© Kat Morgenstern
Hello everybody, I hope you are all enjoying the spring as much as I am. Somehow this Newsletter seems to be growing on me - every issue is getting longer and bigger. Perhaps it has something to do with the time of the year and I am somehow touched by the expansive juices that are so abundantly flowing in nature all around me right now.
Join me for a little trip around the fields and yard to discover some wild edible delicacies, find out what might aid seasonal hayfever symptoms and learn about the history and uses of the Elder tree. And there is more, but I won't tell you everything in the first paragraph, so take your time and enjoy the journey.
As always, your feedback and comments are always appreciated.
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Finally! May is here and by now even the last corners of the remote sub-arctic territories are beginning to melt. If you happen to live in one of those climatatic zones that experiences short summers, the transition from a bleak frozen landscape to a lush carpet of flowers and greens seems like a miracle. As if somebody had turned on a switch, everything begins to green at once. For foragers this is a busy and blissful season of gathering, learning, exploring and experimenting. There are always new things to discover, recipes and preserving methods to try out, new plants to get to know and new ways of using old favorite herbs to explore.
May surely is the most glorious month of the year in the northern hemisphere and every field day turns into a feast day. So many spring greens to pick and flowers to smell, fields and forests to explore and opportunities to share this bliss with family and friends.
Depending on your climate zone most temperate regions tend to have the secondary growth phase well on the way by now. Some of the early flowering trees have meanwhile started to set leaves and are busy developing their fruit. It won't be long before the first cherries and strawberries will be out, the first sweet fruit delights of the summer.
But first there are still more greens and flowers to pick, though the early spring greens are getting a bit past it by now. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)leaves are turning bitter, though the flowers can still be used for wine and fritters. Here is a recipe for Dandelion Flower wine:
Pick the flowers and separate them from all the stalky bits. Place into a large bucket, cover with 1 gallon of boiling water and leave to infuse for three days, stirring occasionally. On the third day add the sugar and fill into a large pot. Bring to the boil and add the zest of the fruits only. Simmer for 1 hour. Return to the bucket and add the pulp of the lemons and orange. Allow to cool down before adding the yeast. Cover and leave for another 3 days. Strain and fill into bottles, but don't fill them all the way to the top; divide the raisins equally between the bottles. Do not cork until the bubbling stops. If made in May or June the wine will be ready for Christmas.
Variations on this theme could include a little Ginger and or Cinnamon, and perhaps a few Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra), Violets (Viola odorata) along with the Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinalis).
Adapted from Lesley Gordon's 'A Country Herbal'
Hedge Garlic-Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is just beginning to flower and thus about to get rather bitter. If you don't mind a touch of bitterness the young, small leaves are still edible so long as they don't dominate the dish. Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) has grown into full-fledged plants by now, but the younger tender leaves are still good for soups or salads. But while the best gathering season for these herbs is coming to an end, others keep coming up.
One of the most widespread and best-known wild edibles are Cattails (Typha latifolia). Cattails have been considered an essential and tasty wild food by many generations of foragers as almost any part of it is edible depending on the season.
In May/June its' offerings are the green flower spikes, which can be boiled, steamed or wrapped in aluminium foil and roasted among the embers of a bonfire. Roasting is the best method to bring out their subtle flavour. Serve with garlic butter and salt. The core is a little tough and wiry but the buds can be nibbled like corn on the cob or scraped off the core and mixed with other vegetables, like tout mange peas, corn or peppers.
As soon as the spikes break into flower they develop abundant pollen, which can be used as a delightful sweet and nutritious addition to regular flour for making muffins, pancakes and other sweet breads. However, it is a little tricky to collect as it flies off fairly easily. Best gathering conditions are on a calm, sunny day after the dew has dried. There are different methods of collecting the pollen. One fairly easy way is to bend the pollen-laden flower head into a plastic bag and shake and rub off the pollen, which collects directly in the bag. This method keeps the pollen reasonably contained and prevents it from flying off in the wind.
A note of caution: reeds, cattails included, are great environmental purifiers, in other words, they have a tendency to absorb heavy metals and environmental pollutants from agrochemicals, industrial toxins or car exhaust fumes, which are then accumulated in its various parts, especially the roots. Thus it is essential to be sure that the pond or ditch you are collecting from is as clean as clean can be, which sadly, is a rare condition to encounter in any wetland area these days.
For wild greens, Nettles (Urtica dioica) might still be good, though often they tend to get a little stringy and tough late in the season, or insects and aphids start munching on them. Usually the very tips are best and most tender. Keep an eye out for Goosefoot (Chenopodium album) and Bistort shoots (Polygonum bistorta), which both make delightful spring vegetables. In the north of England Bistort and Nettle pudding is a traditional spring dish prepared between Easter and the beginning of May. Here is a traditional recipe, which can be improvised upon according to taste.
Take 1lb of Nettle tops (Urtica dioica) and 1½ lb of Bistort leaves (Polygonum bistorta), and a few handfuls of other greens, e.g. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Ramson (Allium ursinum), Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) etc.; chop fine and mix with a cupful of Barley (washed and soaked) and half a cup of Oatmeal, season with salt and pepper. Wrap in a muslin bag and boil for 2½ hours. Tie the bag firmly as the Barley will expand while the greens will shrink. Turn the whole thing into a very hot bowl, crack an egg into it and stir with a large knob of butter. The heat will be sufficient to cook the egg. Another version recommends a slightly different procedure whereby the pudding is made in the oven. Improvisation could yield interesting results. A good measure of Ramson (Allium ursinum) leaves would certainly contribute a nice garlicky note to the dish. Ramson (Allium ursinum) is just about to flower and where it grows prolifically the woodlands exude a strong garlicky, earthy smell at this time of the year. Ramson (Allium ursinum) is delicious as a green leafy vegetable in soups or fillings, but can also be enjoyed raw on sandwiches e.g. with hard boiled eggs and butter.
