Saturday, November 28, 2009

Teasel: Honoring the Bones of Our Ancestors

(Dipsacus japonicus et D. sylvestris)

When I sit down to compose a piece about the plants, I don’t choose which herb I will write about, the Plant chooses me. Teasel began vying for my attention as a subject for one of my articles months ago when I was on my way to upstate New York and her flowers were everywhere on the roadsides. She hasn’t stopped edging her way into my consciousness since then; I hereby surrender to her will. Her powerful insistence is indicative of her medicine in an energetic way: she represents strength on many levels.

Japanese Teasel root is considered a tonic for the Kidney Yang, according to its uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In TCM, the Kidneys -and therefore the whole body- would ideally have a perfect balance of Yin and Yang energies. The Yin is moistening, receptive, nourishing and has an inward, storing, sedating quality; The Yang is drying, expansive, energizing and productive.

The Kidneys represent not simply the two blood cleansing and urine filtering organs we know them as in an allopathic framework. According to TCM the kidneys rule the bones, teeth, lower back, knees, as well as the brain, spinal cord and regulate growth and maturation. The Kidneys are considered to be the very foundation from which we grow and thrive, the true Essence of our Being, “The Root of Life.” We are born with this precious Essence -called Jing - that we inherit from our parents (ultimately all of our ancestors) and it is stored energetically within the Kidneys.

Metaphorically, let’s equate this Essence to a “trust fund” of sorts: you are born with a fixed amount. One may be fortunate enough to have inherited the energetic equivalent of a Cadillac, or perhaps not so lucky and inherited a Pinto, but keep in mind that it is entirely possible to drive that Caddy into the ground! Don’t change the oil, rotate the tires, never do a single bit of maintenance and that sturdy vehicle can be wasted, become weakened and fit for scrap. Conversely, one could carefully tend to the Pinto with regular loving maintenance, never drive it too hard and it would last a long time, providing years of service and reliability.

On a daily basis we utilize our Qi energy that we receive through a nourishing diet, clean water, positive fulfilling relationships, good breathing/movement practices and plenty of quality rest. We use our Jing to fill in the gaps when we can’t rely upon our steady income of Qi and we may never be aware that we are using it. The Jing is like that; if an individual “lives it up” with excessive drinking, drugs, late nights and sexual encounters, Jing gets spent. When a person has extreme stress, frayed nerves, repressed or excessive emotions and ceases to take proper care of themselves, Jing gets spent. If someone has had chronic or repeated illnesses, numerous injuries, multiple births or miscarriages, Jing gets spent.

Signs of aging like thinning bones, grey hair, diminished hearing, decreased metal acuity and lowered stamina are indicative of lowered Kidney energies. TCM tells us that Jing can never be replenished, once it’s gone, it’s gone. However, Kidney Jing can be conserved and “astringed” with herbs, lifestyle and various spiritual practices; also by tonifying the Yin and Yang aspects of Kidney energy, we can “endow interest to the Kidney Jing account.” Herbal tonics that specifically balance the combination of Yin and Yang herbs to an individual’s constitution can help to promote more graceful aging and an overall healthier state of being.

Chinese Herbal Materia Medica by Bensky and Gamble states that as a Yang tonifying herb, Japanese Teasel root (Dipsacus asperi seu japonicus) fortifies the lower back, knees and bones. It has a positive effect on the sinews and joints as well and is used for pain and stiffness from decreased Kidney energy or from traumatic injury. It is also used to promote the movement of blood and to repair damaged tissues, so it makes sense that Teasel’s Pinyin name in is Xu Duan, meaning “restore what is broken.”

For arthritic conditions, repetitive strain, pain, weakness or traumatic injury, the root of Dipsacus japonicus can be taken internally as a tincture or decoction, applied topically in a salve or liniment, or one could address all aspects of the disharmony and choose internal and external treatment simultaneously. Japanese Teasel actually has a regulating effect on the blood, it is able to not only promote circulation when it comes to trauma, but it will also help with threatened miscarriage by stopping uterine bleeding and calming a restless fetus. When used for disorders of the uterus during pregnancy, it is often combined with Mugwort (Artemesia argyi) and Greater Burnet (Sanguisorba) for uterine bleeding, or paired with gelatin to assist the mother when she has been unable to carry a child to term.

Historically, domestic Teasel (D. sylvestris) was not particularly popular as a medicine plant, it was however valued in the textile industry. The name Teasel comes from its use for teasing wool; it was cultivated for such a purpose at least as far back as Roman times. It was bred specifically to produce hooked bracts on the dried flower heads for more efficiency in the production of woolens. It fell out of fashion with manufacturers after machines were invented to do the same thing, but the mechanically produced cloth could never match the smooth quality of wool finished with Teasel.

This species of Teasel (D. sylvestris) found in North America has recently gained a groundswell of interest in the treatment of Lyme Disease because of a fantastic tome, The Book of Herbal Wisdom by herbalist Matthew Wood who pioneered the use of domestic teasel for Lyme. In practice, he discovered that a very small dosage of tincture -only about 3 drops taken 2-3 times daily- brought dramatic improvements to the joint aches and cognitive dysfunction that Lyme disease can bring about. Teasel can be taken at this low dose safely for long periods of time.

