Harnessing Plant Power
Yesterday, the County confirmed the first known case of corona virus on Bainbridge Island, and today I heard about another one. Given the amount my neighbor islanders travel, it seemed only a matter of time before the virus would arrive here. By now, most people in the greater Seattle area are taking precautions to protect themselves from this fast-spreading virus-at least, those who are able to are. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be in a nursing home right now, or be disabled and reliant on caregivers, or living on the street with nowhere to go. I’ve been mildly baffled by the empty shelves where toilet paper and bottled water used to be, and saddened that our early responses have been weird, panic-driven hoarding instead of pulling together as communities.
Several friends and family members live or work within a few blocks of the nursing home where the Washington State outbreak started. Most of them are relatively young and fit, but they are working from home now, or working during off hours to minimize contact with others. My own little neighborhood has a high percentage of elderly people and here at least there’s a lot of outreach and assistance on offer. Soup is carried to the sick, groceries and mail brought to shut ins, dogs walked, gardens weeded. While local stores have plenty of toilet paper, there’s not a bottle of hand sanitizer to be had. A local artisan workshop had every protective face mask stolen from the woodworker shop, and they too are gone from local store shelves, along with zinc and elderberry extracts.
Washing In Washington
You can bet we’re all washing our hands well these days, often singing along to some cheerful ditty. I learned proper hand-washing techniques years ago in nursing school and have always been a bit finicky about it. Despite the obvious virus concerns, I’m not a fan of hand sanitizers. For starters, they’re no more effective than soap and water and often less, as people get careless when they think something is making them safe without effort. Though Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical that’s been proven to be a dangerous endocrine disrupter, was FINALLY ruled unsafe last April, older shelf stock may still contain it, along with 28 other unsafe ingredients, since sell-through of existing products was allowed. And let’s not forget that antibacterial hand sanitizers are most effective against, hello, bacteria, not viruses.
At home, we use Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soaps, diluted to work in foaming soap dispensers. With a little vinegar and avocado oil added, it makes great shampoo and body wash as well, without chemical additives, and now I’m washing my hands with it so I don’t need to slather on moisturizer. Here’s my recipe below; I often infuse the water with rosemary and thyme, both good for hair and skin and both with antiviral properties. To make it, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1/4 cup rosemary twigs (add 2 tablespoons of thyme twigs if you like; I use lemon thyme for the refreshing fragrance). Cover and steep for 20 minutes, strain and use for hair rinse and in the following recipe. Refrigerate in a tightly covered glass jar between uses.
Safe Shampoo, Hand And Body Wash
1 cup liquid castile soap
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1/3 cup water (infused or plain)
Combine in a jar, shake well before each use. Use 2-3 teaspoons depending on how much hair you have (!). Rub into scalp and hair, rinse well, towel dry gently. Note that hair won’t feel “squeaky clean” but will dry soft and shining.
Gardening Boosts Immunity
I’ve been amused to see a lot of gardeners posting that staying home and avoiding crowds was extremely appealing in any case. Evidently quite a few of us geeky gardeners are introverts who feel better in the garden than out in public. That’s definitely true for me, and it’s heartening to find research that shows that gardening and being in natural surroundings is not only emotionally soothing but measurably boosts our immune systems. It makes me think that those folks who carried tussy-mussies of flowers and herbs to smell when walking through plague-stricken cities had the right idea; fragrance carries emotional weight. In my own garden, I’m making daily tussy-mussy bunches to sniff as I gather herbs. We use fresh herbs in everything from salads to soups, primarily because those bright, lively flavors give hearty winter foods a lift, but also because most herbs have antiviral properties.
Thanks to the increasing interest in growing foods and herbs, there’s been a fair bit of research on nutritional values and the efficacy of flavonoids and other natural plant compounds in recent years. Turns out that most traditional culinary herbs in many cultures have potent beneficial properties. Our ancestors my have been ignorant but they weren’t stupid and were of necessity keen observers. It’s certainly true that garden herbs, especially if harvested in winter, aren’t going to match the potency of commercially prepared extracts and pills, from thyme or oregano oil to elderberry and echinacea lozenges. On the other hand, freshness is always a factor in efficacy, and the only other ingredients in our own concoctions will be of our choosing.
Beyond Folk Tales
Elderberry is hugely popular for treating colds and flu, and here on the West Coast we have several native species, including Sambucus niger ssp. cerulea, closely related to the common European elderberry, Sambucus niger, which has long been the go-to medicinal species. First Nations people have used the native berries to treat illnesses for millennia and not surprisingly, they’re as useful as their European cousins. My daughter-in-love makes a lovely elderberry syrup which the family swears by; here’s a study on the antibacterial and antiviral effects of such syrups:
Kitchen Garden Pests To The Rescue
After relentlessly ripping out as much lemon balm as possible, I had to chuckle to read that it contains highly effective antiviral compounds. Oops. Fortunately (I guess), my eradication efforts haven’t been completely successful and I found plenty of lemon balm foliage to drop in my teapot this morning, along with chopped ginger root (also anti-viral) and juice and slices of rind from the last of my own lemons (strongly antiviral). Covered with boiling water and steeped for 20 minutes, the result was refreshing and delicious, especially once I put in a little honey.
My little garden is also overrun with mellow spearmint and pungent peppermint, both traditional medicinals that do in fact contain powerful antibacterial and antiviral compounds. Both also make a pleasant sipping tea, combined with chamomile (antibacterial and antiviral), more lemon balm, and calendula petals (antiviral and anti-inflammatory). I’m tossing garlic greens and sprigs of fennel, thyme and oregano (antibacterial and antiviral) into raw kale and apple salads and in leek and mushroom omelets as well (fennel, onions and garlic being rich in many beneficial properties). As I glean these wholesome, health-enhancing snippets, I’m also breathing in their fragrances along with fresh, cool air. Just poking around in my still-chilly garden calms my mind and soothes my spirit. As they say these days, stay calm and wash your hands. Onward….