Nutrition Feed

My 30-Year Battle with a Disease I Couldn't Name

Lisa Brunette 1989
High school, 1989.

By Lisa Brunette

In my early 20s I wrote for a fledgling arts newspaper here in St. Louis called Intermission Magazine, and one of the columnists was a New Age devotee named Jeannie Breeze. I don't know if 'Breeze' was her real name or a pen name chosen for its metaphorical quality, but my legal last name is Brunette, which is a family name, so anything's possible. Jeannie was a real character; she always wore a purple knit beanie (yes, even in summer), and she fluffed auras for a living when she wasn't penning columns.

Lisa B&W1995
On a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, 1995.

Jeannie once pulled me aside to say she "sensed" the physical pain I was in, and that surprised me because I didn't think I showed any outward signs. Maybe I did and didn't realize it (I'm not known for my poker face), or maybe Jeannie really was "in tune" with this kind of thing. But either way, she did me a real kindness: She gave me a poem called "Putting the Pain to Sleep." In it the speaker sang a lullaby to her pain, as if singing a child to sleep. It was maybe a little hokey for the edgy youth I was at the time, or at least fancied I was, but it helped.  

I've thought about that poem a lot over the years, and I've tried to put to sleep many a pain.

Back then I had two diagnoses for the symptoms I'd experienced since high school: 1) endometriosis and 2) interstitial cystitis (IC). Neither is very easy to talk about. Both center on inherently "embarrassing" parts of the body. The quest for the diagnoses themselves was painful and invasive, involving catheters and laparoscopic cameras and sample pieces of my internal tissue removed for examination. During one particularly painful procedure, a nurse assistant said:

"You just have to ask yourself, Why me? The answer? Because you can take it."  

I did not punch her in the face, but maybe I should have.

Lisa 1997
In 1997.

When a doctor wanted to put me on a drug that would essentially throw my body into 'fake menopause' in my early 20s, I got a second opinion. The new MD tossed out the endometriosis diagnosis but doubled down on IC. There's no cure for it, but we tried all of the available treatments. None of them worked.

Now I'd like to cue a montage sequence spanning more than a decade. It shows me living, laughing, and loving while simultaneously struggling with discomfort and at times acute pain (because that's what we do, right?) I want you to imagine the last UTI you had, how that SUPER sucked for you. Now imagine that's your life. There's no antibiotic for it, no moment of relief, just persistent pain and a blur of time spent in the bathroom.

Which is not to say I didn't have some nice periods of decreased symptoms, and even for brief spells, total remission. A good diet and exercise seemed to help, as well as stress-reduction. Exercise and diet were always easier to control than stress, though. Ya feel me?

Lisa_2002
On a beach in the Florida Keys, 2002.

Complicating the quest for a cure were some other health issues in the form of "allergies." Throughout childhood, I had awful hay fever, and I also often reacted to food with severe heartburn and systemic digestive distress. Attempts to control the reactions through diet were met with little success, though I tried a wheat-free diet for a time. I was also a vegetarian for 13 years and a vegan for a good portion of that, but I was miserable pretty much the whole time on a diet high in beans, nuts, and soy.

Prone to hives and rashes, it was often difficult to pinpoint a trigger for the reaction. Unlike other people I know with distinct food allergies, I didn't react to any food consistently enough to rule out the offenders. I was diagnosed with asthma and given an inhaler for the wheezing and chest congestion and told to take antihistamines for the rhinitis, but there wasn't anything anyone could think to do about the food.

By the time I'd migrated to the Pacific Northwest in my early 30s, my allergies were deemed severe enough to finally get me in to see an allergist. He prescribed an epinephrine pen and put me on a diet of only meat, vegetables, and white rice. But I was still a vegetarian, left with only white rice and vegetables. After developing walking pneumonia, I broke the 13-year meat fast.

Lisa2007
On a Washington state beach, 2007.

At this time I also began to make changes in my environment to reduce allergens. I zipped up the whole bed, box spring and mattress, in a plastic covering; donated rugs, down comforters, and other sneeze-inducing items; and washed all my bedding and towels in hot water. But I swear to this day it was hot yoga that got me out of the allergy loop. After a year of regular Bikram yoga practice, I felt better in all ways, head to toe. 

