Tag Archive | kidney

Kidney Support and More… Juniper’s Gift of Medicine and Food

Thea gathering juniper berries in Sedona

Sedona called me back this winter to gather three specific medicines; juniper, chaparral, and piñon pitch. The American Southwest holds an abundance of botanical medicine. When I moved to Tucson over thirty years ago as Director of Resources for World Health, a non-profit organization supporting Indigenous healers, I became fortunate to work and study with native elders. Even after moving back east to Appalachia, I can still be found making a yearly pilgrimage back west to gather medicinal herbs.

This post is dedicated to juniper, which has an affinity for the kidneys. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the winter season and emotion of fear corresponds with Kidney and the Water Element. The color that corresponds with the Water Element is the same bluish-black shade of Juniper’s berry-like, female cones.

Juniper berries may take up to three years to mature. The berries I collected were fat and ready for picking. The impermeable seed coat protects seeds that may last for years and can be dispersed over long distances. Juniper is a non-flowering gymnosperm, or naked-seeded plant, making it one of the oldest and most primitive plants on the planet, like spruce and ephedra.

I have primarily used juniper berries as a culinary spice in stock, soup, or stew, especially stews that include beef, turkey, or wild game. Four berries, dried or fresh, replace 1 bay leaf in a recipe. Juniper is the predominant flavor in Gin, which was my English mother’s alcoholic beverage of choice. It is also commonly used for flavoring and preserving pickled foods. The berry has a smell reminiscent of pine, and flavor energetic that is warming and pungent, and slightly bitter-sweet*.

I also use juniper essential oil in a diffuser when anyone in my house becomes, or threatens to become sick. It has been used by Native Americans and the ancient Greeks to combat epidemics. As recently as World War Two, juniper was diffused in hospital rooms to reduce infections, and before that during outbreaks of the Plague. Juniper’s antimicrobial, antiviral, and antiseptic actions have been well studied, and it’s volatile oil is valuable for respiratory infections and congestion.

Navajo Hogan, Sanders, AZ – photo by Thea

If you have visited a Navajo hogan or Pueblo home, juniper may have been the first thing you smelled. In addition to burning wood for heat and in the cook stove, branches are placed on hot coals to fumigate the house with juniper smoke. The resulting ash is used to add calcium to bread, tortillas, and pancakes made from blue corn flour. The Navajo are said to sweep their tracks with boughs so that death will not follow them. Navajo women painstakingly drill holes in the berries and make necklaces to wear for protection.

Through my own Celtic roots I carry a memory of rites performed on the last day of the year, what would be our Gregorian calendar New Year, when burning juniper smoke accompanied by prayers, cleansed, blessed, and protected everyone in the household. I have always kept a few berries in my medicine bag for purification and protection from fear. Juniper branches have also been called, “boughs of the supernatural.”

While hiking and connecting with juniper in Sedona, I became curious about which species to collect. Piñon-Juniper woodlands are expanding down from the hilltops and their abundance amazed me. Scientists believe this unnatural and invasive spread of western juniper is aided by decades of livestock grazing, unnatural fire cycles, and the invasion of exotic species. Juniper is a genus of conifers containing approximately sixty species. It is member of the cypress family. With so many species and common names like; Chinese juniper, Greek juniper, Phoenician juniper, East African juniper, Himalayan juniper, Russian juniper; Spanish, Tibetan, Mexican, and California juniper, just to name a few, I had a powerful need to know which ones grew in Sedona near the Mogollon Rim.

Juniper Martrix – photo-art by Thea

While juniper is native to North America, Europe, and Asia, the berries that are made into tinctures, or purchased as a culinary spice, are Juniperus  communis, “common juniper,” or “alpine juniper,” and are mostly sourced from Eastern Europe. The two most common New World species found in Sedona are Juniperus deppeana – “alligator juniper,” with distinctive bark unlike other junipers and resembling alligator skin; and Juniperus osteosperma – “Utah juniper,” whose shoots are fairly thick compared to most junipers. Berries from both species are edible.

