Through Love all that is bitter will be sweet,
through Love all that is copper will be gold,
through Love all dregs will become wine,
through Love all pain will turn to medicine.Rumi
I’ve spent many hours breathing the steam of boiling maple sap in the last month. Making syrup isn’t just about boiling off water. It’s a rendering, a paring down, and not just of sap. There’s a rendering of spirit and mind standing alone at the edge of the woods on the verge of spring.
I’ve had plenty of time to consider the nature of sap. Sap is a complex balance of water, sugars and traces of minerals, proteins, amino and organic acids, and the phenolic compounds that yield the rich maple aromatics. Some of these traces are skimmed (proteins) or precipitate out (minerals) of the syrup as it cooks. The “sand” at the bottom is called niter or maple salt. These “impurities,” essential to tree blood, are removed from the syrup to create a clear unblemished sweet sweet syrup.
Every batch is slightly different. A windy night blew some beech leaves into the syrup and gave that batch a slightly astringent woody note. Some batches carry the sweet smoky aroma of oak fire wood. Others are so sweet they make my teeth hurt.
It is said that the sap can be taken as a tonic for the kidneys. This is true, except that so many folks are struggling with “sweet” these days that it doesn’t take long for maple sap to raise the blood sugar to disproportionate levels.
Sugar is both medicine and poison – depending on the when why and how much. Sugar is used to preserve foods worldwide because it is hydrophilic – meaning it draws water out of food and bacteria to thwart rot. In the body, sugar kills bacteria needed for digestion, damages protective membranes, and eventually leads to more permanent organ and tissue damage. People with high blood sugar are also vulnerable to cancer. Because cancer cells are not insulin resistant and thrive by consuming the glucose that is blocked by insulin resistant cells, which cannot heal themselves without the fuel of glucose. A vicious cycle.
In traditional approaches to healing, sweet is a category of medicine intended to heal in the right circumstances. It is associated with the Earth element in Irish, Appalachian, and Chinese traditional herbalism. In Ayurvedic medicine sweet is a combination of the elements Earth + Water. Practitioners of Appalachian folk medicine, such as Phyllis Light, use a concept called sweet blood to describe the blood of people with type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and other sugar issues.
The blood can get so sugary it becomes viscous causing inflammation throughout the body. Too much sweet often leads to damp conditions such as imbalances in the pH of the urine that can lead to bladder infections, yeast infections, rashes, a whole lot of digestive problems, and a variety of blood sugar conditions.
Sweet medicines are grounding, they provide structure, and maintains boundaries – in the right doses. And it has to be the right kind of sweet. Sugar, simply put, is a drug. Most versions of it are 95% sucrose or higher. White sugar is 99.9% sucrose. Pure enough to use in wounds in disaster situations.
But many beneficial foods and herbs are sweet. There is a long tradition of using grains to “fatten up” sickly children, frail adults, and those recovering from long illnesses or injuries. Mostly the concept of “fattening up” is now reserved for livestock, which begs the question, how long would it take for livestock to develop diabetes if they lived longer?
There was a time when humans didn’t eat a lot of grains. Hunter-gatherer societies were likely to prefer larger tubers and roots over tiny grains. In economic terms, the return for the labor of hand-picking grains wasn’t viable. Grain mills and threshers and other inventions made grains easier to access bringing a new set of diseases: tooth decay and growth imbalances and a variety of problems caused by newly sweet blood. And later as the prevalence of diabetes and obesity skyrocketed many began to argue whether the high carb low fat diet was helping or hindering public health.
Revenge is sweet but not fattening.Alfred Hitchcock
I’m not promoting revenge, but consider the way that sweet unfolds in the social fabric. Sweet is a temptation, a guilty pleasure or a reward. Many struggle with the ubiquitous nature of sweets and carbs available in almost every business establishment in shiny packages laced with fake colors, scents, and flavors. We call this having a sweet tooth.
(Some of us have a mouth full of sweet teeth.)
But sweet also has it’s place: it takes the edge off bitter, the heat out of spicy, and brings out sour and salty flavors. In herbalism, sweet herbs won’t taste sweet to those with an overly sugared palate. Sweet herbs are moistening and often cooling; especially if that herb or food is a fruit with sour and cooling bioflavonoids. Sweet whole foods and herbs contain polysaccharides, fibers, inulin, and other prebiotics that feed beneficial bacteria in the gut.
I’ll leave you with a short list of sweet herbs or medicines:
- burdock root
- marshmallow root (and many others in this family)
- evening primrose root
- Stevia leaves
- Aloe vera gel
- Sassafras leaves
- most whole grains – because remember the longer you chew them the sweeter they get…
It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.Laura Ingalls Wilder
learn or Experience more here:
Purchase our maple syrup at: http://trilliumcenter.org/market
An herbal approach to microbial balancing with sweet and other herbs at: Botanical Skin(s)care: Healing from the Root –https://www.artful.ly/store/events/16565
Learn more about how sweet relates to the Earth element online at: https://seekingblissonline.com/courses/962/about
Or in person at:
Heal Thyself: The Elements of Healing
Fourth Thursdays, 7-8:30 pm
Experience the tastes of herbalism at:
A Mouth Watering Herbal Experience