However, yoga only kept the wolves at bay for so long. After a few years, the allergies resumed even worse than before, despite a regular, committed yoga practice. With them came a new level of digestive distress, along with extreme night sweats, severe insomnia, a crazy amount of ringing in the ears, perceived hearing loss, benign cysts, joint pain, and inflammation.  It's a party all the time when you're giving blood, urine, and stool samples, undergoing procedures like colonoscopy and mammography before you're old enough to warrant them, and then being diagnosed with some third-world, parasitic disease.

Yeah, that's right. I had hookworm.

My MD had missed it; I'd finally resorted to paying out-of-pocket for the services of an irritable bowel disease clinic, which my insurance wouldn't cover. Not even after the hookworm discovery. It's so rare in the States, I had to travel to three different pharmacies to piece together enough of the drug meant to eradicate it. It wasn't that the hookworm infestation caused the other symptoms, though. It was just part of it. The theory was that since my system is always inflamed and reacting to foods, the hookworm somehow took hold and stuck around - for how long was anybody's guess. Hookworm isn't even supposed to survive in cool climates like the Pacific Northwest, and I'd left the tropics of Florida a full decade before this.

Lisa 2013
In 2013.

By my 40s I had to give up fruit juice, I could barely tolerate alcohol, and soy was a huge problem. There seemed to be nothing I could do for the insomnia and night sweats, and I wondered if I were heading into the great 'pause a bit early. The IC roared back with tremendous severity, and a catheter scope (now with video!) found landscapes of scar tissue lining my bladder, including one particularly gnarly beast that looked like the boss at the end of a video game.

Worst for me, the digestive symptoms went into overdrive, and my eyes became increasingly sensitive. Somewhat desperate by this point and not finding a whit of relief though traditional medicine, I tried vitamins and supplements, acupuncture, cleanse diets, the Whole 30, wheat-free/gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free/egg-free/taste-free/satisfaction-free diets. I took up Pilates and dance. I flirted with meditation, joined a spiritual center, and even went to see someone calling himself the "bone whisperer." But things continued to get worse. 

Lisa2016
In 2016, because life's a merry-go-round.

Flash-forward to just two years ago, when I made a last-ditch effort to treat with two things I hadn't yet tried: medicinal herbs and Maya abdominal therapy

You might remember a couple of articles posted this year on the blog from Amanda Jokerst of Forest + Meadow Apothecary and Clinic. She shared her thoughts on how to foster a healthy immune system and how to support your immune system with herbs. I met her at a farmer's market, of all places. The final clue to my lifelong health mystery came from her.

By now you're likely wondering how all of these painful, annoying (though thankfully not life-threatening) symptoms relate to each other. Or maybe you've sussed out that they're all part of the same autoimmune disease. Good job, detective!

After Amanda and I went through - over the course of a year - absolutely every known cause and treatment for what might ail me, she proposed a couple of possible diagnoses:

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).

6a01b7c6dfbed3970b0240a4d88cd7200d
Last year.

But of course Amanda will be the first to tell you she isn't a medical doctor. She referred me to a gastroenterologist whose specialty includes both MCAS and SIBO. 

It took me a year to get in because Dr. Leonard Weinstock has a loooong waiting list, and also COVID-19 happened. In the meantime, I tried another, more available general allergist, who was only helpful in a small way, switching my at this point regular antihistamine from Zyrtec to Allegra, which has fewer side effects for me because it doesn't cross the blood/brain barrier. Otherwise, though, I could do nothing but wait.

During that wait, my symptoms worsened further, to the point where I now react to a wide range of health and beauty products and household allergens. Eating in restaurants has become so difficult for me that I don't miss them as much in these lockdowns. 

When I finally got in to see Weinstock, I gained answers to questions I'd had for 30 years. 

Apparently, I'm a "poster child" for MCAS, in his words. After blood and urine tests, as well as a comprehensive review of my medical history, I now have a definitive diagnosis of MCAS. My condition is "clinically significant," and I've been placed in a research study. MCAS is a "spectrum" disorder; we all have mast cells. They're pretty useful for snuffing out foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Mine just behave as if there's always a war going on, and everything that enters is the enemy.

Every one of the symptoms and conditions I've mentioned above, from IC to the food, inhalant, and contact allergies, and including a nasty bout of colic I had as a baby, fall under the MCAS umbrella. 

