Bladderwrack: Gift from the Sea

This past week my family and I got away for one last beach get-away to Maine. I love the languid and liminal days of late summer on the coast when the Rose Hips start to ripen and the ocean-side Goldenrod is in bloom- it’s my favorite time to visit. So subsequently it’s when I tend to harvest my seaweed! That being said, many folks prefer to harvest Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) in the spring and early summer, however, it’s definitely possible to harvest this seaweed well into August.

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Bladderwrack: Identification, Habitat & Range

Look for this seaweed growing on rocks in the inter-tidal zone, the area of the shore effected by the tides. Here on the eastern coast of the US it’s found south to about North Carolina and north all the way up the Canadian coast. It grows on the coast of the British Isles, the Atlantic coast of Europe, Iceland, southern Greenland, and the northern coasts of Norway, Finland, and Russia as well. On the west coast of the US a related species, Fucus gardneri, is used. Our local Bladderwrack (F. vesiculosus) is easily identified by the air bladders ranging in size from a pea to a marble found in pairs along the mid-rib of the thallus (the entire vegetative body of a seaweed). There can be some variation, however. Occasionally the bladders are not found in pairs, and their amount will vary based on the turgidity of the water- the more active the wave action the fewer bladders will be found. It grows along with other Fucus spp seaweeds but is the only one with the air bladders present. The fronds tend to be dichotomously branched and can grow to be about 35 in long and 1.0 in wide and have mucilage-rich vesicles at their tips. It’s a perennial macroalgae that tends to live 4-5 years.

Bladderwrack  (F. vesiculosis) . Note the air bladders along the mid-rib and the swollen vesicles at the tips on the fronds

Bladderwrack (F. vesiculosis). Note the air bladders along the mid-rib and the swollen vesicles at the tips on the fronds

Sustainably Harvesting Bladderwrack

Bladderwrack is best harvested in the spring and early summer when the vesicles are nice and plump. However, if need or circumstances be, it can be harvested well into late summer. As it reaches maturity the vesicles will elongate, so the more long and pointed the vesicles the older the seaweed. The bottom-line though is that as long as the thallus is vibrant-looking (see the pictures above and below for an idea of what I mean by vibrant), it’s fine to harvest if that’s when you’re by the sea!

Bladderwrack growing on a cliff edge with Rockweed  (Ascophyllum nodosum)

Bladderwrack growing on a cliff edge with Rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum)

Waiting for low tide will give you the best access to Bladderwrack, which grows on rocks and along coves, generally mixed with other seaweeds such as Spiralwrack (Fucus spiralis ) and Rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) . When harvesting this-or any seaweed- it’s important that you never pull the holdfast, which is where it attaches to the rock, since this will completely kill the organism. Rather, you want to give it a gentle haircut with scissors or garden clippers, taking about 1/2 of the thallus, which will allow it to grow back. I like to harvest into a basket or even a brown paper bag. Give it all a good rinse in the seawater to remove any excess sand and also to wash off any organisms, like snails, from the seaweed. DO NOT wash in fresh water as this will cause it to begin to breakdown! Then, if you’re going to stay at the beach for a bit, you can lay it in a thin layer on a towel or blanket in the sun to begin to dry it.

Never take all the Bladderwrack from a rock, wall or area, remembering that good harvesting practices mean it was never even obvious that you harvested at all! Think of yourself like a browsing deer wandering through a meadow, taking a little bit from here, a little bit from there, and so on. Take care if you are walking on seaweed-covered slippery walks while harvesting. And never take more that you need! In Maine harvest for personal use is permitted and commercial harvest requires a permit. Always be sure you are harvesting in an area free of industrial waste and pollution and harvesting far from urban centers is strongly recommended.

Bladderwrack and other intertidal zone seaweeds growing on rocks at low tide

Bladderwrack and other intertidal zone seaweeds growing on rocks at low tide

Drying & Storage

It’s traditional to hang seaweed in the sun on a line to dry. In warm, dry climates it can dry in this way in a day but here in the northeast not so much! While it’s true that seaweed left out on a line will absorb some moisture from the morning dew, it’s not enough to cause any worry and a few days dried in the sun in this way tends to be enough. If it’s cloudy and overcast, then it will take longer and if rain is projected then it should be brought inside and re-hung after the rain. On my most recent trip to Maine we were camping so I hung it on a line to dry. It wasn’t completely dried by the time I got home so I opted to spread it in a thin layer in some large baskets and put it in my hoophouse, which is warm and dry and sheltered from the rain. At least once a day I tossed the Bladderwrack around a bit in the basket, since the parts more exposed to air dry quicker, and this allowed it to evenly dry. It finished drying in a just a few days in this manner. While it’s true that the least amount of time it takes to dry, the better for the final quality of your seaweed, it’s important to remember that anything your harvest yourself will be so incredibly fresh and superior to most herbs sold in the herbal industry. So don’t worry if it take a little while to dry!

