Herbal Toolbox

From this kitchen witch to your kitchen

A few years ago I was snowed in on a mountaintop when my companion fell ill with a headache. We couldn’t dig the car out to a store—and there was no store for miles, anyway. I searched the cabin upside down for aspirin, then searched the car. Nothing. Then I thought deeper. Willow bark.

The woods are the original drugstore. Herbs and plants are NOT a substitute for going to the doctor, of course. But where I live in rural Appalachia, many people don’t have primary care physicians. It’s very hard to get an appointment—and to be honest, our remote town doesn’t always attract the best professionals. 

As a toddler, my son was prescribed a drug that a doctor at a larger hospital in the city said hadn’t been used in ten years. Not long ago, my friend’s doctor showed up to her appointment visibly ill. Two OBGYNs just announced they are leaving, which the nurse says will cause the practice to close. Many times you end up having to diagnosis yourself around here. 

In a lot of ways that are terrible to think about, rural and poor towns like my own are unprepared for a pandemic. Our health systems are overcrowded, outdated, unaffordable, and inaccessible to many people. Stocking up on groceries is an impossible expense. Same with medication.

One thing we can handle in rural Appalachia? Making do, and making the best with what we have, some of which is in the woods and by the river.

The recent news that the surgery centers at the three hospitals and clinics closest to me will be closing, to reserve protective gear for coronavirus cases, has me very worried. This means that if my son or I get in an accident, we may have to drive over an hour for treatment. I’m not sure there’s a real way to prepare for this or for the coronavirus, but along with vitamins (especially Vitamin C, zinc, and selenium), and first aid supplies, I’ve been making sure I have a few plants that have helped me personally in the past. 

Here’s my small Herbal Toolbox. These plants have made me feel better in times of past stress, and they provide me a little comfort having them in my kitchen arsenal now. 


Oils are weird. I don’t use perfume myself, and don’t use oils for their scent or relaxation. I’m concerned about how much plant matter it takes to make some oil, and I have read that oils can be deadly to cats. But if you’re pet-free, I have found eucalyptus to be helpful for congestion. Follow instructions on the bottle for adding drops to vaporizers or humidifiers (a good item to have).


OK this isn’t a herb. My favorite mushrooms to eat are morels and chicken-of-the-woods, but cordyceps are my emergency fungi and I love them as much as anyone can love a mushroom. I have also heard good things about lion’s mane and reishi mushrooms. My reliable mushrooms are grown just up the road, and sold locally, powdered, in capsules. If I’m feeling run down, I take several before bed and seem to have more energy in the morning.

Ginger Root and Garlic

Have some around to slice into soups, broths, or tea, or roast the garlic and eat.

Slippery Elm Bark or Marshmallow Root

You can find this in a tea called Throat Coat, which was recommended to me years before I started to study plants, back when I was a singer. The tea is great for helping sore throats, and you can find it in grocery stores, but if you can locate slippery elm in health food stores in bark form, that’s very useful too. You can chew on the bark to help a sore throat. I think of it as nature’s cough drop.

Slippery Elm can be over-harvested, however, so you might use Marshmallow Root.

Slippery Elm was the first plant given to me for medicinal purposes. After my son was born, I started having respiratory issues. When someone gave me a handful of this soft, pale brown bark, I felt extremely doubtful. But I tried it. It tastes good, naturally sweet, and soothed my cough. You never forget the first plant that helped you.

Please stay strong and well, and help your neighbors. 

How to Love Writing Again

Take the dream and run

I don’t usually remember my dreams. I’m too tired. But sometime within the last three years, I dreamed of a greenhouse with people inside. Two adults and a baby. The adults were barely grown-up. The baby was not their own. I saw a yellow flame inside the greenhouse. Outside, I saw winter everywhere.

I saw the beginning of the book that became Road Out of Winter.

Where did it come from? I have no idea. What did it mean? Still don’t know. How did it come to be that I dreamed it? Honestly, not my question to answer, or even to question. It’s just my duty to take the dream, accept what was offered—and run with it.

