrolyte-rich foods***:
sea salt (add a pinch to your drinking water)
make a seaweed-rich nutritive sea salt

 *unless you’re Jim McDonald in which case you will talk about this a lot because you love slime
**another Jim-ism
***also, never underestimate the efficacy of something simple like Gatorade or Pedialyte on a hot day, as disgusting and full of crap as they may be, they’re better than fainting or [hyperbole alert] dying.

  • Luciana Poulterer

    Once again your post is practical and beautiful – and THAT’s good balance. Thank you! Speaking of dry things: would you consider posting about what methods you use to dry your leaves/roots/berries? Sun? Oven? Dehydrator?

  • Olivia

    What a wonderful article! It had just what I needed to know, thankyou! I love the tips about the hydrating fruits in water, perfect!

  • Elizabeth Bee of Apex

    Hello talented herbalist: I just worked my way through all your blog posts. Learned so much about wild foods, cooking experiments, herbs, and homemade medicinals. I have a large garden in North Carolina and have become increasingly interested in moving beyond typical vegetables and basic recipes. Thanks for your generous sharing of information. — Elizabeth