According to, Teasel has a unique ability to get the spirochetes where they “hide out” in the joints and drive them into the blood stream, where other medicines (be they herbal or pharmaceutical) can then eradicate them. It is not uncommon to have a Herxheimer reaction when taking Teasel or any effective remedy for Lyme disease. A flaring up of symptoms due to the “die-off” of spirochetes leads to substantial levels of toxins in the blood, however this is actually considered a good sign. It is important to expedite this process by encouraging detoxification and immune strengthening with many available herbal preparations.

In his book, Wood shares the fantastic success of several case studies he gathered in his clinical practice using Teasel for Lyme. His balanced approach to healing is both spiritual and methodical, a necessary combination. When I contacted Matthew Wood for permission to cite his work, he was insistent that I give proper credit to his friend and adviser, William LeSassier, the late Chinese Herbalist from New York City. It was LeSassier, Wood says, who had first suggested the use of D. sylvestris, our domestic relative of the Japanese Teasel that has been used in the Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia for hundreds of years.

When one examines the Teasel plant, it really is no small wonder that this sturdy herb encourages fortitude. The robust, bristly flower heads are born upon the tall prickly stalks of Teasel and blossom in a whorl of lavender from the center toward the top and bottom. The leaves are also spiny and attach to the stalk without a petiole, forming a cup as the base of the leaf wraps around the stalk. This cup that forms at the juncture of the leaf and stem often collects rain or dew and reminds us that Teasel can help with stiff and unlubricated joints. This characteristic was the reason that Dipsacus was once called “water thistle” or “Venus’ basin.”

A biennial, Teasel grows up to several feet in height in her second year and the spent seed heads atop boney stalks easily persists through even the harshest of winter weather. During the mid-late summer, you can often find three generations in close proximity to one another: the bodacious, bristly basal rosette of a first year Teasel clinging to the ground, a stalk shooting toward the sky burgeoning with the potential for bloom in a second year specimen and nearby the bones of last year’s grandmother Teasel silently bearing witness to her progeny.

It’s the first year Teasel that offers her medicine; in the autumn, if you have found the withered flower heads of Teasel that has gone by, examine the ground for the young prickly leaves in a basal rosette. If there are enough to spare, respectfully dig a few of the roots up, bring them home to scrub thoroughly, and then tincture them in vodka or white brandy. Generally the rule is to fill a clean glass jar 2/3 full with the fresh chopped root, cover completely with the alcohol, -leaving about ½ inch of space at the top of the jar- seal tightly, and then gently shake the jar daily. Over the course of the 4-6 weeks it takes to mature, put your loving intention into that tincture every day and be sure to offer your thanks to the plants in exchange for the medicine they so freely give, and to our ancestors for the inheritance they have so generously left us.

To me, Matthew Wood’s respect for his mentor brings to mind this analogy of the familial arrangement of Teasel in the field. Although William LeSassier has passed on, his memory, honored and respected by Matthew Wood and successive generations of healers, is carried on in the use of domestic Teasel for medicine. We have inherited much benefit from the bones of our ancestors so that we may prosper as we learn, grow and sow the seeds of our experience for future generations.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
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  1. Wow WOW Lisl - I so WANT this in my herbal repertoire hehe! This species isn't here, but I see countrywide in the USA another one that came from Europe, Fuller's Teasle (Dipsacus fullonum) of which I can't help but wonder if this is where the Fuller Brush Company got its start hehe! Culpeper says its planetary ruler is Venus, which matches the Kidney system described here. I hadn't seen even these in my immediate area, but I will be looking now, as I feel anything that can combat something like Lyme Disease is a good thing to keep handy!

  2. Nice article on the teasel. I'm going to mention this to a friend who is dealing with Lyme disease. One detail that you might consider correcting: Teasels are not native to North America; all species are introduced here.

  3. Evert, thanks... I see the wording error... I will change that to "species found in North America" so as not to cause confusion... I appreciate you pointing that out.

  4. Thank you for honoring my two great teachers Matthew Wood and William LeSassier! Did you know that more of William's CDs are available for purchase at Just don't wear headphones, the volume may change suddenly..... In the good green, Margi Flint.

  5. Thanks Margi!!
    It was a nice treat to get your comment this morning. I am lavishing at in internet cafe on Kauai watching people grooving on smelling flowers.
    I'll check out those cd's when (if) I go home...

  6. great article! you are a very passionate and knowledgeable source for students like myself. Its not always easy finding trustworthy info online. Thanks for your hard work and research!

  7. A weed is only a plant whose benefit has not yet been discovered.

    In this case, not yet been popularized.
    Thanks for this beautiful article on a plant I've had reservations about, but hope for. You've dispelled my prejudice against this amazing, albeit invasive plant. Now she stands with the sunflowers in my mind.


  8. Because teasel can be very invasive in north america, make sure to check in with landowners before collecting. They may have sprayed herbicides! Once you get them talking, they may even ask that you not be so respectful in your harvest..