And I did. I ran for almost three years. When I stopped running, the book had a new name, a publisher (MIRA Books), and a publication date of September 1.

But now I find there’s a lot of other running.

There’s the race to promote, to distinguish the book in a field crowded with a lot of great books, a lot of noise, a lot of not-so great books, and not much time or money. There’s the race do my day job. And then there’s the race to write something new, another book. 

If you keep running, little girl, you’re going to run straight into hell, an old man scolded me when I was four or five, after church one Sunday morning, when my family still went to church. When I was not much older, I rode a horse that went wild in sight of its barn. A man chased us down, grabbed the reins. I remember he had gray hair. I remember him saying he was impressed I could hold on.

But I can hold onto the wildest ride. It’s slowing down that I have difficulty with. Slowing down and balance.

On one level, I have no trouble coming up with new writing. On another, dealing with existing work isn’t easy—and it’s exhausting.

Promotion is urgent. Emails need to answered now. Edits, returned yesterday. But writing, creation itself, is very slow. It’s quiet. It doesn’t like interruption, the constant stop and start. And doing both at the same time—writing new work, and handling the editing, publishing, and promotion of old—is a rough cycle of opposing forces.  

Everyone always asks me: How do you come up with your ideas? The truth is, I don’t know, and if I did, I would probably not write them. It’s confusing, it’s overwhelming. It makes no sense and I can’t control or stem it.

But I know ideas come out of several places: dreams, silence, walks, and nature. And I know that to love writing, to love art and stories, to make them, I need to find time to do these things.

Last week, my partner, son, and I went for a walk in the woods. It was cold, wet, and muddy. Our coats may never recover. But in a meadow at the top of a hill, my son met a deer so still we thought it was a statue. And on the walk down, I thought of a new book. I shared my story with my family.

“That seems like a dumb idea,” my son said. Typical. Then he admitted, “I like it.” So did my partner.

But the important thing is: like it, and in the bits of our walk not interrupted by kid chattering or crow chattering, I thought of it some more, and it made me happy. It makes me happy to think of new ideas. It makes me feel less alone, even when I’m by myself. 

I live in a rural place, but even here it’s hard to get to silence and wilderness. It takes time which I don’t have. Time in which I can’t be writing something for money, or answering those emails, or doing other work.

Yet though each hour I spend outside, in the woods, by the river, on the cliffs, in the mud, is one in which I can’t be working, my brain is working. My brain works best in nature, in quiet.

It’s always worth it for me, to take that time to be quiet. How can the ideas get in unless you make space for them, by not emailing, not promoting, not talking, not watching anything else but the world? I know that ideas are everywhere. But you have to listen.

Read the first chapter of Road Out of Winter for free here.

Arnica for Bruises

Arnica, from the sunflower family, is one of my favorite herbs for injuries. I have found it really speeds up the healing time for bruises especially. About ten years ago I was introduced to it when I bruised my kneecap, falling down the broken steps at the university I attended at the time. A woman, a stranger, saw my leg when I was limping through a store, and immediately handed me arnica. 

Arnica is said to help reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain. You can get it in creams or sprays, and apply topically. It can be toxic in large doses, so I don’t use it in flower form, but buy it in a lotion or other product. I feel like it has a slight tingling effect, which is soothing and cooling. 

Most recently, when my little nephew accidentally gave me a black eye, I spread an arnica lotion on the injury. It was around New Year’s Eve, and I had a nice colorful display on my eyelid for holiday parties, but the bruises disappeared quickly. You need time, more than anything—but you can get help from plants too. 

What if Amy was the Better Artist?

Some men love a wild thing just to keep it in a cage.

When I was nineteen, my college advisor pushed a VHS copy of The Red Shoes, the 1948 film about a ballerina, across the desk to me. “Men are going to make you choose,” he said. 

I didn’t understand. I was dating someone, a fiction writing student who was about to get really, really mad at me when I won a writing contest he had also entered, in a different genre category. It feels like a betrayal, he said.

