Today marks the Celtic festival of Samhain, or Halloween as it has been rebranded for the modern age. It marks the end of the harvests and the beginning of the long night of winter.


It is said that for our Celtic ancestors, all things began in darkness, with a time of dreaming and gestation, and as such, Samhain marked the beginning of the New Year, just as dusk heralded the start of a new day.



In this time and place we see death as a finality that comes at the end of life. A nothing, a void, an inevitable stopping. But what if we were to shift our vantage point a little, step to the side and see as our ancestors saw, that death is also that which precedes life. It just depends at what point on the wheel you want to hop on.




Sitting in nature at the time of year it is easy to see this time of darkness and dying as the start of something new and quietly wonderful. Plants and trees shed their seed to be blanketed by fallen leaves, a soft slow beginning. So much has happened unnoticed, long before the first shoots of spring.




Observing the natural world we see how life and death each contain the seed of the other.
















Samhain is also the time to honour the ancestors. Those who traveled their journey whilst we were still snug in the Earth, sleeping, sending down our strong roots and dreaming of warmer days to come.




The Downs are beautiful at any time of year, even in deepest winter when grey skies and bitter winds make them seem grim and inhospitable. I’m not sure it ever gets better than August though, when wildflowers carpet the steep slopes and everything is climaxing in one last great show before the Autumn days draw in. The buzzing, whirring and fluttering of hoverflies, bees and butterflies is intense as they load up on pollen and nectar and the smells so rich you can end up feeling as euphoric as the insects appear to be.

The peacock butterfly is always a favourite of mine, let’s face it, there’s not many creatures so flamboyant on our humble Isle. And the Blues so soft and ethereal, it almost brings a tear to my eye to watch them.


Peacock butterfly on Ragwort


Small White on Common Knapweed


Common Blue (underside) on Ragwort


Common Blue on Ragwort


Gatekeeper Butterfly

How gorgeous are these emerald hued beetles? They appeared to be in heaven, caressing each other and the thistle flower with their spindly legs. The rose chafer or Cetonia aurata, is not a rare beetle but it still takes the breath away.


Rose Chafer on Creeping Thistle


Creeping thistle is very common and has the most wonderful earthy honied scent. A small handful of the flower heads in hot water make a delicious tea. When they finish flowering the seeds are equally beautiful, catching in the wind with their silken threads.


Creeping Thistle Seed Heads

Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) is another common wildflower, though somewhat confusingly it is no relation to either hemp or agrimony. It is little used today but in the past it was an important medicinal herb used for treating fevers and cleansing the blood. It has been found to contain potentially toxic alkaloids so would not be appropriate for ongoing treatment or in large doses which, in any case, may cause vomiting. It is a wonderful plant for butterflies, bees, moths and other insects.


Hemp Agrimony. (Notice the hawthorn berries ripening in the background… not long now!)


Hemp Agrimony with Canadian Goldenrod


Hemp agrimony, Canadian Goldenrod, Rosebay Willowherb, Hawthorn and Wild Clematis.

This goldenrod is not the native variety (Solidago virguarea) but the Canadian (Solidago canadensis) which was originally grown in gardens but is now not uncommon as a wildflower here in the South. It is very striking with a delicious heady fragrance which results in it being surrounded by clouds of happy insects.


Canadian Goldenrod in full sun!


Harvesting the wonderful mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) was one of the reasons for this morning’s walk. Mugwort is a fantastic medicinal herb that deserves much more than a quick summary but (among its many other uses) it is well loved for its affinity for the female reproductive system and its use as a digestive tonic. It is also steeped in folklore and myth and has long been used to promote lucid dreaming. Considered sacred to the Goddess Artemis, from whom it gets its Latin name, it is associated with the moon and all things magical.


Our Lady Mugwort


Yarrow is surely one of the most useful herbs we have, being helpful for a wide array of ailments. You can read more about it in my post here. They are mostly white with the odd pink one scattered in.


Pink Yarrow

Classic wildflowers of chalky soils like the Downs include the graceful wild mignonette and agrimony. Agrimony (Agrimonia Eupatoria) is such a beautiful and cheerful herb, most commonly used for treating diarrhoea in children due to its gentle astringency. Also used for healing sore throats, toning the bladder and gut and healing wounds, it is member of the Rose family.