Identify carefully though! Before the flowers appear, the broad, smooth Ramson leaves (Allium ursinum) can be mistaken for Lily-of-the-Valley leaves (Convallaria majalis), which are poisonous. However, Ramson (Allium ursinum) can easily be distinguished by its distinctive smell. Many people collect both leaves and roots. However, as the leaves are quite tasty and versatile by themselves it would be wiser to protect the wild stands of this beautiful plant by limiting one's collections to the aerial parts.
Other greens to look out for at this time of the year are young, tender Yarrow leaves (Achillea millefolium) and Ground Ivy leaves (Glechoma hederacea), both of which are highly aromatic and add an interesting flavour to any soups or salads. Edible flowers such as Violets (Viola oderata), Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and Borage (Borago officinalis) are lovely to add to salads for a dash of colour, though they don't add much flavour or nutrient value.
A special plant with a huge number of uses, which is not quite in flower yet, but is about to emerge between now and summer solstice, is the Elder (Sambucus nigra). For a detailed account of this magical plant see the featured herb of the month article below.
The best way to get started is to get to know the plants that grow around you, familiarize yourself with the weeds, bushes and trees. Learn to identify them correctly and investigate their uses. It is especially important that you learn to identify the poisonous plants you are likely to encounter, so as to be sure you will avoid picking them when you gather your meal. Only pick as much as you need and never take ALL the plants of any one kind in a given patch. After harvesting an area give the plants plenty of time to recover before returning to the same patch, especially when harvesting roots. However tempting it may look, never pick in places that are subjected to pollution from roads, industry or heavy spraying of farm chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers etc.). Give thanks to the plants and to Mother Earth who has provided them.
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If you happen to be one of the many unfortunate people who suffer from hayfever, you will likely not be all pleased about the arrival of spring. Pollen laden spring air can be the source of misery and discomfort that may last for weeks or months. Violent sneezing fits, asthma attacks, sinus headaches, itchy eyes, runny noses, wheezing, and coughing are all common symptoms of this seasonal bane.
Hayfever is not a novel source of trouble, yet there is very little solid knowledge regarding its underlying causes and treatment options. The easiest explanation is of course that pollen grains are little protein packages, which can cause the human body to simply overreact when it encounters them via the respiratory system. But why this should be so nobody really knows. Fact is that autoimmune diseases like allergies and hayfever as well as food sensitivities, asthma and eczema have become far more common than they used to be. The notion that environmental factors, such as commonly used agrochemicals are to blame is a speculative theory, yet it is as plausible as any.
Whatever the causes may be, what interests most people is how they can deal with the symptoms, or better still, prevent them. Allopathic medicine recommends antihistamines, which are chemicals that block the histamine receptors in the body, thus suppressing the allergic reactions. Despite the fact that it can produce many unpleasant side-effects including drowsiness, dryness of the throat, nausea and even irregular heartbeat, it is still the fist line of defence for many people.
It is not easy to tackle hayfever preventatively. However, supporting the immune system gives the body a better chance to deal with it. Vitamin C and zinc may be helpful. A cup of Dandelion tea in the morning and Lime flower (Tilia sp.) tea with a few drops of lemon juice in the evening is an old home remedy. Reducing mucous forming foods and switching to a predominantly vegetarian diet with lots of fresh fruits and salads increases the fortifying vitamin supply and also helps to reduce the potential catarrhal congestion. Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) extract, tea or tincture is also said to be helpful. For the best results it is recommended to start taking a regular dose about a month before symptoms are expected to set in.
Once the attack sets in it is best to treat symptoms specifically and topically. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomila) and Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) are effective anti-inflammatories. Taken with lemon juice, honey and a pinch of Ginger or Cayenne, adds decongestant properties. Also very helpful are steam inhalations. A Chamomile steam bath clears the upper respiratory system and soothes the mucous membranes. A little Eucalyptus oil added to the steam pan helps to clear the head and lungs. A steam bath is easy to prepare. Just take a handful of Chamomile flowers and place them in a bowl. Add simmering water and cover yourself and the bowl with a big towel or blanket and inhale deeply until the steam-bath cools down. This performance can be repeated several times a day as necessary. A less pleasant but highly effective way to clear a congested nose is to rinse it with diluted lemon juice water.
Several herbs are useful for making an eyewash to soothe itchy and inflamed eyes. Fennel herb (Foeniculum vulgare), Chamomile (Matricaria chamomila), Elder (Sambucus nigra) and Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) can all be used for this purpose. Make a tea with any of these herbs and allow to cool down. Use an eyewash cup to rinse each eye. This can be repeated as necessary. For a quick and easy method you can use tea bags and put them directly on the eyes once they cooled down. To refresh them simply return them to the tea to moisten. The tea will keep at least for 24 hours in the fridge.
If the problem is concentrated in the lungs herbs like,Elecampane (Inula helenium), Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis, Ephedra (Ephedra sinica), can be used (people who suffer from high blood pressure should avoid Ephedra). Any conditions involving spasmodic coughs are greatly eased with an addition of Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) to the mix. However, since Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) is a restricted herb in most places it is necessary to either grow your own or get it prescribed from a qualified herbalist. Caution: In large doses Lobelia is a powerful emetic
A number of essential oils are useful for hayfever. They can be used as 'atmospheric remedies' by evaporating them in an oilburner, which diffuses their scent throughout the room and thus aids decongestion of the respiratory system. Essential oils of Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), Lavender (Lavendula sp.), Cedarwood Atlas (Cedrus atlantica) and Pine (Pinus sylvestris) are especially useful.
A theory, based on the homeopathic principle of treating symptoms with the thing that causes them, is the idea of using raw, unprocessed LOCAL honey or LOCAL bee pollen as a preventative. Starting early in the spring with a 1 large tablespoon per day dose is said to reduce sensitivity to the pollen allergens.
Homeopathy offers further treatment options. However, it must be remembered that homeopathy works best if the symptom complex corresponds closely with the remedy. It is best to consult with a qualified homeopath or a good book of homeopathy to determine which remedy might be the most appropriate for each individual case. Some of the most commonly used homeopathic remedies for hayfever symptoms include:
It should also be noted that homeopathic remedies don't work well in combination with certain other substances, like coffee, cigarettes and menthol-type smells or tastes, such as peppermint or eucalyptus, which are often present in toothpastes and chewing gums. Also, homeopathics would not work well in combination with the essential oil treatments mentioned above.