Was that what my advisor meant?

Or was it the night before my PhD defense, when my then-husband fought with me, saying over and over he didn’t understand what was in it for him, this me obtaining an advanced degree thing?

In The Red Shoes, the main character, a ballet dancer, is forced to choose between her career and the love of a composer—her art or her heart, basically. She can’t give enough to either to make them both work, not in the confines of the world men have made. 

What was I going to be forced to do? I should have asked my advisor. What was the right choice? How did he know? I was a teenager. I had just cut my hair. For our honors class, I wrote an opera. 

I think he saw someone in me who was not going to be content unless they made stuff, not satisfied with the world as it was. And to have anything approaching more, especially as a person who is not a man, requires a whole hell of a lot of time. 

Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I gave up time. I didn’t realize it was a precious resource. And finite. There would come a point when it would be involuntary, my losing it. As a young woman, I gave up time willingly. I gave up time to getting ready. I gave up time to a man who couldn’t bring himself to say he loved me. I gave it up to standing in the corner at parties. To going to readings by bad writers, who were almost always white and men. To cooking meals no one appreciated. And to cleaning. So much time lost to cleaning, straightening up. Making everything, including myself, look nice. I gave up time I could have spent making art. I lost it.

So the choice after all was me. Me—or everything.

To ask an artist to choose a man over her work is asking her to choose a man over her life. Or her love over her love. Which, I mean … we do all the time, especially to mothers. But it’s not much of a selection. And it’s not one that men are forced to make.  

It’s been awhile since I’ve read the book, and to be honest, Little Women is not my favorite. Unsurprisingly, maybe, I prefer Alcott’s book Work. One thing I always loved about Little Women, though, is that the sisters are all artists.

Throughout the book and film versions, Jo and Amy are the clear competitors. Meg takes herself out of artistic competition by marrying, giving birth to twins, and giving up such things as theatre. Beth is taken out by illness, terribly. But Jo and Amy make it a long way.

Amy has both the artistic leanings of her older sister, the writer Jo, and the added bonus/burden of beauty, an attribute she cultivates, constantly pinching her own nose to try to make it smaller. She’s told as a child that she alone must save the family, and save it through marriage.

No pressure.

That was another thing a man told me, my driver’s ed instructor who lectured me, trapped in the front seat as we teetered around the country roads, “You want to be an artist? Marry a rich old man.” 

I didn’t know back then that some men love a wild thing just to keep it in a cage.

I cried at Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. But I didn’t like any of the concessions away from an artistic life, of which I felt there were many. I didn’t like that the girls’ mother, Marmee, brings Jo a tray of food while Jo is intently working—though what I wouldn’t give to have food fixed, brought to me, and taken away so that I could continue my work. Still, I couldn’t help thinking: What about Marmee’s work? 

In an oft-quoted line in the film taken directly from Alcott’s journals, Marmee says she is angry every single day. But about … what? What specifically did she give up? A career in social work, like Alcott’s own mother, or her own artistic yearnings? Or is she angry about having to do everything alone, as her husband—a character I’ve never been fond of, or really noticed at all (oh, he’s still alive?)—enlisted away from home?

Amy stops making art. And artists don’t do that. They just don’t, unless they’re physically forced to by illness, poverty, abuse, which doesn’t happen to Amy.

Maybe this means, as generations have insisted, Amy isn’t a “real” artist. Or maybe she is forced to stop by the pressures of being a pretty woman. Maybe she never had a chance, and the failings of the character are also really the failings of her family, sexism, the world. What if, after all, Amy was the better artist? What if Meg was? What if Marmee was?

I liked Little Women. But something that bothered me on a deeper level was the whiteness of it all. I complained to my partner: why do all the actresses have to be white? He said: “Maybe only white women would have a choice.” 

We love Jo because she makes it. We hate Amy because she gives up. But it’s a privilege even to have the option.