Lisa 2020
On a Missouri river, 2020.

And the SIBO? Yeah, I have that, too. It often accompanies MCAS and is responsible for the severe bloating I've had (so much fun when people actually think you're pregnant, but you're not). This diagnosis was confirmed through a lactulose breath test. Fortunately, there's a cure for SIBO. It meant taking the same drug used to treat E. coli, a prescription that cost me close to $700 out of pocket. Without insurance, that price tag would've been $2 grand, and that's with a hefty pharmacy discount. Hopefully, SIBO's gone for good.

I'm not happy at all to tell you that MCAS has no cure. The only thing we can do is decrease the symptoms. So I'm trying a medication that works by triggering your body's endorphins as well as supplying a few of its own. Endorphins, those feel-good hormones that give runners a high, tend to get suppressed under MCAS, which is why my reactions often hit extreme on the pain scale. Let's hope that this drug works, and the side effects are minimal.

Because lately, it's been a lot harder to sing the pain to sleep, and that lullaby is sure wearing thin.

Note: Please do not take the information presented here as a cue to self-diagnose. As described above, my diagnosis was arrived at through testing and determination by a medical doctor with a specialty in gastroenterology. It's best to consult your physician with any concerns you might have. That said, be tenacious if you aren't seeing improvement. Medical science is quickly evolving, with new discoveries and answers turning over established ideas all the time. MCAS wasn't really a thing back in the 90s when my own journey began.

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Don't Forget to Take Your (Food) Medicine This Fall. Plus, a Special Discount for CITF Readers!

Hazelnut
Native hazelnut, going dormant for fall here at Dragon Flower Farm.

By Lindsey Thompson

In East Asian medicine, food is itself medicine. Food theory runs on two important principles. One, specific culinary ingredients will nourish the organs directly associated with the current season. Two, by nourishing the organs of the season, you are also strengthening and preparing your body for good health in the following season. This takes seasonal eating to a different level than simply eating what is available locally in that season. Spices, stock choices, and whether or not you cook your food are all part of the seasonal eating strategies in East Asian medicine food therapy.

As I write this post, we are well into autumn, the season of the lungs and the large intestines. Autumn is a time when we battle moisture from rains, dryness from cold air and wind, and temperature swings moving ever towards the colder direction.

This weather will start to dry out our skin, our nostrils, and maybe even our lungs. If your lungs are ‘drying’ out, then you’ll notice that slight ache when breathing chilled air, or you may have a dry cough in the mornings and late afternoon without being sick.

The lungs and large intestines are considered in charge of our skin, our nostrils, and our immune system. They are associated with the ability to grieve properly, experiencing nostalgia, and the ability to let go of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that we do not need. In autumn, it's normal that if the lungs or large intestines need to be strengthened, instead of experiencing nostalgia, you may actually feel melancholy and a lack of inspiration. Or if the large intestine needs more attention, you may find it hard to let go of negative thoughts, emotions, and even small interactions that normally wouldn’t bother you. Physically, you may feel slight tension in your chest, struggle a little more with phlegm, and tend towards dry or cracking skin. If you notice these symptoms, then it is a great time to start incorporating some food therapy.

Snakeroot
Snakeroot, aka boneset, a late summer/early fall wildflower, fills in the gaps left by falling leaves at Dragon Flower Farm.

The color of the lung system in Chinese medicine is white, and its flavor is pungent. Both of these associations become important for autumn food therapy. The pungent flavor includes aromatic and spicy culinary flavors, such as perilla leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, curry, pepper, and chili peppers.

The pungent flavor helps lung function. It helps to open up the pathway in the lungs, break up mucus, and circulate qi or energy through your chest. If you feel melancholic and notice tension across your pectoral muscles, adding in aromatic spices to each meal will be important. Moderate use of chili peppers can help to break up phlegm, if your stomach can handle the spice, but for melancholy, spices like rosemary, thyme, perilla, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and basil may be better choices, as they strongly circulate qi through the chest. Some of them also improve digestion.

A few ideas for pungent herbs: have cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger in your oatmeal in the morning. Drink teas made from pungent herbs, such as fresh ginger tea, or holy basil tea, or even a caffeinated or non-caffeinated chai tea (but skip the sugar and milk if you have phlegm. Both sugar and dairy will actually increase your phlegm production). Try baking chicken breasts with perilla leaf wrapped around them, and cook roasted root vegetables tossed in rosemary and garlic.

Perilla
Though non-native, perilla is naturalized throughout North America. Here it is growing as a volunteer at Dragon Flower Farm.

Another way to strengthen your immune system and support your lungs is to eat naturally white foods, such as pears, onions, leeks, capsicum, and cauliflower, as well as rice. Rice is considered the specific grain of the lungs. Pears are especially fantastic for people who live in a climate that gets dry in the autumn.  If you get a dry, persistent cough, adding a baked pear with a little cinnamon can help immensely. In fact, if you are prone to dry, wheezing induced by cold air in the autumn and winter, eating pears daily while in season is indicated in Chinese medicine. Another pear recipe for dry cough/wheezing, is to make a porridge with the grain called "Job’s tears" (same basic cooking instructions as oatmeal) and add slices of a baked pear, a dash of cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey.

The final way to strengthen your lungs is by eating vegetables that nourish the organ system that is considered the "mother" of the lungs: the spleen/pancreas and stomach. This works on the philosophy that the child stays healthy and strong when the mom stays healthy and strong. Orange and yellow vegetables with a hint of sweetness nourish the spleen, pancreas, and stomach. So eating a healthy dose of orange-fleshed squash such as butternut, banana, delicata, acorn, pumpkin, kabocha, and hubbard squash is what the doctor ordered. Also remember to add in carrots, sweet potatoes, and yams. I like to substitute mashed sweet potatoes and yams for regular russet potatoes.

To Learn More - Plus a Discount for CITF Readers!

Autumn-foods
Photo courtesy Lindsey Thompson.

If you’d like to learn more about how to specifically use Chinese medicine food therapy to help keep your body strong and healthy each season, Thompson Acupuncture Clinic offers a downloadable six-part nutrition video series. The series - comprising more than four hours of content - will show you how to incorporate this ancient, time-tested theory into food choices and cooking styles for each season. It will teach you how to listen to your own body in order to recognize the subtle signs that our bodies use to tell us we are drifting away from optimal health. It will then teach you how to use real food, common kitchen herbs, vegetables, fruit, spices, and proteins to bring your body back to optimal health.

CITF DISCOUNT: Use coupon code "The Flock" to get a 20% discount at checkout, good until midnight Nov 1.

Thompson+Family+Clinic+Head+Shots-0026

Lindsey Thompson holds a master's in acupuncture and East Asian medicine from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM) in Portland, OR, with extra training in the Dr. Shen Pulse Analysis system, an 18-month internship in Five Element Acupuncture, and advanced cupping training from the International Cupping Therapy Association. After graduating from OCOM in 2012, Lindsey volunteered with the Acupuncture Relief Project in Nepal to hone her clinical skills at their high-volume clinic in rural Nepal. She now owns Thompson Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, Wash.

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Learn from Our Mistake! Ditch Those Daylilies at Dinnertime

Ditch lily
Hemerocallis fulva, daylily, ditch lily.

By Lisa Brunette

We're not at a loss for daylilies, AKA 'ditch lilies,' here at the Cat in the Flock farm. They're overgrowing a sidewalk near the house in one area and have obviously spilled over a circle in what is now the orchard, where they'd been planted with hostas. They're also popping up seemingly of their own accord in a back corner.

So when I read in various sources (most notably here but also here and here) that they could be an excellent food source - the leaves, shoots, flower buds and blooms, as well as tubers all edible - I was excited to try them. From a permaculture standpoint, if something is growing to beat the band, and we can eat the whole thing, that's a win. The negative reactions seemed minimal - only 5% of the population, according to one blogger, and others mentioned a slight possibility of mild symptoms in some people.

We'd been successfully foraging found flora from the garden for a couple of years by this point. I'd made a tea from cleavers, a tincture from wild geranium, and a salad with many an edible petal. We had eaten violet leaves and flowers without any ill effects, and we successfully ID'd and ingested without problems a mushroom called reddening lepiota, which proved to be far more delicious than grocery store varieties. So it was not without both experience and research that we went into this trial with the daylilies. We also verified that the lilies growing in our plot were indeed the common 'ditch lily,' Hemerocallis fulva, or at least we had every reason to believe they were, and harvested them fresh. Our garden is 100% organic as well, so no other contaminates were present.