Sedona, photo by Thea

This year while in Sedona I especially wanted to connect more deeply with juniper’s medicine after learning that a dear friend had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Juniper has many uses, but I knew it would take some digging to learn about Juniperi fructus in a medical herbalism context.

The list of herbal actions for juniper is long with both internal and topical applications. These are well known and documented including: topical for joint pain, sore muscles, coughs and congestion; a tonic for the uterus to relieve PMS water retention and menstrual cramps; diuretic to increase urine output, reducing edema and high blood pressure; and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and antiseptic properties. Juniperus communis is listed in Native American Medicinal Plants by Daniel E. Moerman, as one of ten key species with the greatest number of uses by the most Native American groups.

The Chinese, Native Americans, and old European cultures regarded juniper as a blood purifying kidney tonic. This points to the TCM Five Element relationship between Water (Kidney), Wood (Liver), and Earth (Spleen). The Kings Dispensatory suggests that kidney infections (pyelo-nephritis, and pyelitis), and chronic bladder infections, especially in older people, are relieved by juniper. Also according to the Kings Dispensatory, “Uncomplicated renal hyperemia is cured by it.” Renal hyperemia is excess blood in the kidneys.

My friend had been diagnosed with a tumor on his Kidney after passing large amounts of blood in his urine. I wondered about juniper’s cytotoxic (anti-cancer) properties found to be useful in the treatment of some cancers. My intuition told me that it was no accident I had come to harvest juniper in the Southwest, where my friend also lives, so recently following his diagnosis. Could junipers stimulating, softening, and dissolving qualities, along with cytotoxic and astringent properties help to shrink my friend’s tumor?

Almost every article I found on juniper berry carried a warning against its use in the presence of kidney disease or inflammation. Peter Holmes, doctor of Oriental Medicine describes juniper as follows:

Dispels wind/damp/cold, stimulates circulation. Drains damp. Relieves kidney fluid congestion (lower body edema and puffy eyes). Stimulates immunity, reduces infection, antidotes poison, promotes tissue repair. Used as a preventative in epidemics, and for chronic viral and bacterial infections. Best used in conditions of cold and damp and for treating Spleen and Kidney Yang deficiency. Tonifies yang, stimulates will power and increases physical stamina. This means that juniper should be used in cold conditions only. Kidney also relates to how we manage and process our fears.

Richard Whelan, Medical and Registered Herbalist, however, questioned these warnings. He found research that supported the use of juniper for the kidneys, and traced the source of misinformation back to 1898. Experiments done at that time were with animals using high doses of juniper essential oil. Recent toxicological studies on rats using high doses of juniper oil found no damage to their kidneys. Whelan concluded that once a caution like that gets published, no one thinks to question it with every subsequent author quoting the previous one.

The cautions about juniper being contraindicated in people with kidney disease are overstated, the potential for juniper to over-stimulate kidney function is not.

Eric Yarnell, ND, RH, stated that juniper is not nephrotoxic:

During the Eclectic era of herbalism (mid 1800s–1900s), writings discussed that juniper was specifically used for kidney disease.  At some point following that era, a belief came about that juniper is toxic to the kidneys and is contraindicated in patients with kidney disease.  This belief persists today, though it’s basis is highly dubious. There are a variety of clinical situations in which juniper is a specific and valuable remedy, and shunning it out of irrational fear is not helpful to patients.

I have seen much miraculous healing in my life. Could my friend be healed of his cancer using juniper? Perhaps junipers encroachment on human civilization is trying to get our attention with a message that its medicine is needed at this time. I believe that when the Western Mechanistic Medicine model is integrated with the Eastern Energetic Model of Medicine that came before it, our possibilities for healing will exponentially increase. At present it is an unknown. More research is needed. When we have support and funding for independent research along with a health care system that recognizes the need and efficacy of alternative healing modalities only then we will build the healing centers and hospitals of the future. It is my hope and vision that the answers will come. Perhaps Juniper’s gift of medicine and food holds even greater possibilities for healing in our future. Healing that takes place in the context of relationship as described by the wisdom of the Chinese Five Elements, where we “do no harm” and protect the next seven generations.