My partner and I saw Little Women together, and he will be the first to tell you he cried too, especially at the scene where Jo lays her manuscript out on the floor. Because upstairs at home, in a small back room he protects, forbidding anyone else from using, or leaving their stuff (or playing) in—I was doing the same thing.

(hey I have a book coming out!)

Gifts for Witches

Not crystals

One year for Christmas, my mom gave me only black clothes. That’s all you wear anyway, she said. Fair enough. I think I was sixteen. It’s still, years later, mostly all I wear. But if you need some other last minute gift ideas beyond midnight sweaters for your witchy nephew, your babysitter who makes her own makeup, or your friend who reads tarot cards at the end of a night at the bar, I got you. 


Twice in my life, including by my son, I have been gifted a straight-up honeycomb. This is not only unexpected, simple, and lovely, it’s useful. Honey is expensive, and local honey tells a story about place, as well as supports farmers in your community. I can never keep enough honey in the pantry. I use it for tea, pancakes—and medicine.     

The Little Match-girl: Source

Everybody thinks about candles for gifts but what about something with which to light ‘em up? I know I never have lighters around, and nothing sounds better than the crisp crack of a match being struck. Long, nice wooden matches with a sweet card would make a simple, inexpensive gift.


They are so many writers doing newsletters now (hi hello). You can find one you think your recipient would love, and your gift subscription can help support the artist too. Like, uh, this one:

Give a gift subscription

Gift Cards

Gift cards get a bad reputation. But this can be a thoughtful present, especially if your gift recipient has limited means or is a younger person without access to transportation or without a supportive family. Your giftee can buy the books, clothes, or food they want or need without judgement.

Something Living

Aloe is useful to keep around for treating burns; jade plants are hardy, as are herbs like rosemary, sorrel, and chives. Alternatively, seeds are an optimistic present to open up in late December. My dad, for example, is very fond of heirloom varieties like Cherokee purple tomato and black-seeded simpson lettuce.  

Not a Knife

Let yr girl buy her own blade! Some people, including me, think that a knife is a bad luck present. (It severs the relationship.) Although I think you should probably have a knife for practical and badass reasons, it’s personal, so you want to pick it out yourself.

Not Crystals



Tea is tricky. It’s very subjective to people’s tastes. An alternative to a straight tea gift might be accessories, like a tea ball or strainer, which I never seem to have around when I need them, or a kettle. But I think one place you can’t go wrong when it comes to tea is stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles: Source

Stinging Nettle Tea

You can buy packages of nettle tea at most stores now—big brands make it. You can also buy dried stinging nettles at health food stores. And you can gather wild nettles yourself (they grow in patches near water) but be careful. They do sting—badly—and can cause a painful rash. You’ll need to wear long sleeves and gloves when you gather them, and wash your hands after.

For packaged tea, follow the directions. To make your own nettle tea (which I think tastes the best), just take a couple big handfuls of nettle leaves and throw them in a jar. Pour boiling water on top, and steep. That’s it. 

People have different ideas as to how long to steep your nettle tea. I’ve heard anywhere from 20 minutes to overnight. I usually do about an hour, because that’s how long I can stand to wait. A ceramic dish on top of your jar will keep in the heat. I make a lot of tea, in a big jar, drink a cup or two when it’s ready, then store the rest in the fridge, and drink it iced over the next few days. It’s so sweet, you don’t need honey or sugar.

Nettles can be used for stress and anxiety. I find nettle tea to be incredibly calming. You can feel the effects almost instantly, but it doesn’t put you to sleep like some other plants (valerian, skullcap). When I’m having a bad day, I know I need to get some nettles. You can buy extracts, but I think nettle is the most soothing, cheap, and easy to prepare in tea form. Perfect for surviving family time. You got this.   

UP NEXT in the new year, for paying subscribers: How to stanch bleeding (really)

The Bonesetter

Like most healing, this can be messy

I’m writing this from a house with no heat. 