Bladderwrack hung to dry on the line

Bladderwrack hung to dry on the line

Once it’s dry enough to snap when you try to break the fronds it’s ready to be stored. You can cut it into small pieces and store it in glass jars away from high heat and strong direct light. It can also be stored in durable plastic bags, like ziplocks. Since Bladderwrack is very oily in nature it has a shelf-life of about 6 months, after which it runs the risk of going rancid. To avoid this tragedy, simply store it in the freezer once you hit the 6 month mark and use as-needed.

Medicinal Use

Bladderwrack is in the family of Brown Seaweeds, which also includes Kelp, Wakame, and Kombu, and shares many of the same medicinal properties as these other seaweeds. It has a long history of medicinal use, being written about in all the old herbal texts. Due to it’s high Iodine content Bladderwrack is best known for its benefit for goiter and low/hypothyroid. In addition to Iodine it’s also rich in many minerals and trace minerals, including potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, nitrogen, iron, zinc, boron, copper, manganese, chromium, selenium, bromine, vanadium, and nickel. It’s also extremely high in antioxidants and contains many of the B-complex vitamins, K, E, A, and D. Due to its super high mineral content Bladderwrack can be though of as a low-dose medicinal and food as medicine, since an excess of certain minerals can be harmful, and it’s also important to note it should not be taken during pregnancy or nursing.

Bladderwrack drying

Bladderwrack drying

Traditional dosage is about 3-6 grams/day. For a frame of reference, 1 tsp of the powder or a small handful of the fronds equates to about 3-4 g. In addition to being a superior nutrative, Bladderwrack  is rich in the polysaccharides fucoidan and algin, which have been widely studied and seem to be anti-cancer, anti-estrogenic, immune-boosting and strongly detoxifying. Studies link a diet that contains brown seaweed to strongly support cardiovascular health and lower rates of cancer. Bladderwrack also supports the muskuloskeletal system and has a history of helping folks with arthritis and injury, particularly when taken in a bath. Add ½-1 cup of the powder into a bath along with some epsom salts for a wonderfully relaxing and anti-inflammatory bath. For an idea on making your own inspired bath salts check-out my recipe and post on Mermaid Bath Salts! It’s also a nice soothing demulcent for irritations in the bladder, kidneys, and urinary system. In addition to taking the powder one can take the tincture (30-40 drops 2-4x/day), add it to a tea, make a cold infusion, and also use it in the kitchen. Bladderwrack can be added to broths and stocks, soups and stews (although it can take a while to cook until it’s tender), and the dried flakes can be sprinkled directly onto your food, added to traditional spice blends such as gomasio, furikake, togarishi, and so on!

Happy harvesting all!


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Violet Simple Syrup & The Heart-Strengthening Medicine of Violet

It’s spring and Violet season is upon us. There’s lots to say about the medicinal properties of this herb- it’s a cool and moistening nutritive tonic, especially rich in vitamin C and A, and is especially well-known for it’s ability to move lymph, especially in the breasts. I love making a Violet Oil every year for this purpose. It’s a lovely alterative that gently supports all the eliminatory pathways in the body and soothes irritated skin (lovely in a salve), and the infusion is wonderful for a raw sore throat or dry cough. But today I want to focus on the heart-mending properties of Violet.

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One of the most amazing things about plants is that they work on us on both a physical and spiritual-emotional level. I’m so grateful every single day for these incredible herbal allies that support me and the people I love through heartbreak and grief. When thinking about the intersection of herbs and grief it’s important to recognize that the end goal isn’t about “getting over it” or moving-on. This is a capitalist influenced mind-set that values productivity over healing and has no place in the holistic model of plant medicine. What the herbs can help us with is navigating the painful, difficult, and often confusing terrain of heartache. They can help us access our grief if we feel frozen, they can calm and ground us if we’re feeling panicked, they can help us process and release, and they can help us move with more flow and ease through difficult times.

