It’s paw paw season in eastern Ohio. The OEP crew has been keeping an eye on several groves of these trees in the woods near our home, watching their development from small, peanut-sized nuggets, and eagerly anticipating their ripening into mango-sized beauties!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this one, the paw paw (Asimina triloba) is a small deciduous tree native to the eastern US from zones 5-8. It produces the largest native fruit of North America. It’s closely related to the ylang-ylang, soursop, and custard apple, though unlike its tropical relatives, the paw paw is the only member of its family to grow in temperate climate zones. It prefers to grow in very moist, fertile, well-drained, hilly woods in the shade of larger trees. This old earth gem of the woods has been cherished by Native American peoples for hundreds of years before introduction to European colonists.

As an interesting side note, its leaves are the only known food source for zebra swallowtail caterpillars. For you herbalists out there, a decoction of the inner bark is a natural insecticide and an effective remedy for head lice. An effective dewormer can even be made from the seeds as well as the roots.

The fruit is not only nutritious, but absolutely delicious! When ripe they have the texture of a banana with the juiciness of a mango. The flavor far surpasses any other fruit, in my opinion. I’d say they taste similar to a banana with a hint of vanilla custard and they're extremely fragrant when ripe. They have more vitamin C than an orange, and more potassium than a banana. It’s also the only fruit known to contain ALL essential amino acids. But perhaps the best thing about the paw paw is that you’ve got to connect with nature in order to enjoy this one. This fruit is a unique gift of the eastern woodlands, which is where you have to trek to find it. The only other way to get it is to grow a group of trees yourself from seed which takes time. It is not commercially available because the fruit bruises easily and has a very short shelf life when picked.

Once you find a patch of paw paws, you’ve got to keep an eye on them as autumn approaches because the window of opportunity is small and humans are by no means the only creatures eagerly awaiting their ripening. Birds, deer, foxes, coyotes, opossums, squirrels, and raccoons all love them, so if you wait too long, they WILL beat you to them, as will box turtles. Actually, If you find yourself in paw paw territory in season, keep an eye out for these guys n girls. They know EXACTLY when paw paws will ripen each year and show up reliably like clockwork, which makes them a good indicator that paw paws will be ripening soon. Since the fruits are so weighty, box turtles can feel them hit the ground, and quickly set off in the direction of the thump. Paw paws are a box turtle favorite and they rarely miss a beat!

As soon as they ripen they begin to fall to the ground, especially on windy or stormy days/nights. Before this point I will typically check them once a week as autumn draws near, by gently squeezing a few fruits in multiple patches or groves. (Some groups ripen before others depending on individual microclimates) Technically, if you want to get ahead of the competition, there’s a point of early ripeness when you can pick them. Once they soften enough to give under a little pressure, like a peach or avocado, they’ll be ready for picking. This way, you’ll get them before they fall within easy reach of most critters. Even though they’re ready for picking at this point and can be eaten, you’ll want to let them set at room temperature for a few days for the flavor to develop as they fully ripen. You'll know they are ripe when they become fragrant. Also keep in mind that unless they are at the stage of early ripeness when you pick them, they won’t continue to ripen after being picked like other fruits will. So there’s no point in picking them before this point, when they're hard.

As mentioned earlier, the fruits don’t keep well as they have a short shelf life. But you can extend your harvest by slowing their ripening in the refrigerator. For the best flavor, you’ll want your paw paws to get ridiculously ripe. Like bananas, they will turn brown or black, but this is good news for paw paws. You’ll experience the fullest flavor at this point; though don’t wait so long that they begin to shrivel. To eat them, it’s just a matter of cutting into them length-wise all the way around and twisting them into two halves, like you would an avocado. There will be multiple inedible seeds in a row down the center. You can pop them out or eat around them with a spoon, scooping the flesh out from the skin (which is also inedible). The easiest way to eat them by hand is to quarter each half and just bite into them, leaving the skin and spitting out the seeds. It’s easily one of the most flavorful fruits you'll ever taste!

If you’ve somehow managed to eat your fill, or have collected enough to carry you into the winter months; the best way to preserve them is to scoop out the pulp and freeze it. It keeps very well this way and retains a good flavor upon thawing. It may oxidize a little bit, turning light brown once frozen, but it won’t affect taste or quality. Paw paw puree has a million and one culinary uses, making a better substitute for any recipes calling for bananas. Some that we've come to enjoy are paw paw bread, crepes, and ice cream smoothies. Though we've yet to sample some, we're told it makes an incredible wine! We can hardly wait to try that one this year!