While these suggestions will not prevent the dreaded hayfever attacks they may offer several lines of defence that should help with finding a more effective strategy for dealing with the symptoms.
Pipe tree, Ellhorn, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Eller, Holler, Hylder, Hylantree, Holunder (German), Sureau (French)
This well-loved, bushy tree is a common sight all over Britain (especially southern England), and most parts of central and southern Europe. Its habit usually appears a bit sprawling as several stems emerge from the ground, branching frequently. The bark is light gray, fissured and covered with many lenticles (breathing pores). These branches are bendy and break off quite easily. The twigs contain an inner pith, which is very light and cork-like, and can easily be removed. Children have taken advantage of this property for many generations by making pipes and pop-guns from the hollowed out twigs. The pinnate leaves have opposite, ovate leaflets with serrated margins and one larger terminal leaflet. The inflorescences appear in May as big umbel-shaped bunches of tiny 5-petaled whitish flowers, exuding a heavy, sweet, slightly narcotic smell. By the end of the summer they develop into drooping bunches of small purple-black berries, which are a popular food of many birds.
Elder commonly grows near farms and homesteads. It is a nitrogen loving plant and thus thrives near places of organic waste disposal. Elders are often grown as a hedgerow plant in Britain since they take very fast, can be bent into shape easily and grow quite profusely, thus having gained the reputation of being 'an instant hedge'. It is not fussy about soil type or pH level and will virtually grow anywhere where it gets enough light.
The name Elder, is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon word 'Aeld', meaning fire. Another old name for Elder is Ellhorn, hinting at the use of hollowed Elder branches as a furnace. Old names like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word Holunder all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess, Hylde Moer, as she was known in Denmark. Once upon a time, the Elder-tree was considered sacred to this Goddess, and the tree's gifts were regarded as her blessings. It was commonly believed that Elders were inhabited by a tree dryad who was thought to represent the soul of the tree or sometimes was seen as an aspect of the Goddess herself. If treated well and honoured appropriately, the dryad was a most benevolent spirit that blessed and protected the people who cared for it. Thus, Elders were often planted around the house and on the farm where they served as a shrine to the Goddess whose protective powers could be invoked by making prayers and offerings to the tree. Since Elders never seemed to get struck by lightening, having it grow near the house was believed to protect the house as well. There was a widespread taboo against cutting Elders down, or burning any of its wood, which lasted well into this century. It was thought that the dryad would take out her vengeance against the offender by hunting them down and punishing them with bad luck or, as was believed in Rumania - with toothache. According to ancient folk beliefs toothaches were thought to be caused by supernatural forces and were often considered a divine punishment, or else, caused by evil spirits. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an Eldertree or taking any part of it was to use it for medicine or as a protective charm - and even that only with the consent of the resident dryad. To ask for consent the person would bend their bared heads, fold their arms and solemnly exclaim:
'Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood,
and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.'
With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree worship, the sacred Elder tree became a tree of witches and the old stories were soon distorted and turned around to suit the preachers of the new religion. The Church portrayed Elder as a tree of sorrow because Judas supposedly hung himself from an Elder-tree after betraying Jesus. Even the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was said to have been made of Elder wood. According to Christian mythology this was the reason why Elders never since could stand up straight and even to this day barely have the strength to support themselves.
Nevertheless, some of the older believes persisted and people carried on pinning Elder leaves on their doors to ward off witches, daemons and other evil influences. During the Middle Ages such folkloristic magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious customs evolved from the eventual merging of pre-Christian and Christian believes. For example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed by cutting the pith of Elderstems into flat disks, dipping these in oil, setting them alight and floating them in a glass of water, - if performed on Christmas Eve. The author of this recommendation does not specify how the daemons would manifest under these circumstances, though. On the other hand, one could also use Elder to entice the devil for one's own purposes. On the 6th of January (Bertha Night) when the devil apparently 'goes about with special virulence', one could try to obtain some of his 'Mystic Fernseed' which was believed to give its owner the strength of 30 or 40 men, keep worms out of furniture, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothaches. To obtain this magic substance it was essential to protect oneself by casting a magic circle, the boundary of which one must not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection was offered by carrying some Elderberries that had been gathered on St. John's night. But since there are no Elderberries to be found on St. Johns Day (21 June) this recommendation appears to be a little impractical. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with Elder branches as a magic wand.
Elder's reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be common everywhere, from Russia to Rumania and from Sicily to Scotland. A less common custom comes from Serbia, where Eldertwigs were believed to bestow good luck to a newly-wed couple if introduced at the wedding ceremony. This old pagan custom may have been the basis of a more recent belief common in Britain during Victorian times. According to this belief a man and woman would marry within a year if they were to drink together from an Ale that had been infused with Elderflowers.
In pre-Christian times the ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life - birth, fruition, death and regeneration. This rhythm was reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon, the cycles of the season and naturally was also thought to govern the lives of wo/men. Thus, in one of her aspects she was revered as a Goddess of the Underworld, who guarded over the souls of the dead. Green twigs of Elder were often placed into coffins or buried in graves to offer protection for the deceased on their journey to the Otherworld. Elsewhere Christian and pre-Christian beliefs merged into a new brand of compound folk customs bearing elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for example, Elders were planted onto graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. If the tree started to flower, the soul was said to be happy.
An interesting custom from Rumania allows a deeper glimpse into the old folk beliefs. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig for the festive roast. The pig' inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and it was thought that in the following year an Elder-tree would grow from them. Easter/ Spring Equinox is the time of regeneration, the time when the power of the Earth-Goddess reawakens the land and blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (being an image of self-sacrificing motherhood and the nurturing principle per se) and Eldertrees were sacred to this ancient Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.
In Denmark this Goddess was known as Hylde-Moer and she presided over the realm of the fairies. These beings are of course also creatures of the Otherworld, who nevertheless from time to time might venture into our world, especially at the time of the Summer-Solstice. If one wanted to see the fairies on their way to the Midsummer nights feast, it was recommended to go and hide in a grove of Elder trees. (Drinking ample quantities of freshly made Elderflower champagne whilst hiding in the bushes might also help).