Essential oil not to be used internally during pregnancy. Juniper berry essential oil is FDA approved for limited internal use. May stimulate uterine contractions and induce miscarriage. Herbalist, Michael Moore considered juniper a uterine vasodilator. However, drinking an infusion once a day starting two weeks before due date is a good uterine tonic to prepare for labor as an alternative to blue cohosh. Check for possible allergic reaction by doing a skin patch test as some people have allergic responses to junipers.

Preparation and Dosage:

General recommended dose (unless otherwise recommended): 2g to a maximum of 10g/day of whole, crushed, or powdered berries, corresponding to 20-100mg of the essential oil, for infusions, decoctions, and alcohol extracts. Avoid long term therapeutic doses. Dosage is vital to a successful outcome. It is advisable to increase the dosage gradually, and not use it for too long. This is best done with an infusion or tincture.

Note: 1 tsp = 5 g, 1ml = 15 drops

Infusion (use crushed or ground, fresh or dried juniper berries): 3 teaspoons of berries (15g), in 2 cups of hot water (approx. 500ml), cover and let steep for 20 minutes, strain and take 1 tsp, 2-3x/day (6-10 g). Medical Herbalist, Thomas Bartram recommends 1 teaspoon of crushed berries, steeped for 30 minutes in 1 cup of freshly boiled water, strain and drink ½ to 1 cup daily for five days.

Tincture (to cleanse and strengthen the kidneys): 1:5, 1-4 ml/day in divided doses. Herb Pharm sells Juniper tincture at a recommended dosage of 611 mg (1:4, 20 drops 3x/day between meals) for 6 weeks. The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 1:5 in 45% ethanol, 1-2 ml up to 3/day.

Essential Oil (made by steam distillation of the crushed, dried, or fermented berries is more antiseptic and detoxicant): Can be inhaled (diffused), taken orally, or massaged with a carrier oil. Orally: 20-100 mg for indigestion. 1-2 drops in a gel cap topped with olive oil. When buying juniper essential oil, look for organic, food-grade.

Note: Juniper oil distilled from ripe berries can be used safely while maintaining a healthy respect for their potency. Dosage is vital to a successful outcome. It is advisable to increase the dosage gradually, and not use it for too long. This may best be done with a tea or a tincture.


  1. Learn more about the Water Element in Thea’s course, Hidden Treasure: Kidney Essence and the Water Element at Five Element Academy
  2. *Learn more about Flavor Energetics in Thea’s course, Wisdom of the Five Flavors at Five Element Academy.
  3. Learn more about Ephedra (naked-seeded) and its message for humanity in Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth.
  4. Visit Thea’s Kitchen for her Juniper Chili recipe.
  5. All things Juniper on Etsy:
  6. Juniper Ash: SHIMA´of Navajoland and LighthouseHill
  7. Gemmo – Juniperus Communis by Boiron


  1. Pharmacognosy Journal: The Therapeutic Properties of Juniperus communi L.: Antioxidant Capacity, Bacterial growth Inhibition, Anticancer Activity and Toxicity.
  2. A complete list of references compiled by Richard J Whelan, Medical Herbalist, RH
  3. The Energetics of Western Herbs: Treatment Strategies Integrating Western and Oriental Herbal Medicine, Vol. 1 by Peter Holmes, Snow Lotus Press
  4. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage XX11. Diseases of the Kidneys
  5. South African Journal of Botany: Screening of some Juniperus extracts for the phenolic compounds and their antiproliferative actions
  6. Eric Yarnell, ND, RH Juniper is Not Nephrotoxic

Disclaimer: The information presented is intended for educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent disease. Individual results may vary. Please consult your doctor before starting any exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using these or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.