Wild Mignonette



Small scabious doesn’t have the most glamourous name but it is so beautiful it can just about get away with it! Perhaps the other flowers named it to prevent it becoming arrogant? I expect there is a story in there somewhere. The seed head alone is a work of art that only Mother Nature would be capable of.

Small Scabious

Small Scabious


Scabious seedhead – Incredible!

Greater knapweed and rosebay willow herb are also important wildlife species and red bartsia is an attractive wildflower that is semi-parasitic on the roots of grasses.


Greater Knapweed


Red Bartsia


Spires of Rosebay Willowherb

Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot is another beautiful yet common wild flower. The name is said to come from the small red flower that is sometime seen in the centre of the head and relates to a story that Queen Anne, consort to James I, pricked her finger and stained the centre of her lace red with a drop of her blood.


Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot with visiting Green Lacewing

Another of its common names is ‘birds nest’ after the stunning seed heads that form after it has finished flowering.


Wild Carrot seed head



May is truly one of my favourite months of the year. On the tipping point between seasons we have the last of the spring greens along with the first summer flowers and there are always lots of wonderful things to gather.

I enjoyed a harvest of pine pollen with some lovely women folk early in the month and now have delicious infused vinegars and tinctures to sustain us through the year. Pine pollen is a pale yellow powdery substance released from the male catkins each Spring and is a marvellous food and medicine, being rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins and having a whole host of beneficial actions from anti-inflammatory to adaptogenic and androgenic. Humans have used pine as medicine since our origins.


Hawthorn is the gem of the season and is so abundant that it is usually possible to gather freely for use in teas, tinctures and other preparations. I have written many posts on Hawthorn on this blog but you can read a little more about the medicinal qualities of the flowers here.




Our garden has been so thoroughly carpeted in dandelions that the flowers have graced our table on more than one occasion. The classic way to eat them of course is as fritters and they certainly make a delicious treat that way. All you need to do is dunk the flowers in a simple batter and fry, then hold on to the stalk and eat the battered flower head, discarding the green parts left. I have written more about the many medicinal benefits of dandelion here.



Now the flowers have turned to clocks and my son delights in blowing them hither and thither. I expect our dandelion carpet will be even more extensive next year as a result!


Ribwort plantain also grows in abundance here along with a little broadleaf and hoary plantain to add variety to the mix. I have been busy making infused oils to help heal all the little injuries that are so common for exploratory toddlers. Ribwort plantain is also a wonderful lung herb amongst other qualities and makes a great field plaster. I will dedicate a full post to its many wonders soon.



Shepherd’s purse is a valuable astringent remedy, particularly for the uterus and gets its name from the little seed capsules which resemble, you guessed it, shepherd’s purses.


We also have lots of garlic mustard, or Jack-by-the-hedge, growing in the garden. Delicious earlier in the season the leaves become bitter after it has flowered but it is still a good plant for wildlife, especially the orange tip butterfly, so I leave it be.


Speaking of wildlife we have had lots of welcome visitors. A couple of foxes frequent the garden daily and they are such a pleasure to watch.



Nature at this time of year is full of sensory delights.

From colours:




Herb Robert


Rock rose

To textures:






Lady’s mantle


White horehound

To delicious smells:




Golden Marjoram



The garden is also full of the promise of things to come. Elderflowers and St. John’s wort will soon be flowering and ready to pick, gooseberries are nearly ripe and we are looking forward to apples and strawberries later in the year.


Apple blossom


St. John’s wort






Elderflower soon to be in bloom

Lest it all seem too idyllic however, this month has also been fraught with horticultural challenges. First my mini greenhouse blew over in the strong winds and all my seedlings were lost. Then the birds puled up all the yellow rattle plugs I had planted and finally someone, possibly a rat, dug up my newly planted salad trough. As my Dad, who has been gardening for many years, reminds me, gardening is full of ups and downs. I like to thing it is Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that we don’t have as much control as we think we do.

And ultimately, that can only be a good thing!



Spring is finally in full swing here in Sussex. The sun is shining, March winds are blowing out the winter grey and lots of wonderful young edibles are popping up in the meadows and hedgerows.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is one of the most delectable of these and also one of the most easily recognisable as well as being abundant in damp and shady places such as woodlands and stream edges.

A warning that is often given alongside foraging information on wild garlic is to be wary of its similarities to the leaves of Lords and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculatum) which often grows amongst it. The leaves can be easily camouflaged but, on closer examination, actually look quite different so getting to know the characteristics of these two plants is important for wild harvesting. 