Elder has often been described as the medicine chest of the country people and many of its medicinal uses are still widely employed by modern herbalists. In 1644 a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of Elder was translated from Latin into English. The author sings the praises of the Eldertree in no less than 230 pages. The booklet became so popular that it ran through several editions in both the English and the Latin version. Every single part of the plant was mentioned as medicinally useful. Reference is even made to an edible fungus known as 'Judas Ear'(alluding to the above-mentioned myth), which often appears on Elders that grow in damp and shady places. Accordingly, its medicinal powers were deemed effective for treating quinsy, sore throats and strangulation (!). The Elder itself was deemed effective for practically any ailment, 'from toothache to the plague'. It seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that could be made from its various parts. The list is quite exhaustive - 'a rob or syrup, tincture, mixture, oil, ointment, spirit, water, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, oxymel, sugar, decoction, bath, cataplasm, and powder', made from one, several or all parts of the plant. However, in the old days the healing powers of a plant were not just considered due to their phytochemical activity, instead the more esoteric, subtle energy of the plant (as we might call it today) also played a great part in many sympathetic magical healing operations.
A favorite remedy against rheumatism for example, came in the form of a charm or amulet, which was made by tying several knots into a young Elder-twig that had to be carried close to the body. Elder twigs were also believed to cure warts. For this purpose the wart was rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which thereafter had to be buried in mud and left to rot. Other, more direct forms of 'transfer magic' were also common. The idea behind such practices was that sickness could be transferred to a tree, who by the merit of its healing power could absorb and neutralize the sickness. Various trees served this purpose, depending on the type of illness or local availability of particular trees. A typical practice noted for the Eldertree for example was to take a measure of three spoons from a sick person's bath-water and to pour this liquid onto the roots of the tree. Many other illnesses, from epilepsy to pneumonia could be cured in similar ways, and numerous related customs are reported from many areas of Europe. To cure epilepsy for example the sufferer had to go and lie down under an Elder tree upon the first attack, whilst for Pneumonia it was recommended that the person should lie face down under an Elder-tree, with out stretched arms. Another person should measure him from one hand to the other and from head to toe with a piece of string. The string was then to be hung from the tree and when it had rotted away the pneumonia was supposed to be cured. However, to dream of Elder was deemed to be an omen of sickness.
Elder still counts among the most useful medicinal plants available to modern herbalists. All parts of the plant are medicinally active and in times gone by, a myriad of different remedies were prepared from the different parts. Since heroic medicine has somewhat gone out of fashion these days, Elder bark, root-bark and leaves are no longer used. Uses for these parts are cited here merely for the sake of historical completion. As their action is very powerful caution is advised and self-medication is not recommended.
dried or fresh
dried or fresh
best preserved as cordial, syrup or wine
Sambucine (alkaloid), cyanogenetic glucoside (Sambunigrin), Triterpines, Flavonoids (include. rutin and quercetin)
Externally: emollient and anti-inflammatory
An ointment made with fresh green leaves (traditionally known as Unguentum Sambuci Viride - Green Elder Ointment) can be used for the treatment of chilblains, sprains, bruises and wounds and was also once valued as an emollient. Leaves boiled with linseed oil makes a soothing application for haemorrhoids. Old herbals mention the use of green Elder leaves against nervous headaches. For this purpose the leaves were heated between two hot tiles and then applied to the forehead. Culpepper says: 'it purgeth the brain...' Internally an infusion of the leaves served as a treatment for dropsy, probably due to their diuretic properties. They are said to be purgative and more nauseating than the bark.
Triterpenes, fixed oil containing free acids, alcanes, flavonoids
Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant
Today the flowers are the only part of the Eldertree that is still commonly used in contemporary herbal medicine. The flowers have a long-standing reputation as a treatment for all kinds of inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion can be made to treat coughs, colds and flus, asthma and hayfever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce fevers and thus it has often proven useful in cases of measles, scarlet fever and other infections. Externally an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing bath that soothes irritable nerves and relieves itchy skin. A cool infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore or inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with flowers, briefly dipped in hot water and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.
late summer, early autumn
Viburnic acid, odorous oil, tyrosin, inverted sugar, tannin, vitamin C and P and J
Aperient, diuretic, source of nutriments and vitamins
The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and are best used as a tonic syrup to ward off winter ailments. They are full of vitamins and thus strengthen and support the whole body. In particular a vitamin J is mentioned, which is specifically indicated to counteract pneumonia. Elderberries are reported to be of value as an alterative remedy in rheumatic conditions. They also soothe sore (inflamed) nerves and help to improve poor circulation.
Though no longer used for medicinal purposes for completion's sake we will quote Mrs. Grieves on these now obsolete applications:
Culpepper says: 'The first shoots of the common Elder, boiled like Asparagus, and the young leaves and stalks boiled in broth, doth mightily carry forth phlegm and choler. The middle or inward bark boiled in water and given in drink worketh much more violently; and the berries, either green or dry, expel the same humour, and are often given with good success in dropsy; the bark of the root, boiled in wine or the juice thereof drunk, worketh the same effects, but more powerfully than either the leaves or fruit. The juice of the root taken, causes vomitings and purgeth the watery humours of the dropsy.'
Though the use of the root is now obsolete, its juice was used from very ancient times to promote both vomiting and purging, and taken, as another old writer recommends, in doses of 1 to 2 tablespoons, fasting, once in the week, was held to be 'the most excellent purge of watery humours in the world and very singular against dropsy.' A tea was also made from the roots of Elder, which was considered an effective preventative for incipient dropsy, in fact the very best remedy for such cases." ...Those were the days of 'heroic medicine'...
The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are extremely poisonous and can cause death if ingested.