As excited as we are about what we've collected so far, there are far more out there that have not quite ripened enough for picking yet. We're eager to get back out there in a few days to a week and grab some more. So to anyone out there in zone 5 and access to some uncorrupted, healthy woods….. Now’s the time to start looking. Get out there! You’ve got a couple of weeks, unless the weather throws a cold snap at us which will prolong the harvest.

One quick point I’d like to make, is to be respectful of whichever woods you choose to search for or collect this fruit, or any natural resource for that matter. Since you’ll likely be off trail, be mindful of where you’re stepping at all times, not just for your own safety, but for the well-being of other life forms in the woods as well, plant and animal alike. When collecting any wild edibles, be mindful of the “rule of thirds.” That is, take no more than 1/3rd of what’s available in any given area, leaving 1/3rd for the other animals that rely on the same food source and 1/3rd for the plant’s own purposes. Though, since paw paw trees rely on their fruit being eaten in order to propagate themselves, you can get away with taking a bit more so long as you don’t throw the seeds in the trash after you eat the fruits. In fact I always make a point of saving every viable paw paw seed in order to show my thanks by planting those seeds in suitable locations to further the species. Remember, we humans are not the only species around with needs. So let’s keep and preserve the balance so that we can continue to enjoy this marvelous fruit for generations to come!

Happy hunting!

A particular realm of holistic health has taken the world by storm. That storm is “essential oils” and as a practicing herbalist for many years, it’s about time I weighed in on the topic. I refer to essential oils as a storm because like a storm, it has the potential to bring renewal, but it also has the potential to bring harm and strike in unpredictable ways, especially when you lack experience.

Essential oils (EO’s) are nothing new. In fact, EO’s would easily be considered old earth knowledge, having been around for thousands of years. But first, what are they?

We’re basically dealing with a branch of herbal medicine here. Medicinal plants contain volatile oils among other constituents which can assist in healing our bodies from various ills. We can obtain these healing benefits by ingesting the plants themselves, or by extracting their constituents through various methods such as infusions, decoctions, tinctures, and in the case of most EO’s, distillation. EO’s are plant extracts, obtained by distilling raw plant materials (roots, leaves, flowers, barks) via steam or water distillation. In this method, heat, water, and steam are being used to extract the volatile oils from the plant material. Once the steam is collected and condensed, the oil is filtered out from the water leaving the pure (or near enough) oils behind. So how are essential oils used?

Essential oils can be used in three ways. They can be applied topically through various means. They can be inhaled. Or they can be ingested.

By far the safest and most practical way to use EO’s is through aromatherapy, that is, via diffusers (inhalation) or topically (applied to the skin). When applied topically, whether or not an oil is diluted depends largely on the specific one being used. But in most cases, the oils should be diluted in any number of carrier oils, grapeseed oil as one example. They may also be diluted into soaps and salves. This is done for safety reasons, because reactions can and do occur regardless of how “therapeutic grade” they are. Ask a professional aromatherapist, or massage therapist, and they’ll tell you that before an EO is used on a patient, they’ve learned to do a sensitivity test. That entails dripping a small amount of the diluted EO in question onto the wrist or forearm of the patient and waiting for a bit to see if there is irritation first, before it is applied to the body overall. They also dilute most of their oils before applying them. Remember that your skin is not only the largest protective organ of your body, but it’s also a giant sponge that absorbs liquids that come in contact with it to varying degrees. This is why you wear rubber gloves when handling certain cleaning agents, lawn chemicals, or pesticides. There is still some debate about whether or not EO’s pass through the skin and into the blood stream, though this indeed seems to be the case with certain ones.

When used correctly, EO’s have such amazing applications for healing via topical use. But when the potency of EO’s is not respected, harm can be done as well. (particularly with children) Even in aromatherapy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that while many people find lavender to have a very soothing/calming effect against anxiety, the lasting impression for some people may be itching and/or a sneezing fit. It all depends on the person. Imagine if someone with an allergic sensitivity to lavender put the pure oil into a capsule and ingested it. That might not go very well to say the least.

This brings us to ingestion. THIS is where we herbalists really cringe at how often we see multi-level marketing (MLM) distributers marketing their oils for internal use without instilling the proper respect for what EO’s can do. Yes, some EO’s have applications for internal use, but only under the right circumstances, and they should only be administered by someone very educated and experienced in human physiology and herbal medicine.