Spot the difference

I suspect the majority of problems arise from people picking handfuls of young leaves without too much attention to detail so it’s always good to harvest a little more mindfully and respectfully to avoid getting any unwanted hitchhikers in your basket.


Young Wild Garlic

The leaves of wild garlic are convex, broadly lanceolate and glabrous (smooth and hairless) and have one main central vein with parallel secondary veins.


Wild garlic – left, Lords and Ladies, – right

Lords and Ladies on the other hand has a broad arrow shaped leaf, with a more wrinkled appearance. However the mature leaf shape may not be fully present in the youngest leaves so the most important thing to notice is the difference in patterning of the veins. In Lords and Ladies they are pinnate, meaning the secondary veins are paired oppositely, emerging out to the edge of the leaf from the central vein. On close inspection they look quite different from the parallel veins of wild garlic.


Lords and Ladies emerging


Lords and Ladies

It also often has characteristic purple spots on the leaves though these are not always present, especially in the young leaves, so cannot be relied upon for a positive identification.


Characteristic purple spots

Wild garlic can also be confused with the leaves of Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) before they are in flower and the two do in fact look very similar. Lily of the Valley is highly poisonous when eaten, though it is also a valuable medicine when given in the correct dosages. One of the main differences is that Lily of the Valley usually has pairs of leaves on a single stem where as wild garlic only has one. Lily of the Valley is rarer now than it used to be but it is still important to be able to recognise the differences.

The most important id feature of wild garlic is its distinctive smell which neither Lily of the Valley or Lords and Ladies have. If you have any doubts at all, leave aside the plants you are unsure of.

Below we can see wild garlic growing up amongst two poisonous neighbours. Dog mercury with the small green flowers and the larger leaves of Lords and Ladies next to it.


Wild Garlic, Dog’s Mercery and Lords and Ladies

Alongside our usual pestos and infused vinegars I have been enjoying wild garlic cashew nut ‘cheese’ this year which is a lovely creamy treat spread on crackers or used as a sauce on pasta or millet.

Ingredients and Method:

1 cup cashew nuts (soaked in enough water to cover for at least an hour and drained)
A large handful or wild garlic leaves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup water (you can add more to make a thinner sauce consistency)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional but adds a nice cheesy flavour)
Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until combined and smooth. Store in the fridge and use within a few days.


Wild Garlic cashew nut cheese

If you fancy picking some wild garlic with myself and Anna Richardson next month we are holding a spring greens foraging day at Wowo Campsite in East Sussex. Other dates for summer and autumn are also available.

Edible and medicinal spring greens- Saturday 25th April 10.30am – 4.30pm

Women’s Flower Day – Saturday 11th July 10.30am – 4.30pm

Autumn Wild Foods and Medicines – Saturday 19th September 10.30am – 4.30pm

You can find out more and book online here: http://www.wowo.co.uk/faq/30-services/107-anna-richardson-wild-crafts.html


Once in a while a medicinal ally comes along that completely captivates my heart and mind. Over the last year or so the birch polypore fungus has been the ally in question and it is everything that ‘the people’s medicine’ should be – local, abundant, safe and powerfully healing.

LatinPitptoporus betulinusPiptoporus comes from the latin meaning ‘pores cast down’ and betulinus from its host tree, the birch.
Common name – Birch Polypore, also razor strop fungus, birch conk, birch bracket. The name polypore refers to its many pores, situated on the underside of the fruiting body from which the spores are released.
Taste – bitter, slightly sweet and earthy.
Smell – I would consider the smell to be rich and mushroomy though the legendary Roger’s mushroom guide describes its as having a ‘distinct or odd smell (not mushroomy).’ So you will have to make up your own mind on that!
Actions – Immune tonic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, anti-parasitic, anti-septic, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, styptic.

For further information on taxonomy and identifying this mushroom please see here and here.


The birch polypore grows from a single lateral attachment point on birch trees, being subglobose at first, then expanding to a bracket measuring approximately 10-20 cm across. It is white to begin with, the cap changing to a beige/tan colour and then darkening or greying with age. The underside is white and contains many pores which release their spores into the air. Spores land on exposed areas of birch trees, where branches have broken for example, and begin to grow hyphae which spread to form a mycelial network through the tree. It is considered weakly parasitic on birch trees, a healthy tree will be able to contain the spreading hyphae but in one that is aged or diseased the fungus will begin the gradual process of breaking it down. The fruiting bodies are annual, unlike some of our other common bracket fungi which may live for years, but they are often gnawed by insects before the end of this period so they are better picked young.

Newly erupting fruiting body in the top left and more mature specimen in the bottom right.

Newly erupting fruiting body in the top left and more mature specimen in the bottom right.


Young specimen

Birch polypore grows freely in the temperate forests of Europe and North America and its ethnobotanic uses have been wide and varied. From medicine to tinder, knife sharpener and sweat band, this fungi has been employed in many more ways than your average mushroom. Like the more famous tinder fungus, Fomes fomentarius, it is able to carry a spark from one campsite another, easing the task of firelighting, and in more recent times it was cut into strips and used to sharpen knives, especially by those who could not afford leather, giving it its common name, the razor strop fungus.


It shot to fame after it was found on the body of Ötzi’, a 5300 year old mummy found preserved in the ice in the Italian Alps. Amongst his kit Ötzi’ carried two strips of hide onto which had been threaded pieces of birch polypore. As he was later found at autopsy to be infected with intestinal parasites against which the birch polypore is active, it has been theorised that he was carrying them as treatment and also as a possible anti-septic incase of minor injuries.


Ötzi’s birch polypores. Photo courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Of course to me it is the medicinal properties of this wonderful fungus that are most fascinating and it has a variety of applications which make it a very useful addition to the herbalist’s cabinet. Like our more famous medicinal mushrooms birch polypore contains primary metabolites (polysaccharides) and secondary metabolites (such as triterpenes) that are beneficial for health. Its traditional uses are backed up by research yet it is still not common in the dispensaries of most modern herbalists who tend to rely on the more famous imported medicinal mushrooms.

Like those more famous medicinal mushrooms birch polypore makes a wonderful immune tonic as it contains polysaccharides which are mostly glucans, known to be some of the most effective immune enhancing compounds available.


It has been shown to be a useful support in the treatment of cancer in a number of ways. Alongside providing general support to the immune system, it also inhibits angiogenesis, the formation of new blood cells which occurs in tumour growth. In one study anti-cancer effects were “attributed to decreased tumor cell proliferation, motility and the induction of morphological changes. Of note is the fact that it produced no or low toxicity in tested normal cells.” (1) Another in vitro study on colorectal cancer showed that “Studied extracts highly decreased the viability of cancer cells, slightly inhibiting proliferation and tumor cell adhesion in a time- and dose-dependent manner.” (2) It also found that the extracts studied had very low toxicity to normal cells making it a safe and effective treatment.


The relationship of birch polypore to its host tree is key to its healing actions. It will grow on other trees only if they are artificially inoculated, in nature it is found exclusively on birch trees. One facet of the birch polypore’s healing actions is the concentration of betulinic acid which it potentiates from it’s host tree. Betulinic acid has been shown in various studies to initiate apoptosis, or death of cancer cells. (3) In 2001, an extract of birch polypore containing betulinic acid showed useful antiviral action against HIV by blocking its reproduction. (4)


Birch polypore has also been shown to contain compounds that are matrix metallo-proteinase inhibitors, which can also slow cancer cell proliferation. (5)

It has been shown in various studies to be anti-inflammatory, mainly due to triterpene acids. (6,7)

It is considered a great wound herb, not just for its anti-inflammatory properties but because it is anti-septic, anti-bacterial and helps to stop bleeding. An anti-biotic called Piptamine has been isolated from it and the whole mushroom is said to be effective against various strains of bacteria including E. coli. It can be used to make a perfect plaster when in the field by scoring a rectangle into the underside, then peeling it back slowly and carefully. It is absorbent and holds in place well. Apparently here in Sussex it used to be burnt into a charcoal and used as an anti-septic. I haven’t tried this method yet but it is on my to do list, especially because of the local ethnobotanic connection!


Birch polypore plaster

It also has a lot of potential as an anti-viral. Renowned mycologist and author of Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets has reported that it is active against flu, cowpox, yellow fever and other potentially deadly viruses.

Birch polypore has also been reported to be an aromatase inhibitor, meaning it helps to prevent the conversion of androgen hormones into oestrogen. This is important in both men and women as high oestrogen levels are linked to many hormonal imbalances and cancers.