In the northeast United States a close relative of Sambucus nigra, known as 'American Elder' (Sambucus canadensis) used to be valued for its very similar medicinal properties by the Native Americans of those regions. Many of the reported uses closely resemble those of the Old World. The M'icmac' also appreciated the plants purgative and emetic properties. The Iroquois prepared a poultice from the inner bark of the stem, pounded with boiling water, which they used to treat toothache. A decoction of both the berries and the inner bark was used as a febrifuge. An ointment for treating sores, burns and scalds was made with equal parts of the roots, root-bark, inner bark of the stem, leaves, flowers and berries. Asthma was treated with a tincture made from the fresh leaves and the flowers. A decoction of the wood and buds served as a remedy for ague and inflammations. The Choctaw Indians prepared a poultice by pounding the leaves with salt to treat headaches. The Creeks made and anti-inflammatory poultice for swollen breasts by pounding the tender roots with a little hot water. If the roots could not be obtained scrapings from the bark of the stem could be used instead. The Menominees used the dried flowers to make an infusion for treating fevers. The plant was considered feminine and some sources hint at their use for women's complaints. These records are obscure however, since ethnobotanists were usually male and the women would not discuss such matters with men.
Elder is a well- familiar hedge plant. The flexible branches can easily be trimmed and laid, thus offering protection against wind, whilst providing a wonderful wild-life habitat - especially for birds, who love the fruit. Country lore testifies to the popularity of Elder as hedging plant. An old proverb praises its durability:
An Elder stake and a blackthorn 'ether will make a hedge to last forever.
Whilst the branches are bendy and flexible, the heartwood and rootstock nevertheless are extremely strong and have been employed for fashioning various articles such as handles, stakes, fences, combs, and even instruments. Country-lore comments that an Elder-stake put in the ground would last longer than an iron stake of the same size. 'The Latin name of the plant, 'sambuca' refers to an ancient instrument said to resemble a harp. This may be an indication that Elder-wood was once used for making these instruments. Some authors however have their doubts since in their opinion any instrument made from Elderwood would more likely be a wind-instrument. Generations of children have fashioned ad hoc pipes and pop-guns from the hollowed out branches.
Insect and vermin repellent:
Cattle appear to appreciate the presence of Elder in their fields and seem to instinctively recognize the insect repellent properties of the trees. Cows often rub themselves on the stem and branches or stay in its shade to discourage insects from bothering them. In days gone by, when much of the fieldwork was still done with the help of horses it was a common practice to attach some Elder leaves to the horse's harness to ward off flies. Likewise, the field-workers would also pin some slightly bruised leaves to their hats to the same effect. Alternatively a decoction of the leaves could be used as an insect repellent lotion against midgets and mosquitoes. The smell of the leaves has been likened to that of mice nests and interestingly enough Mrs. Grieves mentions their use in repelling mice and moles.
An old herbal states that hitting fruit-trees, turnips, cabbages or corn with young Elder shoots was believed to provide protection against blight. A more recent article mentioning a recipe including Elder leaves, iron and copper sulfate, soft soap, nicotine and methylated spirit and slaked lime, seems to support this notion, though this makes for a far more poisonous brew. Organic gardeners have used a decoction of the young shoots as an insecticide spray against aphids and small caterpillars.
In Victorian times distilled Elderflower water was used as a highly valued emollient lotion, said to cleanse the skin, keeping it young and free of freckles and blemishes. Though fallen into disrespect for a number of years, Elderflower water has recently regained some popularity and is now once again produced commercially.
The bark, leaves and berries can all be used for dying. The bark gives a black dye, a decoction of the leaves with alum yields a green dye, whilst the berries with alum, dye purple or, if salt is added to the mixture, produce a lilac color.
Not all domestic animals are keen on Elder for fodder - while sheep and cows don't seem to mind, horses and goats have no taste for it. Sheep suffering from foot-rot are even said to deliberately seek out Elders and will eat the bark to cure themselves. Wild birds love the berries but chickens apparently do not take well to them and the flowers are even said to be fatal if ingested by turkeys or peacocks.
The best-known culinary uses of Elderflowers and berries are the many delicious drinks that can be made from them. Numerous recipes for wines, syrups and cordials never lost their popularity and are still widely used in country areas in Europe even today. These drinks are not just simply delicious, but also medicinally valuable.
Less well known is the fact that young Elder shoots can be prepared like asparagus, or added to soups as a spring vegetable. Dipped in batter and deep-fried, the flower heads make a delicious snack, especially when served with maple syrup and lemon juice. Some people even like to eat the fresh flowers straight from the bush. However, the green, unripe berries are slightly poisonous and should be avoided. Even the ripe fresh berries retain some of this poison and some sources recommend heating all preparations of Elder to 100°C.
For lots of yummy Elder recipes click here
© Kat Morgenstern,
adapted from an article that first appeared in the Herb Quarterly in autumn issue of 2000
© Kat Morgenstern, April 2002
Where does life come from and whence does it go? Even modern science does not know the answer for sure. To our ancestors the mysteries of life and death were solely in the hands of the Gods and the gift of life and fertility was their blessing to grant or to withhold. The Earth's power of regeneration, a woman's ability to give birth and the fruitfulness in all of nature was regarded as a divine gift.
Fertility is the basis of life, the foundation of the health and wealth of a community. An abundant harvest provides sustenance throughout the year, nourishing people and animals and giving them health and strength to fortify them against the physical challenges of daily life. Healthy children are the future of a society and the seeds of survival for the whole clan. The fertility of the animals was equally important, as a strong herd of cattle with healthy offspring provides not only a variety of foods and different material resources, but also stock for trade and barter.
The fertility and health of all life, whether cultivated or wild, animal, human or plant are integral and equally important to the harmonious and sustained well-being of the whole web of life. Our ancestors regarded the earth as the living body of the Earth Goddess that continuously gave birth to existence; the source of life itself. Yet, life lives on life, the cycle of existence is a continuous self-devouring and self-recreating process of transformation and regeneration. All life must die and yet, death is a sacrifice to life that ultimately ensures its continuity. Thus, to our ancestors life and death were not so much seen as opposing forces, but rather as two aspects of the same inexplicable mystery.