Whether or not EO’s should even be ingested under any circumstances is still a hot-button issue in the professional herbalist community. As far as ingestion is concerned, many professional herbalists believe that’s what teas, tinctures, and dried herb capsules are for.

As a general practice, I personally do not ingest refined essential oils. Many of the herbs that I collect and use have very potent essential oils in them, but taking them as teas, tinctures, and dried capsules is naturally safer because of the lesser content, not to mention that the whole herb contains other constituents that act along WITH the oils they contain. In many cases, additional alkaloids within the herb balance the effects of the oils, making them gentler on the body. Also, there are some legitimate concerns that some essential oils may interfere with, or kill our natural gut flora. We’re talking probiotics here; the natural microorganisms present in our digestive tract that play a huge role in our ability to assimilate nutrients while digesting our foods.

What most people do not realize, is that EO’s are only present in plants in very small amounts. It can take up to 20 pounds or more of plant material to extract just one ounce of oil. (hence the high cost) So when dealing with EO’s, we’re talking CONCENTRATED plant medicines here. Regardless of what clever (many say reckless) marketing may tell you, natural does not necessarily mean safe. It means natural; as in, the earth made it without human interference. Allow me to drive this point home. There is a natural element found in most soils and absorbed to varying degrees by practically all of our most common fruit and vegetable foods. We eat tiny amounts of it daily. It’s natural, organic, non-GMO, gluten free, BPA free, hormone free, nitrate free, sugar free, fat free, and yet it can render you dead. It’s arsenic. The reason we’re all still living is because it’s not harmful until it’s concentrated enough. However, we do know just how deadly it can be when in its pure form. Relatively new research even indicates that arsenic may actually be an essential nutrient in our physiology, albeit in extremely minute amounts…. like those found naturally within our food plants. It seems “everything in moderation” applies to more than just lifestyle choices.

Make no mistake, herbal medicine has the power to heal or to harm and EO’s are NO EXCEPTION! Injuries, illness and allergic reactions can and do occur with the misuse of essential oils. There are documented cases where death occurred when essential oils were used undiluted on children. While the quality of the oils used is always a factor, again, pure does not mean harmless.

On that note, many EO companies tout their oils are “therapeutic grade” or even going so far as to say that their brand is the ONLY one you can use without fear of doing harm. (Now THAT’S marketing!) There is in fact, no independent organization that measures or regulates the quality of essential oils. Period. Like anything where there’s money to be had, buyer beware. And if you do a little digging into company policies, you’ll find they all disavow any and all responsibility for how their oils are used regardless of what their distributers claim or advise. Keep that in mind when taking advice on how to cure your, or someone else’s ills with EO’s.

What’s the bottom line here? It is not the goal of the Old Earth Project to be the “buzz kill” of the excitement surrounding essential oils. We believe that EO’s as a form of holistic healing are indeed an old earth blessing that should spread, but it must be done right, with the proper respect for their potential to heal AND to harm when used irresponsibly. That’s why there are extensive education/certification programs and schools devoted to herbalism and aromatherapy. Some pamphlets and a Saturday sales party do not make an expert. Research and tested experience do. There’s a lot of knowledge to take in before you start concocting remedies all willy nilly. What also concerns us here at OEP is the reckless way MLM companies and many of their distributers are marketing this potent form of herbal medicine. Here’s an excerpt from one such distributer found in the comments section of a news story on EO’s…..

"I use (Brand withheld) Oils and there are no side effects, allergic reactions and etc as stated by the dermatologist. Some of what she described as 'side affects' is just your body's way of detoxing from all the garbage you put in it for years. Also, no oil is safe to take internally EXCEPT (Brand withheld) Oils! And this is important! Also one way to see if a oil is pure is to look for an expiration date. If it had an expiration date, it's not pure and can be harmful. These oils change lives every day! Many peoples lives became amazing after these oils! Including mine:) feel free to message me for more information! I'll be happy to answer any and all questions!" (Name withheld)

Now of course this statement does not reflect all MLM distributers, as we personally know many who are quite responsible and take EO education and distribution very seriously. However, the example above represents the type of marketing we've encountered much too frequently.... frequently enough that we feel strongly compelled to circulate this message of caution. Undoubtedly, the companies turn a blind eye to distributers making these types of claims because of the revenue generated by the hype. The way they disavow any responsibility for how their products are marketed or used is very telling.

