Thursday, April 5, 2012

Vine Medicine: Lonicera

Some vines are particularly weedy and don't need any help spreading. Many make wonderful medicine and I'll try to highlight them in this blog as they come into season. Lonicera spp. seem to make both friends and enemies wherever they go with their fabulous scent and their weedy natures. It is hard not to be intoxicated by the sweet dripping scent of honeysuckles in bloom. At the end of this post there is a recipe for infused honey...

I first met honeysuckle in my garden as a child. You see, my mother was a friend of honeysuckle. A good friend. She was born and raised in Maryland where the Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) thrived. In her many treks across the country to California (where I was raised) she brought plants with her and established them in garden plots wherever she lived and traveled. I expect there are plants in Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, California, and at whatever rest stop she stopped at on her journeys. I know she planted honeysuckle, periwinkle, and comfrey everywhere she went. She especially loved honeysuckle. We had one well behaved plant in our garden that tried to die all the time in the dry summer heat. I had no idea honeysuckle was such a weedy plant when I was a kid. I held it up high on a pedestal, a exotic, delicate and beautiful plant that needed my help to survive. And then I moved to Maryland...

Because honeysuckles are so prolific, especially Lonicera japonica which is considered a noxious weed in some places, you can feel good about harvesting it for medicine. Japanese honeysuckle aggressively competes with native plants and often smothers anything in its path.

In many ways I think of honeysuckle as heart medicine. This is just the sense of the plant I have always gotten. When I breath in its rich perfume, my heart settles. In writing this post (it's taking me days) I keep getting drawn into the temptation to quote other people about herbal actions, history,use etc... But one of the most wonderful things about herbal medicine is firsthand experience. It's what makes the great herbal teachers great. It bucks science and study. I was just reading an old herbal (not really old, just older than me) that described Scutellaria lateriflora as utterly worthless. My experience is that it kicks a$$ at calming my stressed out, so tense with that sharp burny/numb nerve thing in my neck that I can't turn my head (which always seems to happen while driving at high speeds on the DC Beltway or 95) self. I know it helps me. So for me Japanese honeysuckle is heart medicine in the chill out and open yourself to the possibilities of the world kind of way. And Googling "honeysuckle mythology" totally backs me up on this one.

In Greek mythology Daphnis and Chloe were lovers, but they lived far apart and only could see each other while the honeysuckle bloomed (or so the synopsis says... I haven't gotten my hands on a side by side Greek/English text so I can compare, which I can totally do because I took 2 years in Ancient Greek in college). Daphnis asked the god of love if the plant could bloom longer than a season, so they could be together longer, which is why, according to legend, honeysuckle blooms continually throughout warm weather periods. In some countries, bringing the blooms of honeysuckle into the house means there is going to be a wedding within the year. In Scotland honeysuckle vines were hung on barns to prevent cattle from being bewitched.

In the language of flowers it stands for the bond of love, devoted love and fidelity as the flowers are said to look like two lovers intertwined  The fragrance is supposed to induce dreams of passion.

The fragrant flowers of Japanese honeysuckle are a cooling remedy in TCM and are used to clear heat and relieve toxicity. (I don't know what this means for lovers. It might be a good herb if there is conflict between people). It is traditionally combined with Forsythia for use in flus with fever, headache, cough, thirst, and sore throat in TCM. It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

I first learned about honeysuckle for use in colds/flu from Jim Duke over at his Green Farmacy Garden in Columbia, MD. He's an amazing man and has contributed so much to herbal medicine. Follow the blog if you aren't already!

Since learning about honeysuckle I have always wanted to try it as a flu herb... I'm still waiting to get sick a few years later. I'm not complaining, but it would be nice to try these things out sometime. Historically the native honeysuckle flowers were used for asthma and leaves to support the liver and spleen. It also helps with cramping.

Actions: clears heat, alterative, immune stimulant, expectorant, diuretic, antispasmodic, strongly antiviral and antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, uterine stimulant, relaxant nervine, astringent, lymphatic.

Gerard differs a bit from TCM. Instead of cooling he says that honeysuckle is "neither cold nor binding, but hot and attenuating or making thin." He quotes Dioscorides as saying that: "the ripe seed gathered and dried in the shadow and drunk for four days together, doth waste and consume away the hardness of the spleen and removeth wearisomeness, helpeth the shortness and difficulty of breathing, cureth the hicket (hiccough), etc. A syrup made of the flowers is good to be drunk against diseases of the lungs and spleen."

The differences here may have to do with different species used: European, Asian, American...

And now I get to the point of this whole post. Infused Honey!

In my garden the honeysuckle, sage flowers,and heirloom rose all bloom at the same time. We'll see what happens this year. I'm writing before they bloom so you all don't have to wait until next year. I fill a jar with the fresh blossoms and cover with honey. Use proportions as they call you. The sage can be strong so I recommend a bit less of that one. I have a strong affinity for heart medicines. I had a lot of heart pain as a child that could really only be described as angina, so I've always been attracted to the heart soothers.

The taste of this honey is amazing! It is sweet and full of the rich scent of honeysuckle. Rose is a classic pairing. Because of the sage flowers, which are diffusive and aromatic, the honey takes on a whole new dimension. The sage also gives it more antimicrobial throat soothing qualities. The main reason it's in this honey is taste and to include some purple with the pinks and yellows of the other flowers. The reason I added it in the first place was wholly aesthetic. I had purple flowers so I added them. It would have been violets if they were around. Have you ever smelled blooming sage? It is amazing! It's spicy, and vaguely like lavender in the way that arugula is like kale. Same family but with a tender and spicy punch. Without sage the honey might be too floral and sweet for my tastes.This honey is perfect in Nog a la McTrouble along with some black pepper, cardamon, vanilla, and juniper berries.

So.... I've rambled on here enough. I'd like to hear about your experiences with honeysuckles! To share and grow as herbalists, gardeners and friends. If you have questions please ask. My brain is wired like google. I have lots of data, and am working on the experience and wisdom part.

Peace, Blessings, and Blossoms!