In many mythologies trees were regarded as the very embodiment of the immortal life force. Their recurrent seasonal cycle of flowering, leafing, fruiting and seeming decay during the winter months, followed by renewal and apparent rebirth each spring provided a living metaphor for the seasons of human life. As spring turns to summer and summer to autumn and autumn to winter, so does youth turn to adulthood, adulthood to old age and old age eventually to death, which in turn imparts its regenerative power to the soul so it can be reborn and return to the land of the living once more.
Many cultures still believe in a life after death, in a world populated by spirits and disembodied souls, which is often simply known as 'the Otherworld'. The threshold to this spirit realm is frequently depicted as a tree, usually a conifer since their evergreen cloak reveals a special affinity with the immortal life force, as only they are able to sustain their green foliage through the dark of winter. While most of nature apparently dies, these serene needle trees carry on the flame of hope for life's eventual return. Thus, it is not surprising that they should be regarded as a suitable refuge for disembodied souls awaiting a new incarnation. Their inherent life force was thought by extension to nurture and sustain the souls of the departed during their respective 'dark season' of death. For this reason graveyards are planted with evergreens and wreaths of pine are laid on graves even to this day. In some regions it was customary to plant a tree directly on a person's grave, which henceforth was thought to 'embody' the soul of the deceased. Surviving relatives could thus communicate with their departed ancestors by addressing the tree.
These ancient concepts are widespread throughout the world and are particularly deep-rooted in animistic cultures that still adhere to a form of ancestor worship. Certain trees, often those growing around a burial ground or guarding the entrance of a village, are associated with the tribal ancestor, who watches over the affairs of the living. These trees are honored and protected by the whole community, for any damage done to them would spell the demise of the whole community. At other times particular trees were thought closely related to a particular family or tribe. The modern image of the family tree is but an ancient relic echoing these traditions of the past.
Some mythologies trace the very origin of the human race to trees. Variously, stories are told of Gods who carved the first couple from different species of trees, or how the first man and woman emerged from the seeds or fruits of certain trees, or how the first humans emerged from the trunk of a tree. In Norse mythology we are told that Odin and his brothers were walking by the seashore when they came across two trees. They changed them into the first man and a woman and named the man 'Ask' and the woman 'Embla'. Each of the brothers bestowed some special gifts on them: the first gave them soul and life, the second wit and motivation and the third speech, sight and hearing.
In Europe the image of the immortal tree of life was often associated with a sacred spring, a symbolic river of life, which flowed from beneath its roots. In Britain for example, where many Christian churches were simply built on top of previously sacred sites, an ancient Yew tree is frequently found growing in the churchyard in close proximity to a sacred spring. It was thought that the holy waters would eventually return the disembodied souls to a new earthly incarnation. Hence, the belief that a woman could become pregnant simply by resting under certain trees or bathing in a sacred spring.
In Australia some tribes believe that the souls of babies dwell in trees and that women who want to conceive have to shake them out of the branches, much as one would when harvesting ripe fruit. When a baby was born it was customary to bury its umbilical chord along with the placenta beneath a young sapling, and thus the two souls were spiritually connected throughout their lives. The welfare of one was thought to affect or indicate the well-being of the other; if the tree was harmed the person likewise would suffer, if the person was harmed or killed surely the tree would soon also perish.
Similarly, it was customary in many European countries to plant a tree for each baby that was born. In Germany and Austria an apple tree was planted for a boy and a pear tree for a girl. Native American tribes followed a similar tradition. When a baby was born a tree was dedicated to the young soul and henceforth served as its personal tree ally and natural 'altar'. In Africa and Asia special effigies were carved to serve as protectors for newborns and it was hoped that the particular properties of the tree would be transferred to the child.
Similar beliefs and practices are known in many cultures across the globe. Particularly in India tree worship associated with fertility rites are common. Offerings are made to particular trees to ask their blessing and aid for conception. Different trees respectively are asked for either a boy or a girl. Sometimes different parts of the same tree are symbolically associated with either male or female fertility. Frequently certain trees are ritually 'married' to each other in order to stimulate fertility in a household. Big feasts are held for the wedding celebration and their future fruitfulness is hoped to rub off on their patrons. Even more curious is the custom of people getting married to a tree, a custom, which applies particularly to a second marriage, since the second marriage between humans is thought to be unlucky. Thus a tree stands in for the second marriage. Both men and women may take a tree in marriage before getting remarried to a person.
Some trees evidently embody the immortal life force more than others, as they are endowed with attributes that suggest a symbolic link with the life giving powers. Hazel bushes for example burst in to a lush abundance of catkins, wormlike inflorescences, that with a bit of imagination could be likened to male sexual organs. Their early flowering time too suggests a special life-giving power - not to mention their highly suggestive nuts, which, depending on the interpretation of the observer could be either likened to male or female sexual characteristics. Thus, Hazel rods often played a role in fertility rites as they were thought to transfer their life giving energies to other forms of life.
Another widespread belief suggests that trees are inhabited by guardian spirits, which control the natural forces responsible for weather conditions, that can cause the crops to flourish or to fail. Since fertilizing rain is paramount to ensuring the fruitfulness of the earth, fertility festivals centered on trees were usually held in the spring or prior to the rainy season. Even in Europe, until quite recently such festivities were quite common and can still be found today as folkloric remnants in many rural areas. The most commonly celebrated fertility festival is known as Beltain or May Day.
When the sap is rising and the buds are swelling and nature is awakening from her winter sleep, the air is humming with energy and activity. It is as though the Goddess Flora twirls and whirls through the countryside and where she dances her footprints turn to flowers, and bees, birds and butterflies buzz about her like twinkling stars. This sensual season culminates in May, when all of nature seems to be intoxicated with the spirit of love: birds and animals are mating, and bees and butterflies are getting drunk on nectarous flower juice. The exuberance and joy of life is tangibly permeating the air and even humans are touched by the juicy flow of nature's libido.
In pre-Christian times this season was celebrated with wild parties and festivities on Beltain Eve, the 1st of May. This festival marked the wedding day of the Earth Goddess and her consort, who were represented by a young couple, the King and Queen of May. The whole community joined in the celebration, often a wild and lewd affair. In the morning a band of youngsters would take to the woods 'to fetch the May', usually a young birch tree, which was brought back into the village with much fanfare. The May tree served as the quintessential symbol of the Earth Goddess herself and her innate powers of regeneration and fertility.
Back in the village the tree would be decorated with colorful threads and ribbons and fixed to the top of a pole, with long flowing ribbons in alternating colors attached beneath it. The May tree was treated as an honored guest and was erected in the most central spot of the village square. Parades and festivities ensued, as the May king and queen strode through town followed by a jeering crowd, accompanied by music, dancing, laughing and singing. Flowers and confetti were strewn all over as tokens of health, wealth and fertility.
The highlight of the ceremony was the dance around the Maypole. Young boys and girls in succession each grabbed a ribbon from the May tree and twirled around the pole to the wild and cheerful music in an interweaving dance of life - male and female powers woven together to create the very fabric of existence in an act of symbolic co-creation.
Later the Beltain fires were lit to celebrate the return of the sun. Offerings and sacrifices were made to the earth spirits and Gods, and to the animals and plants in the hope that they would return the blessing when harvest came and meanwhile protect cattle and crops from dangerous daemons and diseases throughout the year. The drinking, dancing and feasting continued all night with raucous behavior, rude jokes and lewd innuendos - this was thought to rouse the passion of the vegetation spirit and make it more virile. Youngsters jumped over the Beltain fires to show the corn how high to grow and perhaps to be blessed by the fertilizing powers of this symbolic sun.
Later in the evening unmarried youth would take to the woods to partake in the libido energy of nature as each couple united as god and goddess to become co-creators in the dance of life and partake in nature's magnificent power. (note: The spirit of vegetation was often personified as Robin Greenwood, the Green Man, etc., nine months after Beltain, a crop of 'illegitimate' children were born, who were generally referred to as 'Robin's sons' - Robinson is still a common family name in Britain.)
The next morning the Maytree was paraded through town. All the dancing and partying had charged it up with spiritual power and it was now used to bless all the inhabitants of the village so everybody could partake in the abundant gifts of Mother Nature. Sometimes this custom mutated into a ritual of 'quickening' to stimulate the fertility of all females, girls, animals and even (fruit)trees. Special hazel rods were cut for this purpose, which were thought to confer their power of fertility to anything they touched.
These are just a few examples to illustrate the point that at one time all of mankind felt a very close link indeed with the natural environment and with trees and plants in particular. But over time our sense of spirituality has become more and more distanced from nature and divorced from the source of life that sustains us. Neither forests nor individual trees nor herbs or grains are perceived to convey a link to the spiritual realm anymore. Our Gods, as far as we still believe in them are remote and impersonal, inhabiting realms far beyond the sky. Our earthly affairs are reduced to mere mechanical operations designed to exploit natural resources for maximum profit. Not gratitude but dominance characterizes our attitude to nature while reverence and respect for life is diminishing - along with the integrity of the web of life that supports us, and the socio-spiritual web of our communities that once provided a holistic perspective on all of life.
When the mysteries of life are reduced to chemical formulae and the natural world including our own bodies are rationalized and explained as mere chance assortments of matter following mechanical laws that can be manipulated at will, we are loosing touch with the very spiritual essence that gives meaning to existence. We may think ourselves Gods, but it seems that our species is possessed by demons intent on disintegrating the innate connectedness of all life and on poisoning the very source from whence all life springs and to which it must eventually return.
But where can we go from here? How can we heal the dichotomy between matter and spirit and restore that sense of connectedness in this world that is becoming increasingly defragmented? We cannot go back in time and simply do as our ancestors did. Rather, it is a matter of fostering personal relationships with nature and the life-giving powers that sustain us all. It is a personal quest rather than a matter of dogma, of developing an attitude of gratitude and caring towards all life, not as theoretical constructs, but in terms of practical action.
Plant a tree today and cherish its gifts forever
Located in the south-eastern corner of the Peruvian Amazon Tambopata National Reserve (TNR) is part of a 3.7 million acre reserve in that was created in partnership between the Peruvian government and local grassroots and international conservation organizations in 1990. The declaration and the design of the reserve include an underlying philosophy of sustainable development and conservation of forest resources. This reserve protects the entire watershed of the Tavara and the Candamo Rivers and most of the watershed of the Tambopata River and includes habitats ranging from the Andean highlands around the rivers' headwaters, to some of the last remaining intact cloud forests and the lowland rainforests of the Amazon basin. The biodiversity of this region is truly astonishing: Over 1,300 bird species (including 32 parrot species - 10% of the world's total), 200 mammal species, 90 frog species, 1,200 butterfly species and 10,000 species of higher plants are protected within the reserve. The world's largest known mineral clay lick, where hundreds of parrots and macaws congregate daily to ingest the detoxifying clay, is also within the reserve, less than 500 meters from Tambopata Research Center.
Adjacent the northwestern corner of the reserve is the Ese'eja Native Community, adding its 10,000 hectares of communally-owned and managed tropical rain forests to the Reserved Zone's. Within this territory is the Posada Amazonas, a community-owned lodge and tourism operation, which provides an excellent base from which to explore this rich environment.
In 1993, a team of scientists presented the Peruvian government with a zoning plan for the huge Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone. The plan divided the reserve into 5 different management categories proposing to designate a 700000 hectare portion of completely uninhabited forests just south of Tambopata Research Center and the macaw clay lick for the National Park category and in July of 1996, the government declared half of this area as the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. The rest of the reserve was declared a national park or national reserve in September, 2000. Fortunately, Tambopata Research Center and the macaw clay lick were included in the area directly across the river from the National Park and are directly adjacent to it, while Posada Amazonas is well within the lands owned and managed by the Ese'eja native community. The intangible nature of National Parks in Peru, and the inalienable rights of Native Communities to their lands, assures that some of the last remaining wild populations of large, spectacular Amazonian wildlife will be safeguarded.