Another danger in exaggerated claims like these, is in marketing EO's as cures. While many have demonstrated AMAZING abilities to treat and even cure various ailments, chronic illness is another story. There's a big difference between curing the disease and just treating the symptoms. Where chronic illness is concerned, more often than not EO's by themselves tend to fall into the treatment category. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to play down the healing power of EO's. What I'm saying is that while they are often very effective at treating symptoms, you must not forget to address the cause of the symptoms. This is where a solid knowledge base of anatomy and physiology come into play. When dealing with chronic illness, you can often keep your symptoms at bay as long as you keep shelling out the cash for that particular oil. But the object is to cure the illness, right? So while the EO's treat the symptoms, looking for the cause must also be a top priority. Lifestyle and diet are key areas to examine, but so are individual physiology and genetics. As you can see, there's a lot more to consider than oil vs symptom.

In the modern world, herbal medicine and many other old earth forms of healing have become heavily marginalized by “big pharma” and modern medicine. So it’s very good to see the interest in holistic healing on the rise. However, if these natural forms of healing are to gain a foothold and be respected in the mainstream, we’re going to have to take it a bit more seriously. If we’re not careful, this storm of popularity could be viewed as nothing more than a fad, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Not only that, but in the hands of any Jane or John Doe attempting to practice herbal medicine, there is the potential of reducing the integrity and reputation of holistic healing as a whole.

So where does OEP stand on the subject of essential oils? We love them! We use them and have seen firsthand their healing attributes at work. But with experience we’ve learned to respect them as well. Can some essential oils be ingested? The long answer would be yes, with a whole lot of educated “ifs”, “ands”, “buts”, and “unlesses” to back up the decision to do so. The short answer (which is the safest answer) would be no….. Stick to using them in soaps, lotions, salves, ointments, and diffusers and you should be alright. If using pure EO’s directly on the skin, research whether or not the particular oil in question should be diluted first, because for some, it’s definitely NOT appropriate.

We must tread carefully as this essential oil storm continues to roll over the country, because without the proper shelter of knowledge and experience, it’s inevitable that some people are going to get struck by lightning.

Journey well and in good health, people!


***For additional reading on the subject, please check out the links below to articles written by experienced professionals on the safe use and potential dangers of ingesting essential oils……

An excellent article on essential oil safety, with sited scientific research and documented cases of injury or side effects caused by misuse of essential oils….

A certified professional nutritional therapist weighs in here….

A certified professional aromatherapist weighs in here with additional research sited at the end….

The summer heat is on in eastern Ohio. Bees and beekeepers alike are feeling the effects of “the dearth”, a time when nectar and pollen sources can become scarce in the hottest weeks of the year. New beekeepers are often surprised to learn that it’s possible for bees to starve in the middle of summer. But why is this so? As a beekeeper, I’ve taken notice of a great many informative articles out there explaining the ins and outs of the summer dearth from the beekeeper’s perspective. But as a botanist, I can’t help but notice a missing piece to these discussions….. a deeper botanical understanding. If you’d like to expand upon your botanical understanding of the dearth, or even the botanical side of beekeeping, then this article may be for you. I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. The reason for the dearth is all about resource management in plants…. Water, to be specific.

Plants lose water in transpiration (water evaporating through leaves as plants breathe and photosynthesize). Every plant has safeguards and leaf structures that control this water loss to varying degrees. Flowering, fruiting, and seeding is not only an energy drain on plants, but the flower structures of most plants lose a LOT of their water in transpiration through the thin, delicate tissues of a blossom. Plants know this all too well, so MOST plants opt to bloom when it's safest for them to do so.... spring and fall, when weather is cooler and retaining moisture is not as pressing an issue.

Of course plants are opportunists just like animals. Some plants take advantage of the fact that there is less competition to be pollinated during those hot summer months and have evolved better safeguards in their physical structures to reduce water loss. The deep roots of the compass plant, the wispy leaves of yarrow, or the succulent leaves of sedums are good examples of this. But these water saving structures extend to flowers as well. This is where you see many plants blooming with tiny to nonexistent petals, in an effort to keep water loss to a minimum. Other plants, like sunflowers, only have one row of petals around the outer rim, while all of the true flowers are contained within the greater head. For those of you who are not botanically inclined, each great big sunflower head is actually a collection of hundreds of individual flowers clustered together in the center. All of these are efforts at reducing water loss through transpiration. Echinacea, and teasel are two other plants that follow this plan. Other plants that bloom in the heat of summer like Joe Pye, Iron Weed, and Boneset, have tiny petals and flower parts to minimize the surface area for water to evaporate from them.