Hunting Wild Hydrangea for Prostate Health

Hydrangea aborescens, Photo by Myrna Attaway

Hydrangea arborescens, Photo by Myrna Attaway

Living on the Blue Ridge of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is a blessing. Multiply that by the abundance of medicinal herbs that also live here, and what you have is a rich haven for herbalists. Having survived the advance and retreat of glaciers during the last ice age, the Appalachians, some of the oldest mountains in the world, became a botanical treasure. It is here that I am blessed to study, gather and prepare herbs, and practice herbal medicine.

I have been coming to these Smoky Mountains of North Carolina for as long as I can remember, and I have lived here full time for the last twenty-four years. Like me, lots of folks are finding their way to the mountains in search of a saner, healthier lifestyle and communities in which to raise families and grow old. Unfortunately, more people also means more scars upon the land. While I believe there is enough for everyone, we also have a responsibility to future generations to be good stewards of the land that feeds, sustains, and heals us. For this reason, I would like to share one of my harvesting expeditions.

hydrangea cottage_2876Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is an attractive shrub but nowhere near as flamboyant as its cultivar cousins cherished as ornamentals. Wild Hydrangea is native to the Southern Appalachians, which has allowed me the opportunity to get to know it more intimately. What I discovered is an excellent remedy for inflamed or enlarged prostate. While not a “prostate” herb, per se, because herbs cannot be that easily pigeonholed, it holds a genetic knowledge of its lineage that stretches back for millennia. That brings forth many healing potentials, and we are still discovering them. To describe Wild Hydrangea as simply a prostate herb would not give it enough credit or the respect it deserves as a wise elder.

The study of an imbalance in a person, such as a prostate issue, is called pathophysiology. Modern Medicine studies pathophysiology from the narrow lens of the reductionist viewpoint because the pharmaceuticals prescribed by its practitioners are narrow in their actions. Herbalists have a broader perspective because the plants they use are broad-acting and have many actions. This broad energetic perspective or holistic view naturally leads to searching for patterns. Energetics is another way of saying patterns of organization.

Patterns of imbalance within our body mirror the patterns found in nature: heat/cold, dampness/dryness, contraction/expansion. Self-organization into ordered patterns is seen everywhere in nature. Studying and learning how to read these patterns will help us understand that healing takes place in the context of relationships. Plants are sentient beings that communicate through biochemistry. The understanding of this chemical language is in its infancy. Energetically, Hydrangea is cool and neutral. Its herbal actions are diuretic, anti-lithic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory. Its uses include various kidney, gallbladder, and urinary tract problems.

Hydrangea8435My first trip into the woods (many years ago now) to identify and harvest Wild Hydrangea was on a Full Harvest Moon with my mentor; herbalist, Patricia Kyritsi Howell. It was the perfect time to go digging for Hydrangea’s roots. We carried a basket, canvas bag, and hand clippers into the North Georgia woods. The white flower clusters that bloom May through July were faded and brown but still clung to the shrubs that grow between four to six feet tall. The opposite, broadly ovate and sharply toothed edges of the leaves that are slightly paler underneath made the identification easier for us in the absence of bloom. The stem bark tends to peel off in thin layers, each a slightly different color and thus the common name, Sevenbark.

Wild Hydrangea_1530Patricia writes about Wild Hydrangea in Medicinal Herbs of the Southern Appalachians. I was thrilled that she had agreed to provide me with a personal introduction to this native plant. We walked on through the woods until she stopped and pointed out a few shrubs growing on a steep slope. Getting to them would be difficult. Following Patricia’s lead, I clamored up the bank, digging my heels into the soft, deciduous dirt. Then I began to dig beneath the plant. That was no easy root to free from its tenacious hold. I sweated and dug, pulled, and cut until I held its amazing rhizome and wildly branching root in my hand. I filled the gaping hole that remained with as much dirt and leaf litter as I could manage and clamored back down.