Ditch lily cluster
This non-native plant grows like crazy and is really tough to eradicate.

We harvested them one Saturday morning - the 4th of July - and cooked them up according to directions published by an award-winning chef, cookbook author, and blogger, which was simply to try the flower blooms and buds, as well as the tubers, sautéd in butter with a little salt and pepper. We did this with a small handful of the tubers and a few buds and blooms.

The results were disastrous. Shortly after eating them, I felt... strange. In the middle of trying to make kale chips for a party for the 4th, I asked my husband if he could finish up, as I needed to lie down, seriously. I was knocked out with a strange sleep for an hour and a half in the middle of a sunny day, during which I neither moved nor awakened. This is strange for me, as I'm not an easy napper. When I finally woke, it was with a strong taste of those tubers in my mouth. Then I experienced a full six hours straight of violent diarrhea, with extreme flatulence. My husband also had diarrhea, though his was milder, but we had to miss the evening festivities, as the two of us basically spent the 4th of July in the bathroom. (Go ahead, make your fireworks jokes.)

Since Anthony also had a negative digestive response, and mine was so extreme, I would absolutely not recommend ditch lilies as a food to anyone. They're really not worth the potential sickness, especially since the tubers are difficult to get clean, and they're mighty tiny. It took digging up six extremely well-established plants - these things are long-lived, and ours might've been there since the '60s - to get two small handfuls of tubers. They tasted... OK. I don't know what all the fuss is about. We'd rather have a regular ol' potato, and we'd have saved ourselves an evening of absolute misery if we'd passed on these. 

Ditch lily tuber
A sample tuber.

We take responsibility for not researching enough beforehand, of course. When it comes to research, you can almost always do more. I've since gone down the rabbit hole to realize exactly why eating ditch lilies was a bad idea that never should have been suggested by those sources in the first place.

First, a word about one of Google's chief weaknesses. Its algorithm is built to give you what it thinks you want, which means it will give you whatever verifies and reinforces your search terms, rather than contradicting them. So if you search on 'daylilies edible,' it will give you results that support daylilies being edible. We see how this is a problem in politics; Facebook is the same way. The echo chambers are built for increasingly high echoes. Now if you search on 'bad reactions to daylilies,' you will get the information that cuts against their edibility. This is the opposite of how research using traditional paper media goes, where no algorithm is funneling you toward only the information that confirms your bias. 

Ditch lily buds
Ditch lily buds.

Using the daylily=negative search terms is how I finally got to some other sites, less sexy than the award-winning chef with his glowing talk of sautés. A couple of nerdier bloggers reveal just how complicated the botanical identification process can be for these flowers we call ditch lilies, for two reasons:

  1. The daylily has been cultivated by horticulturalists to a tune of 60,000 varieties, toxic alkaloids are often used in the cultivation process, and it's very difficult to verify that your daylily isn't one of these varieties. 
  2. People have had documented reactions to even the daylily cultivars deemed 'safe,' and that could be due to errant plants from the originals, but no one knows for sure.

Here's Green Deane, of Eat the Weeds: 

While daylilies are listed in virtually every foraging book as edible as I said earlier, don’t presume any daylily other than the original is edible. Many are, but don’t assume so. Have it proven. Some people also have severe allergic reactions to them. In fact, some people can eat them for years with no problem then suddenly develop an allergy. 

It's worth reading his whole post, 'Daylily Dilemma,' as he walks through the cultivar problem in detail. The other source of interest in this daylily debate is Marie Viljoen, author of the book Forage, Harvest, Feast. While she does include daylilies in her book, she offers a hell of a caveat here in this excerpted post, "Daylily Dangers and Delights":

Scrupulous foraging writers will inform you that a few people experience gastric distress after eating daylilies. It is true. I know of four people who have been sickened (the symptoms are diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting) after eating the flowers of Hemerocallis fulva. One of them is wild foods author Dr. John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants. He and a friend became ill after eating a flower and six raw buds. This has not happened to me, or to countless people who have eaten them with no ill effect. Understanding why it happens is a real head scratcher. It is worth putting it into a broader context. Not all toxicities are the same, and there are several factors to consider before you sit down to dinner. (emphasis hers)

