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Your How-To Guide for Growing Astragalus

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By Dr. Mercola

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), a member of the pea family, is an adaptogenic herb with a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an immune strengthening tonic, where it goes by the name of Huang Qi and Hwanqqi. Another English name for this shrub is milkvetch.

Adaptogenic herbs help your body adapt to physical, emotional or mental stress. The immune boosting, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties of astragalus also lowers your risk for infections and other diseases. The most important part of the plant is its root, which has a distinct yellow color. For medical use, the root is made into powder, herbal decoctions, tea, capsules and ointments. The raw root can also be used in cooking.

Astragalus oil, which you can make yourself, also has both therapeutic and cosmetic uses. Taken internally, astragalus oil helps boost your immune response by promoting the production of antibodies. It also helps maintain your digestive health and can help alleviate ulcers by promoting the healthy balance of gastric juices and gastric acid in your stomach.

As most adaptogens, astragalus has a rather long list of potential uses. Products containing astragalus have been shown useful in the treatment of chronic weakness and fatigue, bloating, heart failure, night sweats, nephritis, urinary tract infections, allergies, and cold and flu prevention. To take full advantage of this medicinal plant, why not consider growing some in your backyard?1,2,3

Astragalus Growing and Harvesting Guide

Astragalus is a perennial plant with hairy stems that can grow up to 4 feet tall, producing small yellow flowers that eventually turn into egg-shaped beans. Flowering season runs from midsummer through late fall. It grows well in zones 6 through 11. Seeds will germinate in three to 10 days following a three-week-long cold period. However, seed germination rate tends to be low, and should you store seeds, be sure to use them within two years. After that, they may no longer germinate at all.

Once your seeds have been cold stratified, rub the seed on fine sandpaper to rough up the outer shell. Just don’t rub too hard, as you don’t want to damage the inside. This procedure may seem onerous, but will help accelerate and improve germination. Next, soak the seeds in water for a few hours or overnight. Now, the seeds are ready for planting. Start out by planting the seeds in a small pot or starter tray, using high quality seed starting mix.

Press the seeds about one-quarter inch to 1 inch into the soil and cover. Keep soil moist but not soggy until seeds start to sprout. Keep the pots on a window sill or in an area that receives morning sun. Once the seedlings have grown a few inches tall, transfer them to larger pots or straight into your garden, provided there’s no risk of frost.

Contrary to many other plants, astragalus prefers dry, sandy soil, and needs partial shade to full sun. Ideal pH is around 7. If you plant more than one, space them at least 15 feet apart. Since sandy soils tend to dry out quickly, you may need to water more regularly than other plants until it’s established.

Whether you’re growing it in a pot or in the ground, make sure the root ball stays moist. This is particularly important during the summer. Mulching around it will help retain water by slowing down evaporation. Every few months, apply compost or rotted manure around the plant. Avoid all synthetic, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides if you intend to use the root medicinally. Keep in mind that astragalus has a tendency to get invasive if it’s in an ideal spot, so prune annually to maintain the desired shape and size.

The medicinal root can be harvested after two to three years. Two years is generally considered the minimum, or else the rootstock will not be adequately large to make something out of. To harvest the root, use a garden fork or needle-nose spade to loosen the soil around the plant to where you can pull up the taproot.

How to Make Astragalus Oil

Once you’ve harvested the root, there are a variety of ways you can use it. As mentioned earlier, you can make your own astragalus oil for topical or internal use. Here’s how:

Materials

  • Astragalus root
  • Carrier oil (serves as your base; popular choices include sweet almond, coconut oil and olive oil)
  • Spoon for mixing
  • Unbleached cheesecloth, muslin or fine gauze
  • Double boiler or a crockpot
  • Glass jar for storage

Procedure

  1. Combine the root and the oil in the double boiler. The ideal ratio would be 1 cup of carrier oil to every 1/4 ounce of astragalus
  2. Heat slowly over low heat (140 degrees Fahrenheit) for six to eight hours.
  3. When done, strain the mixture and transfer it to a glass jar or container of your choice

How to Make Astragalus Tincture

Another alternative is to make a tincture, which can be taken internally as needed. Heather Harris with The Homesteading Hippy provides a simple 1-to-5 tincture recipe on her site, summarized here. She suggests placing the tincture in capsules if you don’t like the flavor. For more details and dosage suggestions, see thehomesteadinghippy.com.4

  • Pour 10 grams of shredded astragalus root into a large bottle or jar
  • Add 50 milliliters (ml) — 3.38 tablespoons — of 80 proof vodka (if using smaller amounts, use 1 gram of astragalus root for every 5 ml of vodka)
  • Cap the bottle or jar and let the herbs soak for 30 days
  • After 30 days, strain out the root and store the tincture in a glass eyedropper bottle. Stored tightly capped in a cool, dark place, the tincture’s shelf life will be several years

How to Make Astragalus Tea

For an immune-boosting beverage, try making an astragalus tea, made from either fresh or dried root. A simple recipe by Leaf.tv is as follows:5

  • In a pot, add 4 ounces of fresh astragalus root, or 3 to 5 tablespoons of dried root, to 1 quart of water
  • Boil the root for three to four minutes
  • Strain to remove root and debris
  • Serve hot or cold

Astragalus Immune-Boosting Soup Recipe

Last but not least, fresh astragalus root can also be used in your cooking. Chicken soup is known to help speed up the recovery process when you’re sick. By incorporating the astragalus herb, you’re giving it an added medicinal kick. Here’s a sample recipe from homemadechinesesoups.com.6

Ingredients

  • 1 free-range organic chicken thigh
  • 4 slices of astragalus root
  • 8 red dates
  • 1 tablespoon goji berries
  • 500 ml water (17 ounces or a little over a pint)

Procedure (for double-boiling jar)

  1. Wash and clean the chicken thigh. Trim away excess fat and skin.
  2. Parboil the chicken thigh.
  3. Soak the astragalus, red dates and goji berries for a short while.
  4. Cut the red dates into halves and remove the seeds.
  5. Place all the ingredients into the double-boiling jar.
  6. Pour enough cold water into the jar to cover the ingredients.
  7. Place the jar into a deep pot and fill the pot with water until the jar is half submerged.
  8. Bring the pot of water to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about one hour.
  9. Add salt to taste before serving.



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Chia Is Easy to Grow

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By Dr. Mercola

If you were alive in the 1970s and 80s, you undoubtedly remember the "chia pet" craze. Cultivating one of these characters was easily accomplished by applying moistened chia seeds to a grooved terra cotta figurine and watering them daily until they sprouted. Because chia seeds become gel-like when wet, they adhered to the pottery in such a way as to create tuffs of green sprouts that mimicked fur, hair and beards.

While the market for those terra cotta creations has waned, the interest in chia seeds and chia sprouts has experienced explosive growth. Part of the reason is chia's nutritional profile. Chia seeds are high in antioxidants, fiber, omega-3 fats and other beneficial nutrients. If you've never considered growing chia, perhaps you may reconsider after learning more about this superb superfood.

What Is Chia?

Chia seeds are harvested from the plant Salvia hispanica, a flowering plant that is a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family. Chia is native to central and southern Mexico and parts of Central America. Due to its popularity, it is now grown commercially in several countries around the world, including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia and the U.S.1

Chia's tiny oval seeds boast a shiny, mottled seed coat that can be black, brown, gray or white. The plant itself is an annual herb characterized by dark-green leaves that are wrinkled and deeply lobed. When mature, numerous purple and white, somewhat self-pollinating flowers, emerge from a central spike.

The History of Chia

According to Britannica.com, chia was:2

  • Widely used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica for medicinal and religious purposes, as well as a major food source for indigenous peoples
  • Roasted in seed form and ground into flour by the Aztecs, who also ate chia seeds whole
  • Overtaken by barley and wheat when Spanish conquerors introduced those and other grains to the "new world"

Chia's production as a food crop dropped off until the late 20th century. Its use, some assert, was somewhat revived due to the popularity of the chia pet in the late 1970s and '80s. At that time, chia began to make a comeback as an alternative crop and health food. Today, chia is well-regarded for its nutritional profile, including its rich stores of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber, among other benefits.

Tips on Growing Chia

Chia is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 8 to 11.3 It is characterized as a desert plant that grows well in sandy loam soils. Chia plants need moisture during the growth cycle but can cope with moderate drought once established. The plant resists insect pests and diseases, perhaps in part due to the natural repellant properties of chia leaves. Chia's pest and disease resistance make it highly desirable for organic production.

Given proper conditions and ample space to grow, chia is one of the easiest herbs to grow. If you are interested in growing a full plant from which you can harvest chia seeds, you can either make space in your garden or plant chia in containers. Another option is to sprout chia, which I will address later in this article. Gardening experts provide the following helpful information on how to plant chia:4,5

Due to chia's frost intolerance, you'll want to plant your seeds early in the spring

Choose a sunny, well-drained area of your garden

Rather than dig a hole, you can simply rake and loosen the soil bed and lightly sprinkle a small amount of seeds over the area

After applying the seeds, gently press them into the soil or scatter a small amount of soil over them

Water the area well and continue to water your chia seeds whenever the soil is dry to the touch, until the plants are well-established

Thin the plants when seedlings appear to maintain proper spacing

As an alternative to direct sowing in the ground, SF Gate suggests you can start chia indoors in March or April. Under proper conditions, the seeds will germinate in three to 14 days. Plant your chia seeds indoors by:6

  • Scattering a small amount of chia seeds on top of a moist paper towel or over a seed-starting mix
  • Watering the seeds immediately and keeping them moist and warm
  • Exposing them to six to eight hours of bright light every day
  • Waiting until the seedlings are at least 6 inches tall — or roughly four to six weeks after germination — before plucking them out individually and transplanting them into your garden or containers

When transferring your seedlings to the garden, be sure to maintain 12 to 18 inches of spacing on all sides. When transplanting them into containers, start with a large pot to ensure it will accommodate future growth as the plant matures. Chia plants can easily grow 3 to 5 feet tall and about 18 inches wide. Flowers will generally appear about four months after germination. Your plants must flower if you want to harvest chia seeds.

Harvesting Chia Seeds

The key to harvesting7,8 chia seeds is to wait for the flower spikes to fully develop. Chia flowers will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden. After they are pollinated, the flowers die back and tiny seeds develop. You can encourage bloom production by deadheading the flowers.

The best time to begin collecting individual flower heads is after most of the petals have fallen off. You can place harvested flower spikes on a drying rack or inside an open paper bag so air will circulate in a manner that will dry the flowers.

Once the flowers are completely dry, you can crush the spikes by hand, which will reveal the seeds. You'll want to separate the dry plant material from the seeds. Maintain the seeds in dry form until ready for use. As soon as you rinse chia seeds, they will begin to absorb water, which means you'll need to use them right away. If you do not harvest the seeds and they are allowed to spill out on the ground, you can expect sparrows and other seed-eating birds to devour them.

Chia Seeds Contain Healthy Fats, Fiber and Protein

While you may be aware that chia seeds are nutritious, you may not know about the specific attributes known to make them so beneficial. For starters, a 1-ounce serving (about 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds contains 138 calories, 5 grams (g) of protein, 10 g of fiber and 9 g of fat.9 Chia seeds are good for you because they:10,11

Boast very high levels of antioxidants

Are rich in omega-3 fatty acids — even more so than flaxseed — and unlike flaxseed, chia can be stored long-term without fear of rancidity

Can be eaten whole and are easily digestible and bioavailable when consumed whole

Possess 18 percent of your recommended dietary allowance of calcium (in a 1-ounce serving)

Contain vitamins A, B, C and E

Are a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc

In addition, chia seeds are naturally gluten-free and were included in my list of 10 Superfoods for Digestive Health.

Popular Uses for Chia Seeds

Eaten dry, chia seeds provide a nice crunch and a slightly nutty flavor. If you're looking for ways to use chia seeds that stretch beyond applying them to a piece of "chia pet" pottery, you may be interested to use chia seeds or sprouts in:12

Baked goods

Breading

Jams

Juices

Mousses

Puddings

Salads and salad dressing

Sandwiches

Smoothies

Thickeners

Yogurt

Water

Other options include using chia in its gelatinous form as an energy gel, especially if you add the seeds to coconut water, or in recipes as a substitute for eggs. If you're looking for a refreshing dessert that is also healthy, try this Guilt-Free Chia Seed Pudding recipe.

Cautions About Eating Chia Seeds

Below are several cautions that you should consider before adding chia seeds to your diet:13,14

Similar to all grains and seeds, chia seeds contain phytates, also known as phytic acid, which are considered antinutrients. These compounds are known to block the absorption of certain minerals and other nutrients, which is why you'll want to limit your consumption. Also, to reduce phytates, consider soaking chia seeds prior to eating them.

Given their high fiber content and ability to expand as a gel when added to liquid, chia seeds are said to have the effect of suppressing your appetite. If you have digestive issues, check with your doctor before consuming chia seeds.

To prevent digestive upset, due to the high fiber content, limit your intake of chia seeds to 1 to 2 ounces a day. In addition, since they are able to absorb up to 12 times their volume when introduced to water, you'll want to stay well hydrated when consuming whole chia seeds.

Chia seeds can increase the effect of certain medications, particularly those used to treat high blood pressure and other heart conditions, as well as diabetes. If you take medication of any kind, check with your doctor before adding chia to your diet.

Avoid chia if you have a known allergy to nuts, seeds, mint or other members of the mint family, such as basil, lavender or oregano.

If you have a history of dysphagia or esophageal restrictions be aware of the potential danger of chia seeds, especially in dry form. In one instance, a 39-year-old man required emergency medical assistance to dislodge a gel-like ball of chia seeds that created an esophageal obstruction.15

Try Growing Chia Sprouts

Sprouts offer some of the highest levels of nutrition available, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes that help protect your body against free radical damage. Many of the benefits of sprouts relate to the fact that, in their initial phase of growth, the plants contain concentrated amounts of nutrients. Chia seeds are no exception, and you can easily grow chia sprouts at home. Sprouts are a fantastic option if you live in an apartment or condo where space is limited. Preparedness Mama explains how to sprout chia seeds:16

Equipment:

  • 1 Tablespoon of chia seeds (will yield 2 cups of sprouts)
  • Recycled clamshell container or glass baking dish with a lid to retain moisture
  • Shallow terra cotta dish to fit inside the above container
  • Spray bottle filled with filtered water

Procedure:

  1. Soak the terra cotta dish in water for a few minutes to moisten it
  2. Sprinkle a small amount of chia seeds onto the terra cotta dish (You can adjust the amount after you have tried this a few times)
  3. Add one-quarter inch of filtered water into the bottom of the clamshell or baking dish and set the terra cotta dish on top of the water
  4. Lightly spritz the seeds with water to moisten them thoroughly; do not overly soak them or they will turn to gel
  5. Close the lid to trap moisture and place the sprouting chamber on your kitchen counter; sprouts will be ready in about four to seven days

Whether you decide to grow chia plants or plan to enjoy chia sprouts, chia is a quick-and-easy source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, among other beneficial nutrients. I highly recommend chia.




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