All things considered, blooming through the heat of summer is a risk for any plant, so statistically; most plants still don't bloom during the hottest weeks. Not only that, but many plants that do bloom during the summer will withhold nectar in order to conserve water. This is especially true for non-natives. In short, having a yard full of flowers doesn't necessarily mean that your bees have nectar available to them. Therefore bees and other pollinators have to travel further to find the few that offer it regardless. Hence bees have a dearth to cope with. An abundance of summer blooming, drought tolerant plants that are native to your area certainly helps lessen the dearth, since they are adapted to your climate and thus far less conservative with nectar.

Other botanical factors in a dearth have to do with habitat destruction in urban/suburban and agricultural development, where the native plants that pollinators depend on during the dearth have become extirpated (locally extinct). Many of the plants that bees depend on during the summer dearth are locally native, but labeled as useless weeds and are repeatedly destroyed. This presents an excellent reason for beekeepers to allow for some “wild and weedy” space on their property, or to embrace protective measures against local habitat destruction. Another helpful measure growing in popularity is the designation of local “safe zones” for ALL our pollinators. On that note, we often forget that our European honey bees are immigrants here, sharing space with an additional 4,000 species of bees native to this continent. That's a lot of competition to consider, especially during a dearth. At any rate, this presents an excellent reason for beekeepers to become horticulturists.

While you don’t have to be a botanist or a horticulturist to be a good beekeeper, I’d wager that it can make you a better one! The best beekeepers not only understand the ins and outs of their bees, but they also understand the ins and outs of the neighboring links in the food chain. Our old earth cultures were very cognizant of the fact that one strand in the web of life affects the other, so they took a great deal of time in trying to understand the whole web. A similar approach not only benefits bees and beekeepers, but our planet’s entire ecology.

As a botanist, if you can obtain a more detailed picture of which plant resources reside within your hives foraging zone, you’ll be much better equipped to anticipate and adapt to localized dearths as well as seasonal ones. Being able to identify your local trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants (wild or cultivated, native or introduced) will enable you to construct your own personalized foraging/nectar flow chart through the seasons. No worries; you need not go to botany class! This can easily be accomplished with the help of a few field guides (such as Peterson's or Audubon), a little observation, some light reading, and finally recording your observations over time. But keep it simple. The only info you need is the plant species, the month it blooms in your area, and whether or not it has nectar and/or pollen value to your bees. As a general rule, I only include species that are well-established, or abundant in the area. Not only will your own flow chart enable you to anticipate and plan for periods of low nectar flow, but it will give you a better idea of what your honey is made up of. As beekeepers, we're not only responsible for the hives on our property. Since honey bees have a foraging range averaging around two miles, we have a responsibility to increase our awareness of what's available to them, or what they might be getting into within that range and respond accordingly. What's growing in the woods beyond your property? Or that prairie up the road? What are your neighbors growing on their farm? What might they be spraying?

As a horticulturist, you’ll not only benefit from the boost in pollination of any crops you grow. You’ll also have the know-how to cultivate plants on your land to help fill those nectar flow gaps in support of your hives. In this regard, an emphasis should also be placed on cultivating honey bee-friendly plants. You may have flowers blooming at the right time of year, but that doesn’t mean they’re ones your bees can feed from. Plants often cater to specific pollinators, which means that in many cases your honey bees are not “in the right club” so to speak, as certain flower structures work like bouncers at the local tavern, preventing the wrong patrons from getting inside for a drink. As mentioned earlier, flowers don't always equal nectar for your bees. At any rate, surely you see that botany and beekeeping go hand in hand, while horticulture and beekeeping can make great bedfellows.

With a solid grasp on the botanical side of things, you’ll be a much stronger beekeeper and your bees will be less likely to play the “get out of dearth free” card on you. It seems we forget at times that the idea is NOT to have to resort to feeding our bees fast food. At any rate, the good news about it being the middle of August here in eastern Ohio is that the summer dearth is reaching its end. Goldenrod is beginning to pop followed closely by several species of asters, all of which bloom so abundantly that many beekeepers will be smiling comfortably as they begin their winter prep chores. That is, if you don’t mind the sweaty gym socks smell of ripening goldenrod honey. ;-)

*** Hover over the images with your mouse for additional info. ***

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