When I turned and looked back up the steep slope, it appeared like a bear had been digging there. I had taken the root of one of three Hydrangea plants that grew in that spot, knowing the importance of leaving enough to ensure continued propagation. Then we decided to climb up to the ridge above the hillside to continue our search. I thought it might be easier to dig from above rather than climb up from below. Not too far from where I had dug up the first Hydrangea root, I saw another small grouping of the shrubs. In the end, I would dig three roots but not before I climbed down over the edge of the bank I had previously climbed up. While hanging off the side, I lost my footing with nothing to hold me but my body pressed against the loose, humus-rich soil and one hand clinging to this small but deep root. I looked down and realized the slide and tumble to the bottom would not be pretty. If I went down, it was going with me. So I dug my heels in deeper while freeing the root from its tenacious hold with one hand and managing to grab a vine with the other, pulling myself up just enough to get one foot in the hole left by the root, enough to propel myself up over the top of the bank. I was very grateful that I didn’t crash and burn. Life, after all, is an adventure.

That gave me a deeper appreciation for the roots of plants that hold and support the soil and its microorganisms on steep mountain slopes. My clamoring had left the mountainside unmistakably vulnerable to erosion even though I had done my best to fill in the holes. We should never underestimate the impact on natural systems when imposing our needs. May we always do our best to keep that impact to a minimum and never take it for granted. I thanked the rich soil beneath my feet and Hydrangea for its medicine root. Three roots were all I needed. Not taking more than we need is one of the keys to ethical harvesting.

Wanting to have enough plant material on hand for making medicine, I had bought some dried and sifted Hydrangea root from a wholesale distributor. But I also knew that preparing local wildcrafted medicines is 1000 times more potent energetically than commercially prepared medicines. These roots that we had gathered would become fresh root tincture started on the full moon and decanted on the new or dark moon — dark like the earth in which she grew. The roots would more readily release their medicine and active constituents during this phase of the waning moon.

“So that’s all you need?” Patricia inquired. And my response was, “Yes, it is enough.” I had accomplished what I had come for: to feel, smell and connect with the medicine plant that was serving my clients. Sometimes healing takes a certain kind of aggressiveness, a willingness to go that extra mile or climb that mountain. Patricia then made a very thoughtful suggestion, “Add a little of the fresh wild root tincture to the commercial dried root tincture. It will remind it of who it is,” and that this is where it came from.

hydrangeas_2877All content except where otherwise noted © 2015 Thea Summer Deer (newly updated and revised in 2022)


Thomas Easley in Conversation with Jesse Wolf Hardin, Herbaria, Plant Healer Magazine, March 24th, 2015


Medicinal Herbs of the Southern Appalachians, by Patricia Kyritsi Howell

Hidden Treasure: Kidney Essence & the Water Element at Five Element Academy

Uva Ursi: A Winter Ally

© 2013 Thea Summer Deer

Dorrene Thea_1014

Rocky Mountain High

Last summer I had the good fortune of traveling to Colorado to visit my sister in her off-the-grid cabin at 10,000 feet. The views of the majestic Rocky Mountains were incredible in all four directions. The cabin sits above Lake Taylor Reserve and just below the tree line of Ice Mountain in some of the most pristine wilderness in North America. On our walk through the woods my sister points out where the moose had their babies that year. Deer, elk and bear are visitors, but what really got me going was the blanket of bearberry at my feet. I had never seen bearberry, also known as uva ursi and whose botanical name is Arctostaphylos uva ursi, growing in its natural habitat and certainly had never seen this much of it. I had attempted to plant it on a steep slope on my land in North Carolina in order to prevent erosion, but it didn’t fare well. The deep roots of uva ursi prevent erosion from the nutrient poor soils and steep, dry, sunny slopes where it often grows. They are difficult to start from seed and even cuttings can take up to a year to root.

Uva Ursi is one of the few foods for bear and other wildlife available in the winter. Both the genus and species names refer to bears and grapes: uva means “grape” and ursi means “bear.” Arctostapylus combines the Greek word for bear, arkto, with the word for grape, staphyle. The berries are especially important as a food for bears when they come out of hibernation. It is the leaf, however, that is used medicinally.


