By ERIN KENNY
Winter Solstice is the time of year when most everything in the natural world is dormant. We humans are one of the only species that don’t slow down during the winter season to recharge from the constant motion of summer. When feeling frazzled, one of the most satisying ways to relax is to sit with a warm cup of tea. Although most people have tried at least one variety of herbal tea, it is likely that it was purchased commercially, and the herbs inside the box came from far away. Luckily, there are a plethora of Northwest plants that can be brewed into a soothing cup of tea to assist you in your pursuit of relaxation during this frenetic holiday season.
One of the most popular teas of the Northwest Coast Native Americans is made from the fresh needles of the Douglas fir tree. Simply gather a few fresh branches from the tree and boil them in water for about ten to fifteen minutes. Your house will smell wonderfully seasonal and the resulting citrusy beverage is high in vitamin C. I actually collect bagfuls of the new growth branch tips in the spring and dry them. The dried needles can then just be steeped rather than boiled for a more delicate flavor.
Geum, an unassuming little member of the rose family that is ubiquitous on Vashon, has roots that taste and smell strongly of clove. You can collect the fine mesh root clump and dry it in a warm dark room. In about three to four days you can steep the dried herb for a spicy cup of tea that actually has slight topical anesthetic properties like clove. Interestingly, many ethnobotany books recount that the Northwest Coast Native Americans believed that anyone who drank a tea of the whole geum plant became resistant to smallpox.
Hawthorn trees abound on the Island, and although there is a native species the variety that proliferates here is a successful landscaping escapee from Europe. The berries can be eaten raw — watch out for the large pit — or beautifully dried for a sweet cup of tea. Hawthorn berries have a long history of being prescribed for sluggish digestion. In China, the berries, called shan zha, are a popular remedy for abdominal bloating, indigestion and flatulence, all indications of food stagnation.
If you are lucky enough to have pineapple weed, or wild chamomile, growing on or near your driveway — they prefer disturbed and compacted soil — you will want to collect and dry some of this nervine herb when it is flowering. A cup of the tea is often recommended for insomnia, anxiety and stress. It is easily identified by the flower’s distinctive pineapple scent and flavor.
Oddly, many summer flowering herbs are in bloom again right now, such as yarrow, tansy and dandelion, due to the ever-warming temperatures here in the Northwest. Yarrow and tansy flower teas are diaphoretic, meaning that they increase your body temperature and help you to sweat. Both teas are traditionally recommended for treating the flu.
Fresh dandelion leaves can be collected and dried, then made into a tea that is an effective diuretic, rich in potassium, iron and calcium. Fresh dandelion roots can be roasted in the oven until crispy, then boiled in water to make a delicious nutty-flavored beverage. Dandelion root teas are considered a liver support and are traditionally recommended for hepatitis, anemia, cirrhosis and gallstones.
Try mixing and matching the various flavors of your dried herbs and adding dried rosehips, madrona berries, hawthorn berries and evergreen huckleberry berries as eye candy and natural sweetener to your native tea mixtures. Soon you will be creating your own unique varieties of Vashon-grown teas to relax with during this darkest time of the year. After the Solstice, the earth will reverse its tilt and the sun will appear to move farther north again, the seed of summer in the dark of winter. Then, we will return to drinking our teas cold.
— Erin Kenny can be reached through the Web at www.cedarsongnatureschool.org.