Violet has a long history of “strengthening the emotional heart,” as it’s written about in the old herbals. Used in ancient Greece to “comfort and strengthen the heart,” it’s associated with Aphrodite/Venus and was the symbol of ancient Athens.  In Macer's Herbal (tenth century) Violet is among the many herbs which were considered powerful against 'wykked sperytis.'  Gerard, in his herbal dating back to the 15th century, says Violets “comforteth the heart.” Violets were a common funeral flower for the ancient Romans who used it to decorate their graves and it was said to represent remembrance. In the Victorian Language of Flowers, Blue Violet was a flower of love that symbolized faithfulness and devotion. Violets that grow by your doorstep are said to provide psychic protection and ease for your heart.  When you take a close look you’ll quickly notice the leaves are heart-shaped. Another special thing about Violet is that the first flowers you see in the spring- the classic Violet flower- are not at all for reproduction and don’t set seed. They are just for beauty. The plant produces a secret, hidden, and very inconspicuous flower in the fall that is self-fertilizing and in-fact doesn’t even open at all, called a cleistogamous flower in botany. To me, the fact that these gorgeous early spring flowers of Violet are purely for pleasure speaks volumes about beauty and pleasure medicine and the role that has to play in the mending of the emotional heart. There’s also something to me there about sexual sovereignty and it’s also perhaps important to note that Violet was one of the flowers Persephone was picking when she entered the Underworld. The earlier versions of this Greek and Roman myth (said to take place near Enna in Sicily) imply that she took this underworld journey of her own accord and wasn’t accosted by Hades, like most versions of this myth tell…and if processing grief isn’t synonymous with an underworld journey, I don’t know what it is!

I have strongly felt the support of Violet, especially in times of acute grief. Strengthening doesn’t equate with shutting-out though. It’s more like a bolstering when you think the weight of the grief might be more than you can bear. Violet also imparts a sense of calm and drop-doses of the tincture of the leaves and flowers are especially effective for this- try 1-3 drops a day. You can also work with Violet by putting the leaves in your salads, doing self-massage with the infused oil, and putting the leaves and flowers in your baths, taking the flower essence, and sitting with the plant. But perhaps my favorite way to work with Violet, particularly the flowers, is as a simple syrup, which I find particularly calming to the emotional heart. And, while I don’t generally use sugar in my medicine-making, this recipe and its effects are truly worth it.  It’s also a very old and traditional way of preparing violet flowers. Here’s my recipe.

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Violet Simple Syrup

Gather purple violet flowers (this time spent with Violet is part of the medicine!) and put them into a mason jar, gently packing them down. Just barely cover the flowers with boiling water and let them steep for 24 hours.  Strain into a non-metallic pan and add 1/2 part of turbinado sugar for every 1 part of your violet flower infusion (which will be a gorgeous purple color). For instance, if you have one cup of infusion then add ½ cup sugar. Next, gently warm (but do not boil) until the sugar dissolves. And that’s it! Totally optional, but you can add lemon juice to change the color of your syrup to a more pinkish-purple color, adding it little by little until you get your desired shade. Store in a glass bottle in the fridge where it will keep for several months if not longer. You can freeze it for future use too. Add 1-2 tbsp: cup of sparkling water and stir. Notice from your first sip how calm and open your heart space feels after drinking it. You can also use to sweeten your tea, on it’s own in drop doses, to sweeten an herbal formula to make it into a cordial, or use in the kitchen drizzles onto cookies or cakes or even cooked-down to make a glaze. However you choose to use it, I know you’ll find the deep and mysterious medicine of Violet supportive and transformative.

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And here are a few of my favorite ways to use the syrup:

Violet Spritzer

2 tbsp Violet Simple Syrup
1 cup sparking water or seltzer

Violet Lemonade

2 tbsp Violet Simple Syrup
1/2 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice

Enjoy!


And for any of you wanting to learn more about our locally abundant medicinal plants, our bioregional herbalism series, From the Roots Up, is open for registration! We’re currently enrolling for our summer and fall sessions, which meet 1 sunday/month in the Amherst/Northampton, MA area.

Learn More & Register For Class!


Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!

























Autumn Olive & Apple Fruit Leather

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Have you met Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) yet? I absolutely love this plant. It’s abundant, easy to harvest, is insanely good for you, and is wild plant we can harvest without concern of overharvest since it’slisted as “invasive” in many states (I prefer to call it “opportunistic”). Also called Autumn Berry and Japanese Silver Berry, this northeast superfood was introduced to the US in the 1830's. It’s endemic to eastern and central Asia, including parts of the Himalayas where it is a traditional food, and has now thoroughly made itself a part of the northeast ecosystem. But they’re not just in New England! Autumn Olives can be found growing south to Florida, in the Great Lakes Region, and west to the Mississippi River. The Pacific Northwest also is home to these prolific shrubs.