The Tambopata Research Center and the Posada Amazonas are run by an innovative and dynamic Peruvian ecotourism company that was founded on the philosophy of integrating carefully planned and executed ecotourism as an effective tool for conservation. These lodges offer some of the best opportunities in the world for viewing jaguars, giant otters, monkeys, peccaries, and flocks of a hundred or more macaws. Visitors to the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) come into direct contact with ongoing research projects. Peruvian students and local rainforest residents are involved in basic and applied research projects related to conservation work. Researchers help instruct visitors in rainforest ecology and the challenge of conservation. A portion of each visitor's fee contributes to ongoing research programs.
Tambopata Research Center was built with the object to lodge tourists and researchers and to protect the nearby clay lick. It is composed of four interconnected, thatch-roofed buildings designed in the style of traditional low-impact native architecture. It is rustic, but provides all necessary creature comforts to enjoy an authentic wilderness experience. The main building is divided into 13 double rooms that have been designed to maximize wildlife observation in the forest. The walls facing the forest have waist-high verandahs to allow easy observation of birds and mammals that visit the trees around the TRC clearing.
The operation is kept small to enable visitors to have an intimate rain forest experience and to develop lasting friendships between them, the researchers and the staff. This intimate set-up provides ample opportunity to share the passion for the rain forest and its natural history. Click here to learn more about the Tambopata Research Center and the programs they offer to visitors.
The Posada Amazonas is a luxurious, yet unobtrusive lodge jointly owned by Rainforest Expeditions and the Ese'eja Native Community of Tambopata. Thanks to accessibility, excellent wildlife observation opportunities and first class accomodations, Posada Amazonas is the ideal short, economic introductory nature tour to Amazonia's richest rain forests.
The lodge is simple yet comfortable with spacious rooms and private bathrooms, hot water, showers and flush toilets. Each room has a large open widow facing the forest to allow visitors to stay as close to the forest as possible. The communal dining rooms consists of a large open structure that provides a great meeting area or simply a cosy spot to hang out in a hammock and enjoy listening to the sounds of the rainforest. Click here to learn more about the Posada Amazonas and the programs they offer to visitors.
By J.A. Parrotta, USDA Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Puerto Rico, USA
Binding: Hardback, Number of Pages: 944
Cabi Publishing June 2001, ISBN 085199 501 2
Cabi Publishing http://www.cabi.org
The Healing Plants of Peninsular India is a monumental reference work covering some 550 species of plants used in various medical traditions of India. Mr. Parrotta has done a laudable job in gathering the scattered information and compiling it all in this very clearly laid out and extensively cross-referenced volume.
The introduction draws attention to many of the pressing problems facing traditional health-care practitioners world wide, many of which are closely entwined with conservation issues such as urbanization, which not only cause habitat loss and environmental degradation, but also often mark the beginnings of a loss of local and traditional plant knowledge.
The introductory section also includes a brief, but very interesting outline of the cultural and historical roots of traditional medicine in India, profiling ancient healing systems such as Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha medicine in some detail without getting lost in too many specifics.
A further section is devoted to India's rich natural plant resources. Being a geologically very diverse country India is blessed with many different kinds of biomes, which provide vastly different habitats. This section outlines the characteristics of each ecosystem and their indicator species.
The rest of the book profiles some 550 different species of medicinally important plant, organized alphabetically by family, genus and species, giving a full scientific description, details of habitat and distribution, synonyms in a number of local languages, as well as English and scientific names (this section is also cross-referenced in the appendix). A summery of therapeutic uses and/or commercial significance provides an insight into how each plant is used locally. Each profile is clearly laid out and illustrated with one or more small color photograph.
This impressive volume is a very well conceived and organized scholarly reference work that offers a wealth of varied and detailed information, primarily aimed at western scholars and researchers. The work draws extensively on other reference books and compiles information from many different sources. One of the most useful features is the great cross-reference between various local, scientific and English names, which makes it easy to locate just about any of the species mentioned. I also particularly appreciated the photographs, which puts a more personal face to each of the species profiles. Given the wealth of information and considering the many illustrations (high quality color photographs) the price, though not cheap, is justified. It's an excellent reference source well worth having for anybody interested in the medicinal plants of India/Asia and other tropical and subtropical regions of the world.
MEDPLANT the Global Information Network on Medicinal Plants was created in 1999 as a support to the existing medicinal plant networks. Over the last several months MEDPLANT has been working with its partners to develop a communication tool for sharing information and facilitating discussions. Thanks to support from IDRC and Bellanet, MEDPLANT is proud to announce the creation of an interactive website at http://source.bellanet.org/medplant/.
The Website allows you to:
You can submit a resource in any language (although we appreciate an abstract in English!). We are very excited to present this resource to you and trust it will become a useful tool for you and other organizations working in the field of medicinal plants around the world.
INTERNATIONAL WORKSHOP ON SUSTAINABLE TRADE
AND CONSERVATION OF MEDICINAL PLANTS
Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy in Rabat, MOROCCO
Topics include ethnobotany and traditional medicine, biodiversity, conservation of medicinal and aromatic plant resources, phytochemistry, pharmacognosy
June 21–23, 2002
Wheaton College Campus, MA, New England
This event is a fundraiser for United Plant Savers. Learn from herbal teachers, elders, and healers from around the world including Dr. Tieraona Low dog, Christopher Hobbs, David Hoffman, Rosemary Gladstar, and more.
A summer intensive on the big island of Hawaii
From the beginning of time plants have played a role in human affairs, influencing the evolution of civilizations and cultures, human migration, medicine and health care, wars, art, mythology and religion. This 3 week two-course intensive introduces students to the science of ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, plants and civilization through lectures. Field trips and diverse presentations by local experts.
Plants and Civilizations
Kathleen Harrison M.A.
(founder of Botanical Dimensions)
People, Plants and Drugs
Dennis McKenna Ph.D.,
Senior lecturer at the Center for Spirituality and Healing,
University of Minnesota,
Dates: 27 July - 17 Aug, 2002
Location: Kohala Center, Kamuela, Hawaii's Big Island
Registration Deadline: 31 May 2002
This course is offered in partnership by the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center and the Kohala Center at Kamuela, Hawaii.