Viljoen also elaborates on not just the cultivar problem but another botanical cultivation aspect, which is that some species are diploids and some triploids (referring to the chromosone structure), so that you have in the end a whole host of caveats: "Avoid the diploid wild species. Avoid the horticultural cultivars. And eat daylilies (or any new food) in moderation," she says (again, her emphasis). The best Viljoen can do is refer to a head-scratching need for more scientific study. And what does 'in moderation' mean? The wild food expert she mentions was sickened from just one bloom and a handful of flower buds.

Ditch lily row

Given the better-than-average possibility that the daylily you encounter is, in fact, not safe to eat, so much so that experts themselves have ingested them and fallen ill, I just don't see the benefit here at all. So let me reiterate: I would absolutely not recommend ditch lilies as a food to anyone. That is all.

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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flowers
Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flower

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I have considered carefully how much of the garden we want to allocate to native plants that aren't a direct food source for ourselves vs. traditional orchard and vegetable plants that do feed us. So far we've tried to learn as much as we can about native edibles and have designed the garden to include them.

But it was exciting to learn through the Shutterbee program (read more about that here) that native bees can make great use of traditional vegetable and herb flowers as a pollen source. That's right: As part of my training as a citizen scientist conducting bee studies in my own yard, I was instructed not to overlook the vegetable patch and herb garden. 

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

Most efforts to promote pollinator habitats focus on native flowers such as milkweed and coneflower, which are terrific additions to the garden that we've definitely incorporated. But this is the first I've heard that food plants could support native bees! That's an exciting finding because it means the annual vegetables we're growing get an added "stacked function." In permaculture, that means it has more than one use in the garden - here as both food source for us and a pollen and nectar source for bees. There's even a specialized 'squash bee' that is so-named because it prefers the flowers of squash plants.

For my first official foray into the farmyard to record bees, I was pleased to find that indeed, native bees were busy taking advantage of the flowering vegetable plants. I'd left the arugula standing when it bolted in the summer heat, and it's popular with tiny sweat bees.

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

So that's one more compelling reason to grow food in your yard. The list was already pretty long, but here's what we've got now. By growing your own food, you will:

  1. Save money, especially if you grow from seeds. You could also get a secondary set of money savings from a reduced need for medicinal interventions, whether that's from traditional medicine or alternatives.
  2. Eat healthier, as your food won't lose integrity via shipping and storing, and if you grow organically, you'll cut out pesticide contamination. You're also likely to eat more veggies because they're fresh and tasty.
  3. Get more in touch with the cycle of life as you take part in it as a mulcher, composter, and seed-sower.
  4. Enjoy a motivating daily workout as you put sweat equity into something that yields more than a toned physique.
  5. And now we can add: Help pollinators by providing them a much better food source than turf grass!
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber - I use it in salads and to flavor water

Of course, if you want pollinators to take advantage of the flowers, you need to leave them there. The broccoli I started from seed indoors mostly faltered, but a few took off, and then quickly bolted (next year, we try a different approach). The flowers are pretty, so why not let them go? Ditto the chervil and arugula, both of which love cool weather and are pretty much done now that it's 90+ degrees here in June. That reminds me, the arugula is about to go to seed, so I better get out there and snag the remaining leaves...

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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5 Cool Uses for Rose Petals

Knockout Rose Bush 2020
So. Many. Roses.

By Lisa Brunette

We inherited three 'knock out' rose bushes, well established by the time we moved here in 2017. Three is a more than enough for us, especially considering this ridiculously common ornamental doesn't produce rose hips, and most pollinators don't seem to take much notice of it, either, except for the domesticated European honeybee. We removed one of the rose bushes last fall and trimmed back the remaining two, and lo and behold, this spring they exploded with more blooms than we'd ever seen before.

The roses are pretty, for sure, and they seem to be more fragrant this year, too. But we as a species are far past the point where we can allow sizable real estate to be taken up by living statues, no matter how pretty or fragrant. Should the knock out rose go - or stay? On the plus side, it was cultivated to be disease-resistant and hardy, and it's clearly flourishing even though we haven't done anything to it besides trim it back and mulch around it.

But it isn't a native, not like the wild roses that have evolved in tandem with local pollinators. So for example, caterpillars haven't had eons to adapt methods of getting past the rose's resistance to them (and it's been bred to further resist them anyway). So the remaining question for us is: Can we use it?

Rose Petals
Much more useful than just potpourri.

If we can derive some culinary, medicinal, or other human use from this plant, then it warrants its space at Dragon Flower Farm. I knew from reading the novel Like Water for Chocolate that you can eat rose petals, so I started from that assumption. Tita's famous quail-and-rose-petal sauce recipe aside, I found and tested five cool uses for America's national flower.

#1 Just toss the petals into a salad.

Maybe this is obvious, but if they're edible, you know, you can simply add them to your mixed greens and chow down. Don't use petals that have been sprayed with pesticides, of course. We're 100 percent organic, and you could be, too. If your rose petals are clean, give this a try; they're high in vitamin C. Some say the more fragrant they are, the better the taste. We've tossed them into mixes with baby kale, shredded carrot, sunflower seeds, and green olives, and they're delicious.

#2 Pickle them.

I love pickled food, so pickled rose petals immediately intrigued me when I saw this recipe over at the Martha Stewart blog. I followed it to a T and have to say pickled rose petals is my new go-to. My only complaint is that the recipe - part of one of those slideshow thingies - ends abruptly without mentioning whether or not you have to refrigerate the petals or how long they'll last. FYI, I put mine in the fridge, and three weeks later, they're still fine.

Rose Petal Products
The sum total of my rose-petal haul.

#3 Make rose water.

Rose water might make you think of your grandmother's perfume, at least if you're as old as I am, but it's so much more. You can use it in food dishes, as a culinary accompaniment, in yogurt lassi, and, of course, as a refreshing, non-chemical fragrance. It's easy to make, too: Just pour boiling water over rose petals in a jar and seal, and you've got it. Again, especially with the outdoor temps here now into the 90s, I keep mine in the fridge.

Rose Water
It's lovely to look at and smell, but useful, too.

#4 Infuse - and naturally dye - your vinegar.

If you've been following along with this blog regularly, you've already seen me use both violets and lilacs to dye and infuse vinegar. I was curious to see what would happen with rose petals, and woo hoo, our favorite little valentine didn't disappoint. Note: I recommend using a high-quality vinegar for this, organic and containing the naturally occurring organism referred to as "the mother." Why? Because you're going to want to eat a lot of it, making salad dressing and adding it as you cook, and your body will thank you for it.

Rose Vinegar
It's like Barbie vinegar!

#5 Brew rose petals as tea.

I realize you might think of this as a repeat of the rose water above, but it's meant to be more medicinal than beautifying, and rather than drink rose petal tea on its own, I've opted to pair it with another plant.

First, I want to introduce you to a concept called the "Doctrine of Signatures," which I initially heard of from the author Tammi Hartung of Desert Canyon Farm but have subsequently come across in a variety of sources. This is an ancient tradition that suggests what a plant looks like tells you what it's good for. For roses, that means the heart-shaped, velvety red petals promote heart opening. So Tita's rose-petal sauce wasn't just fictional license.

Roses have also been used to soothe the stomach and bring on a sense of calm. I decided to pair them with the definitely heart-shaped violet leaves growing here in profusion, and it was fun to find out that violet leaves have been used to promote heart health, too, also backing up the doctrine of signatures.

Here's how you make my 'Heart's Ease' tea blend. First, dry the petals, which you can manage in a dehydrator or by spreading them out in a wide, shallow basket. I layered them with the violet leaves in a dryer rack I fashioned out of netting and a garden flat box.

Violet Leaves Drying

Of course, Chaco was really grateful for this lovely bed I'd created for him.

Chaco on Violet Leaves

Once I removed the cat, started over with new violet leaves, added the rose petals, and placed the whole rack in a place where Chaco couldn't get to it, it took about two weeks for the mixture to fully dry. I then placed it into clean jars, labeled with both ingredients, the suggested use, and the date.

So, what's the verdict? Are these multiple uses for rose petals enough to justify keeping the knock out? What others can you suggest? List them in the comments below! Another option is to replace the knockout with a native rose or another one that will provide us with more rose hips...

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