Identification: ID is easy- the medium to large shrubs have alternate leaves that are silver on their undersides, sometimes have thorns, and bear small, fragrant, cream-colored, 4-petaled flowers in the spring. The berries are red with silver speckles- one of our favorite nicknames for them is “Sparkle Berries”! One poisonous look-alike is Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp)- but those shrubs don't have silver leaves and the berries don't have the silver speckles, plus Honeysuckle berries ripen in the summer not the fall. If you find a bush with silver, alternate leaves with silver-seckled berries, you’ve got Autumn Olive.

Harvest: Autumn Olives ripen in the fall-Sept through Oct here in New England. They are sour and sweet (like most berries) and get sweeter with cool nights and a frost. Flavor can vary quite a lot from bush to bush, so taste each one to see which is to your liking and harvest from that one. You will find them growing everywhere! But they especially like hedgerows, old fields and farms, and any area that was disturbed in the past. They are an early successional species and are especially abundant in fields in my area that are transitioning from meadow to forest. Be sure you’re harvesting from an area free of chemicals and remember to practice reciprocity in your harvest. For more on this look to my article “Wildcrafting, Wildtending, and Reciprocity” on this blog.

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Nutritional Value: Nutritionally, these berries are just awesome. Amazingly, they are the highest known source of the potent antioxidant lycopene, which is cancer protective, anti-inflammatory and promotes longevity. The primary way the average American gets lycopene in their diet in by eating tomatoes, however Autumn Olives have been shown to contain up to 17x more lycopene than tomatoes! The berries are also rich in vitamins A, C and E, flavonoids and essential fatty acids. And they're free.

What to Do With Them: There are sooooo many ways to preserve the abundant Autumn. I’ve made jams, added them to applesauce, made into and incredible sweet and warming fall cordial, frozen for smoothies and baking, and of course they’re also just super yummy and safe to eat raw. They also make a great substitute for tomatoes for folks with Nightshade sensitivities. But one of my favorite ways to preserve them is in fruit leather and I’ve found that their sour flavor profile combines especially well with the sweetness of apples, which also happen to be in season the same time as Autumn Olives, making an amazing bioregional, localvore treat!


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Autumn Olive & Apple Fruit Leather

Ingredients:
Autumn Olives 2 cups
Chopped Apple 1 cup

Supplies:
Food Mill (optional, but will make your job easier if you want to remove the Autumn Olive seeds- see details below)
Parchment Paper
Baking Sheet or Pyrex Baking Dish
Blender or Food Processor

Step 1: Start by combining your Autumn Olives and Apples in a pan with just a tiny bit of water. Chop the apples into small 1-2 inch pieces. It’s ok if some of your Autumn Olives have stems attached to the berries but be sure not to include larger twigs or leaves. If you have more than 2 cups of Autumn Olives, then use a ratio of roughly 2/3rds Autumn Olive and 1/3rd Apple. Cook it all down on low with a little water, stirring often to make sure there's no burning happening on the bottom.

autumn olive bowl.jpg

Step 2: Once it’s all cooked put the entire mixture through a food mill to remove the apple seeds and Autumn Olive seeds. NOTE: You don’t have to do this part. If you don’t have a food mill then be sure not to include any apple cores since otherwise you won’t be able to easily remove the seeds. And having the seeds of the Autumn Olives is simply a matter of preference. They likely have some nutritional value and are not at all harmful. For some folks they just like the texture better with or without. The picture here of my fruit leather contains the seeds- if you look close you can see them!

Step 3: Put the entire mix (whether or not you used a food mill) into a blender or food processor and puree well

Step 4: Line a baking tray or oven safe pyrex dish with parchment paper and spread your pureed Autumn Olive and Apple mix thinly (1/2-1 inch thick) onto the paper. Bake at 170 degrees for about 6 to 7 hours, being sure to check it often, since sometimes the edges burn a little bit...if the edges are burning and the center is still moist keep cooking it, knowing that you’ll just have to trim off the edges but the majority of your fruit leather will be perfect. Try it as you go, since it’s "to taste" in terms of how leathery you want your fruit leather to be. I like mine still pliable and not crisp. Basically you’re going for the consistency of fruit roll-ups! NOTE: if you have a food dehydrator you could use that for this recipe instead of the oven!

Store it between wax paper in the fridge where it will stay fresh for weeks, or freeze and take-out as needed. Enjoy your local, free, nutrient-dense, antioxidant rich super- food fruit leather!


Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!