My child and I live in an old, rattling house, two stories high with front and back porches: a former coal miner’s residence built about 1925. I rent, and this week the furnace broke down. Repair people are coming. In the meantime, it’s December. The first hard frost. It gets down to the 20s most nights. It’s 51 degrees in the house.

We could go to a hotel on my own dime, or drive to family. But for now, my child and I are bedding down. We have sleeping bags and space heaters, sheepskins and wool socks. It’s different but not that much removed from what I am used to: my bedroom is one of two rooms in the old house that never had any heat to begin with. 

I am used to making the unworkable work. As many people will tell you, that’s part of being a single parent, being poor, or living in a remote place. All three, I stuff the holes in the wood floor with steel wool. I fix lamps with paper clips. This past October was the first year I didn’t make my child’s Halloween costume from scratch. One year I used our colander for his proton pack.

“You make everything look so nice, on almost no money,” someone said to me once, and that compliment meant a lot, meant I had really been seen, through the patina of my effort.  

You get used to fixing things, though—and soon, are fixing what really can’t be fixed, not by an individual. I should be able to find full-time work. Everyone should receive a living wage. It really should be easier to get to an airport, and have safe, plowed roads. But because these things aren’t in place, you careen down a potholed path, slick with ice. I have trouble driving newer cars with pedals that respond, with brakes that don’t resist—I drive too fast, brake too hard. You get habituated to what is difficult, unused to anything but struggle, indoctrinated into believing you don’t deserve more.

This is one of the conditions of womanhood. 

I didn’t break any bones until I was married. Then I shattered, in quick succession: my wrist, my toe, my other toe, my foot. 

That last broken bone came at a time when my marriage was breaking too. Coming home from teaching a class—running because my husband at the time was watching the baby, and I knew he would want to get back to his work—I tripped up the porch steps to my house. Something broke in me. I heard it. 

A man who liked to gossip later told me people in town said about me then: “Her husband left her AND she broke her foot.”

But fixing the unfixable only works for so long. When the sole of my sneaker begins to come loose, I hot glue it. Then, when that doesn’t last, I rip that part of the sole off. It seems to be fine. I can make it last a few more months. Every time a hole appears in the thigh of my jeans, I think this can’t be happening. My car is almost twenty years-old. My couch has a decade on it, and was bought at the Kroger Marketplace—a grocery store—near the frozen food section. It was on sale.

As children, especially girl children, we’re taught to compromise, to sacrifice, to deal with the untenable, to be quiet about it. Even to like it. It’s not only men that put us into virgin and whore: our parents do too. As adults, this can mean staying in or being stuck with toxic jobs, unhealthy friendships, abusive marriages.

It’s hard to ask for or even envision more or other.

I don’t mind making do with less. As long as my car runs, I will run it into the ground, and the “child-stained couch” —as my significant other and I affectionately call it—is still comfortable, if ugly. The trick is to know what can’t be fixed, what shouldn’t be, and what you shouldn’t have to stretch or make do with or ignore any longer.

For other pain, there’s the bonesetter. 

Poultice of Comfrey (The Bonesetter)

The herb comfrey is said to aid in the healing of sprains and fractures, speeding up the process—so much so, that another name for comfrey is the boneknitter. I’ve also heard it called the bonesetter. 

When I broke my foot, I was spending a lot of time on a farm in southeastern Ohio, and folks out there first made this for me. There are different ways to make and apply a poultice, but the basic idea is this: a paste applied to your injury. 

Take a few handfuls of dried comfrey, which you should be able to get at a natural food store, and mix with just enough water to make a paste (it feels like crumbly, flowery clay). Spread the paste over the area that needs help, then wrap the area in a towel, gauze, or even plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can also pack the poultice in a dish towel—twist the ends of the cloth to keep the paste in there—and wrap that cloth around your injury.

This poultice can also be made with fresh comfrey, if you have it, and you might not even need to add water, as the fresh leaves will get juicy when you chop them up a little. I tended to apply the poultice 2 times a day for about 40-50 minutes each time.

Warning: like most healing, this can be messy, but I do believe it helped.

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