Uva Ursi, photo by Thea

I was enamored of this plant not only because I wrote about it in my book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas, but also because I use it in my Kinnikinnick smoking blend. Kinnikinnick is another common name for uva ursi, an Algonquian word meaning “mixture,” and refers to the tradition of mixing the ground up leaves with other herbs and tobacco.  My friend and mentor, Beverly Laughing Eagle, shared the recipe with me that was handed down by her mother, and her mother before her. I use this mixture in my herbal medicine practice to help people quit smoking. Tobacco is gradually weaned out of the mixture, which minimizes the withdrawal symptoms while smoking it satisfies the need for an oral fixation. Used during ceremonies or in tribal councils, kinnikinnick was thought to clear the mind, as well as to help bring visions and guidance. American Indians also made an ash colored dye from the leaves and fruit; dried the berries for use in rattles or as beads, and used the plant’s tannic acid to preserve leather. Bearberries were considered a survival food and were added to winter stews and pounded into pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein that can be stored long term. The plants popularity with wildlife is probably due to the fact that it can be found in the deep of winter when other food sources are unavailable. It is also possible that uva ursi has some medicinal value for these wild animals, especially after hibernating and having minimal fluid intake.

The early Romans have used uva ursi medicinally since at least the second century, and there is evidence of its use by Native Americans as a remedy for urinary tract infections. I have found it particularly useful in this application. Before the discovery of sulfa drugs and antibiotics, an infusion of uva ursi leaves was a common treatment for bladder infections and cystitis, and it is still used for this purpose.  The astringent action of tannins also helps to shrink and tighten mucous membranes and reduce inflammation. An oil infusion of the leaves can be made into a salve and used for skin sores and cradle cap. Scientific research has discovered that uva ursi’s infection-fighting properties are due to the chemical compound arbutin, which exerts antibacterial activity in the urinary tract as it is excreted.

Uva Ursi Fig 13web

“Introspection” from Wisdom of the Plant Devas

On a more energetic level, uva ursi’s bear medicine is reflected in the power animal for which it is named, and in the deep reservoir of the kidneys and urinary tract system described by Traditional Chinese Medicine. Bear medicine teaches us about the place of deep introspection during the winter months, when animals hibernate and all of nature slows or comes to a standstill. The shadow cave of Bear, or the darkness of the void, is where we learn about the creation of form from the formless. It is where we enter the dreamtime. Within this watery world of the urinary tract system and kidneys, which are the deepest and most protected organs in the body, we see uva ursi’s affect on health and well-being. From the darkness of the void, up through the watery depths of our unconscious emotions, we are dreamed into form and given consciousness. The feminine mysteries represented by water, emotion, darkness, and intuition speak of this metaphorically. It is from the dark womb of the Great Mother that we take our watery birth.

The importance of caring for oneself at the deepest level by nourishing the kidneys is something that has been understood in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Kidney in this energetic model is seen as the repository of fear. Fear is what causes us to seek to control and to be controlled. Introspection allows us to surrender our need to control what is happening outside of ourselves. When we no longer fear what is in the shadow cave, we will be free of the projection of fear.

uva ursi_1054

Uva Ursi, photo by Thea

While uva ursi’s medicine may help to heal a urinary tract infection, it is important to use it as an ally energetically by journeying inward with the spirit of this plant.  Within the cave of our inner knowing is the answer to the question of how to take better care of our health.  When we take the time to honor the season of Winter by entering the silence, then we can begin to realize that we are all unique expressions emanating from the same source. When we call on the spirit medicine of Uva Ursi, a great ally will be made available to assist us on the inner journey. Whether you keep the leaves and berries in a potpourri by your bedside, sip it gingerly in a leaf tea from time to time, smoke it in your peace pipe, or use it as a smudge, uva ursi will tend to your need for silence and introspection.

Learn more in Hidden Treasure: Kidney Essence and the Water Element, Thea’s work at your own pace, online class at Wise Woman University.

Read more about Uva Ursi in Thea’s book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth.