Witch Hazel, the winter bloom

Witch hazels are small trees or shrubs, native to the Eastern United States.  They grow 15-30 feet high with a similar spread and flourish in USDA hardiness zones 3-8.  The plant prefers full sun to partial shade and is tolerant of a variety of soils, provided they are well drained.  Yellow to red fragrant, squiggly-looking flowers appear from October to December. Also known as snapping hazel, winterbloom, or wych hazel.

The North American native peoples used witch hazel as a medicinal plant.  Employing its use as an astringent.  The Osage used it for skin ulcers and sores.  The Potawatomi steamed twigs over hot rocks in their sweat lodges to ease sore muscles.  The Iroquoi made a tea to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs.  In the 18th century, witch hazel was brought to England where its use in treating wounds and bites continued.  It was believed that the volatile oils in the plant were highest in late fall and winter. 

Today, witch hazel is used primarily as an astringent and anti-inflammatory in the external treatment of all types of bruises, inflammations, varicose veins, bleeding, wounds, soreness and muscular aches, and specifically hemorrhoids, and internally for sore throat, internal bleeding, diarrhea and catarrh.  The leaves and twigs are the parts used in medicinal preparations, though distilled witch hazel is readily available at your nearest drugstore.  The plant is rich in tannins (2-10%), flavonoids, saponins, resin and a volatile oil. 

While there are limited contemporary studies available on the uses of witch hazel, there have been some done comparing its effectiveness as an astringent against other preparations, and also evaluating the tannin contents of the plants.  In one 1993 study, a witch hazel preparation and a steroidal cream were compared for effectiveness soothing a skin abrasion.  The witch hazel was found to be as effective. 

As with all herbal preparations, use care and consult your medical practitioner prior to using, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or using any other medications.  This information not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.  For educational purposes only.


Andriote, John-Manuel. The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. November 6, 2012. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/11/the-mysterious-past-and-present-of-witch-hazel/264553/

Fielder, Mildred. Plant Medicine and Folklore. 1975. Winchester Press, New York

Hoffmann, David. Medical herbalism. 2003. Healing arts press. Rochester VT

Kane, Charles W. Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions. 2009. Lincoln Town Press

Korting HC, Schäfer-Korting M, Hart H, Laux P, Schmid M. Anti-inflammatory activity of hamamelis distillate applied topically to the skin. Influence of vehicle and dose. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1993;44(4):315-8. doi: 10.1007/BF00316465. PMID: 8513841

Weiss, Rudolf Fritz, Fintelmann, Volker. Herbal Medicine. 2000. Theime, New York

Wheelwright, Edith Grey. Medicinal Plants and Their History. 1974. Dover Publications, Inc. New York

The Milk Flowers of Spring, AKA Snowdrops!

Galanthus_nivalis_close-up_aka We’ve seen the first hard frost and the hardiest of the nursery stock has finally giving up the ghost for the season.  For me this is both a peaceful time of year and the time I start getting antsy.  The buzz, buzz, buzz, of plant growth and insect activity is quiet.  Below the soil the plants are still perking away slowly, getting ready for spring.  But I can’t SEE them.  By late December or January I’m rereading garden magazines and my seed catalogs are more thumbed over than a 14 year old boys secret Playboy stash. Thank goodness for snowdrops (Galanthus spp.).

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Get a Jump On Spring This Fall

For some gardeners the emotional side of the garden season runs something like this.

December/January:   Giddily pour over seed catalogs looking for the new and wonderful while visions of glorious    gardens dance through our heads.

March/April:  Enthusiastically prepp486ing beds for the green babies to come.

April/May:   Plant, water, and lovingly tend new or returning garden denizens.

July:   Haul hoses and sprinklers around, again. Driest month ever!  And why do weeds grow no matter how much rain?

September/October:   Longingly dream of packing away the trowel and trug and swearing that if the weeds want the garden so badly they can have it.

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Gardening for Health

Hectic schedules, deadlines, ballgames, family, world events…the list goes on.  Stress is a very real part of our lives.  All that stress does have an impact on our physical, mental and emotional well-being. Science continues to find more evidence that long term stress leads to a variety of illnesses from increased susceptibility to viral infection, increased risk for diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, and digestive ailments to mental and emotional conditions.  So what to do about mitigating the effects of stress in our lives?  Incorporate garden exercise, surround ourselves with green, bring whole, healthy foods to the table from our gardens.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) moderate-intensity level activities for 2.5 hours per week are enough to reduce the risks for obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death.  As defined by the CDC, moderate-intensity level exercise is anything that increases the heart and breathing rate enough that you can still talk but not sing, which in my case is a relief to the neighbors.  Gardening is included in this category of exercise.  Even better, another study found that gardening motivaIMG_0022tes people to spend more time in the dirt compared to other forms of exercise such as bicycling and walking.  So not only is it good exercise with demonstrated health benefits, but we apparently find it more pleasant than spin classes.

For reduction of emotional and mental signs of stress, gardening and being out in green spaces has also been studied.  In one study a 10% increase in nearby green space was found to turn the clock back five years on an individual’s health complaints.  Working with plants is found so beneficial that horticultural therapy is sometimes recommended to help those struggling with depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety.  A 2006 study that followed 2800 subjects over the age of 60 for a period of 16 years found that gardening could reduce the risk of dementia by 36%.  That’s a lot of peace of mind.

If your gardening takes the form of a vegetable plot, there is the added advantage of fresh, local, pesticide free (because we know you would not add chemicals to your garden…right?) food for your table.  If you are more inspired to create rock gardens or divide dahlias that is no problem.  Visit your local farmers market to reap the healthy rewards of other gardeners, or set up a neighborhood flower/rutabaga swap.

Gardens come in all shapes, sizes and intents.  There is no right or wrong garden.  It may not even be your garden you are working in.  Community gardens love to see volunteers coming.  The point is that connecting with a garden and diving into the assorted tasks needed to maintain a garden space is beneficial to you in so many ways, how can you not?  Grab your shovel and embrace your inner gardener.  Weed pulling is therapy.


AARP. 5 Secret Health Benefits of Gardening. Kim Hayes, June 14, 2017. http://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2017/health-benefits-of-gardening-fd.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measuring Physical Activity Intensity.  Retreived 7.1.17.  https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/index.html.

Rodale’s Organic Life. 5 Surprising Ways Gardenikng Improves Your Health. https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/5-surprising-ways-gardening-improves-your-health.

Sherer, PM. The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space. Retreived 7.1.17. www.eastshorepark.org/benefits_of_parks%20tpl.pdf.

Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamaura Y. Gardening is beneficial for health: a Meta-analysis. Preventative Medicine Report. 2017 Mar; 5:92-99.

Feed the Bees…Plant an Herb!

Monarda punctataAnyone watching the news and/or their garden is aware of the challenges facing our honey bee and bumblebee populations.  Be a bee friendly gardener by adding pollinator friendly plants into your garden to give the bees (and other pollinators) a reliable food source free of chemicals.

Nothing says “hiya Bee!” like an herb.  Herb gardens are abuzz with the sound and sight of happy bees enjoying pollen and nectar from flowering herbs.  This isn’t a one way street either, all that bee activity is making sure that your whole garden is being well pollinated and productive.

So, out of all the herbs to choose which should you plant?  That depends on garden conditions such as available sunlight, soil type, water availability, etc.  But ideally, your choices should provide successive blooms throughout the season with a mix of annual and perennial plants.  The following are some suggestions for bee favorites.

Plant Name                                      Bloom Time                           Garden Needs

Agastache foeniculum                        July-Sept                                   Average; full sun/partial shade

Allium tuberosum                              Late summer                             Average; full sun/partial shade

Angelica archangelica                         May                                            Biennial; shade/partial sun; moist

Borago officinalis                                 All summer                               Annual/biennial; sun…self seeder

Eupatorium purpureum                    late summer/early fall             Average; full sun

Foeniculum vulgare                            Mid to late summer                 Average; full sun

Galium odoratum                               Spring                                         Moist soil; full sun to full shade.

Hyssopus officinalis                            June to September                   Average; full sun

Matricaria chamomilla                       June to September                   Average; full sun to partial shade.

Lavendula spp.                                    June to August                          Average; full sun

Melissa officinalis                                June to August                          Average; full sun to partial shade

Mentha spp.                                        July to August                           Average; full sun to partial shade

Monarda fistulosa                              June to September                   Average; full sun

Nepeta cataria                                    June to September                   Average; full sun to partial shade

Origanum vulgare                             July                                             Average; full sun

Rosmarinus officinalis                       June to July                               Average; full sun

Salvia officinalis                                  June                                            Average; full sun

Symphytum officinalis                      May to June                               Average; full sun to partial shade

Tanacetum parthenium                    June to August                          Average; full sun

Thymus spp.                                      June to August                           Average; full sun

Don’t forget about the “weeds” around the place that bees love too, like dandelion, clover, and plantain. Dandelion flowers are one of the first blooms to appear each spring and are therefore a valuable food source for bees at a time when the larder is definitely lean.

It should go without saying that having prepared this feast for the pollinators it is NOT okay to then garnished it with chemicals.





Springs Early Arrivals

009 I love the rainy, mossy and sun-challenged Pacific Northwest.  There is even a part of me that revels in our wet, bleak winters.  But by March I’m pretty much over all that and am ready to see evidence of renewing life.  Spring is a time of rebirth, a time to rejoice in the visual signs of new emerging plants, the smells of warming earth, and taste of tender new and nutritious greens.

That new life is coming.  March 20th may be the official start of spring this year, but already plants are cautiously sticking their noses out.  Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Oregano (Origanum vulgare), Monarda (Monarda spp.), Violet (Viola odorata), Lovage (Levisticum officinalis), Yarrow (Achillea filipendulina), and Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) are all emerging right now.  Take a walk through the parks, woods, or other wild places around you and may also see the tender new shoots of nettles (Urtica dioica), chicory (Cichorium intybus), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and chickweed (Stellaria media).

Now that you have cooed at the sights of emerging green, tickle another sense by adding some of this new foliage to your diet.  As soon as they are large enough, gather young dandelion, chickweed and purslane greens for a refreshing and highly nutritious salad.  Dandelion has almost twice as much vitamin A as spinach (14000 IU).  The bright notes of the greens, bitterness, and impressive nutrients make a great spring tonic in salad form.  Spring nettles are another traditional spring tonic and can be steamed or stirred into soups and stews for a boost of minerals at a time when our bodies need that rejuvenation.  Nettles are particularly rich in protein, iron, calcium and magnesium.  Use care collecting them to avoid being stung and be sure to cook them to deactivate the stingers on the plant.  Alternatively, infuse fresh dandelion leaves or decoct the roots for a warm tea to cuddle as you continue to scan your gardens for other signs of new life.

Last thoughts… remember dandelions are one of the first flowers to emerge in the spring and as such are an important food source for bees.  Also, only gather from areas you know have not been sprayed or contaminated.


Bissas, Aspasia. (February/March 2004). Early Spring Herbs. Mother Earth Living. http://www.motherearthliving.com/Gardening/Early-Spring-Herbs?pageid=2#PageContent2

Cech, Richo. (2000). Making Plant Medicine. A Horizon Herbs Publication:Williams, OR.

Hoffmann, David. (2003). Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press:Rochester VT.

Meares, Portia. (April/May 1993). Spring Tonics. http://www.motherearthliving.com/Health-and-Wellness/Spring-Tonics.

Spring Garden Archaeology

Viola_tricolor-wikiIt’s spring.  Well, it’s close enough to spring that I’m pretending it is spring and getting a start tending emerging plants in the nursery.  For the most part this is pretty straight forward now that I’ve finally found a marker that creates plant tags that survive the winter still readable (more about that below).  But there are always those exceptions.  Those exceptions require what I refer to as garden archaeology…the excavation and identification of the anonymous plant.

For instance, there is usually at least one tray of seeds that were planted in haste in the fall with missing markers.  Maybe the markers blew away, or I committed the ultimate gardener sin of assuming I would remember what I planted, or the cats made toys of the things.  Regardless, now I’m looking at a tray of small seedlings with no clue what they are.  Eventually, of course, they will get big enough to identify, but that’s not the point.  I’m out here now with my gloves and spade and ready to DO something with them.  Frustrating.

Or there are the mystery plants that show up as visitors in other plant pots.  Again, late season oversight.  Flower heads that were not snipped off and set seed.  At the time, I just admired the swaying seed heads not thinking about the inevitable results.  Some plants, most plants really, are pretty polite about it all.  It’s only with plants like catnip that you can end up with an unintended seedling invasion.  So, lots of excavating to remove early weeds and pot up volunteer seedlings…maybe pot up volunteer seedlings.  Depends on how badly I want more catnip. Oh, and don’t get me started on the mints.  Lovely plants, but they are definitely travelers.  Their lines of rhizomes running out from their pots to their neighbors, where they wriggle up through the pot drain holes and show up green and minty in a new location.

The first year of the nursery, and before I found my perfect plant stake marker, spring was much more exciting.  It was a lesson in early plant development identification because nearly ALL the plant stakes had faded to the point of invisibility.  On sunny days I would hold the faded markers to the sun to see if I could make out enough of an ink shadow to figure out who was living in that pot.  Sometimes it worked.  Mostly, it was a case of recognizing emerging plants, or waiting until they got big enough to be distinctive.

But despite the challenges, or probably because of the challenges, this is one of my favorite times of the year.  You will generally find me hopping around staring intently at trays of plants looking for evidence that they are emerging, or to see how much bigger they have grown in the past 24 hours.  It is such a magical, joyous time of year with all the new life erupting.  What’s a little archeology when compared to that?

How to Grow Artichokes In the Northwest

Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are a treat both in the kitchen and in the garden.  They are a member of the thistle family and if allowed to bloom, produce gloriously large, purple flowers that bees will make a “bee” line to enjoy.  If you want to enjoy artichokes on your plate, you can harvest them as soon as they reach about the size of a softball, but before they start to flower.  Either way, they are a tall, architectural statement in the garden, reaching about 5 feet tall with dramatic spiky leaves.

In our area (South Puget Sound) it can be challenging to get this perennial to behave  perennial-ish.  But with a little careful planting and care, you can enjoy your plants year after year.

Artichokes need sandy, fast drain468ing soil in sun.  Because they are so tall, some shelter from high winds is also a good idea.  Aside from this, they require regular water, particularly if you are growing them for the fruit instead of flower.  When first planting, amend the soil with an organic compost.  Plant starts in late spring and mulch well with straw to protect the roots and crown.  As they grow, fertilize with a balanced all-purpose organic or fish fertilizer.  Artichokes should be spaced 3×3 feet apart to allow them room to spread out.  Be sure to keep them well weeded to avoid nutrient competition.

The following spring you can detach any healthy offsets from around the edges of the crown and plant them on (or share with lucky friends).

Then in the fall, when the leaves are turning yellow, cut the plant back to about a foot from the ground, tie the stalks over the root crown and mulch heavily to protect the plant from frost.

Artichokes do best in areas that do not have wide swings in temperature, but with a little extra care you can enjoy them here too.

How to Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Pollinators, like bees and butterflies, make the range of flowers, fruits and veggies we enjoy possible.  Without them we would not be able to grow most fruits and vegetables and a large number of flowers would no longer be seen.  It is important to provide pollinators with what they need in our gardens.  We can do that by providing many types of flowers and bloom times that are attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

What do they get from these flowers?  pollen and nectar.  Pollen provides proteins and fats for the pollinators and nectar is their source of energy in the form of sugar.  Hybridized plants maximize some characteristics of garden plants but in the process are often left sterile and useless to pollinators so select species plants whenever possible.

Because the different pollinators have different equipment and needs when foraging it is best to provide range of plants with different bloom times and flower shapes through the growing season.  There are over 4000 native bees in North America with different tongue lengths and plant preferences.  Bees are attracted to flowers that are blue, purple, violet, white and yellow (which they see as “blue”).  Butterflies prefer flat topped flowers like the umbriferous flowers (lady’s mantle, fennel, etc) so that they can perch daintily on the flower top while eating.  Hummers are drawn to red tubular shaped flowers that better fit their bills.

It is also important not to use pesticides in your garden.  It is a destructive force on pollinator population and the ecology of the garden in general.

Just a hint…bees love most flowering herbs.

Happy Gardening!!

Bugs Are Our Friends…Well, Some of Them

Unwelcome bugs munching on your lovely plants are an unfortunate reality for any gardener.  Take a stroll through most garden centers and you will find all sorts of chemical solutions to remove or discourage them from sucking and nibbling on tender leaves.  But what if you don’t want to use chemicals?  Is there an organic solution to insect control?

Yes there is, if you embrace the idea that some insects can actually be your friends in the garden.  Insects such as parasitic wasps, hover flies, lacewings, ladybugs, spiders (yes, I know…not an insect), nematodes and mantids can all help protect your garden.

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