How to Prepare:

I have mostly been using my birch polypores as either a tea or a tincture. I have been drinking a cup of the tea a few times a week as a general immune tonic over the winter months and I made a delicious birch polypore and elderberry syrup last autumn.


Birch polypore and elderberry immune tonic on the hob.

The tea should be decocted, or gently simmered in water, rather than just left to infuse as tougher parts of plants or fungi need a bit more energy to give up their constituents. A rough recommended dosage would be 1 cup of decoction made with 5-8g dried mushroom per day. The dried (or fresh) mushroom should be added to a pan with the water and allowed to simmer gently for about an hour. If there is a specific health concern then this dose could well be higher but it is best to see a practitioner in that case. If you find the taste of the tea too bitter you can freeze it in ice cube trays to make a medicinal stock which can be added to soups or stews where the flavour will be disguised. 

Medicinal mushroom stock ice cubes

Medicinal mushroom stock ice cubes

Medicinal mushrooms have traditionally been extracted in water, via decoction, to maximise the polysaccharides. The triterpenes and other secondary metabolites tend to extract well in alcohol however so a decocted tincture is ideal to capture a wide range of the mushroom’s constituents.  I plan to follow up this post with another describing how to make a decocted tincture in detail and will update the link here when I do.

For storage purpose you can slice the mushrooms and allow to dry, usually a pretty quick process, then store in a jar or brown paper bag out of direct light until ready to use.


Birch polypore dries to a lovely light, velvety material which is a pleasure to touch and stroke. Inspired by a friend of a friend, a German herbalist who had carved a ball from it, I decided to experiment with some polypore craft of my own. Firstly I made a ring, though the flaw in this plan soon became obvious as it rehydrated every time I washed my hands and I ended up with a soggy band of mushroom around my finger! Next were some slightly rustic Christmas decorations which ended up being recycled into tea. Finally I decided to follow in the footsteps of the iceman himself and settle on threading my birch polypore onto a cord to make a necklace. It makes a lovely tactile bead to wear and I enjoy the feeling of connection to a medicine I am using so frequently at the moment… that is, as long as I remember to remove it before the shower!


I hope you get chance to get to know this wonderful ally and work with it yourself. Please remember that even though it is abundant, it is performing a vital task in its environment and it is wise to harvest responsibly, taking a few mushrooms from here and there rather than all from one or two trees. 


Happy belated Imbolc to you all!


1. Lemieszek et al – Anticancer Effect of Fraction Isolated from Medicinal Birch Polypore Mushroom, Piptoporus betulinus – Int. Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. 2009; 11(4): pages 351-364.

2. Cyranka M et al – Investigation of antiproliferative effect of ether and ethanol extracts of birch polypore medicinal mushroom, Piptoporus betulinus Int. Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms 2011;13(6): pages 525-33.

3.Fulda S – Modulation of Apoptosis by Natural Products for Cancer Therapy -Planta Med 2010; 76(11): 1075-1079

4. Kanamoto T. et al – Anti-human immunodeficiency virus activity of YI-FH 312 (a betulinic acid derivative), a novel compound blocking viral maturation – Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 2001; 45(4): pages 1225-1230

5. Kawagishi H. – Novel hydroquinone as a matrix metallo-proteinase inhibitor from the mushroom, Piptoporus betulinus – Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2002; 66(12): pages -2748-2750.

6. Kemani Wangun et al. – Anti-inflammatory and Anti-hyaluronate Lyase Activities of Lanostanoids from Piptoporus betulinus – The Journal of Antibiotics. 2004; 57 (11): pages 755-758

7.Kamo T. et al – Anti-inflammatory lanostane-type triterpene acids from Piptoporus betulinus – Journal Nat Prod 2003 66 (8): pages 1104-1106.


Autumn Foraging Workshops

Autumn bounty

Autumn bounty

We had a wonderful time at the Wild Plant Craft workshop over the Autumn Equinox weekend, meeting like minded people and spending time connecting with nature and gathering food and medicine from Mother Earth’s autumn bounty. Here are some of the highlights!

Anna and I will be doing another day of foraging and making at Wowo campsite in East Sussex on Sunday 26th October focusing on acorns, roots and medicinal mushrooms.

Meeting hazel

Meeting Hazel.

Collecting Himalayan Balsam seeds

Collecting Himalayan Balsam seeds.

Foraging fun

Foraging fun.

Clover blossom

Clover blossom.

Digging for roots whilst the smallest member of the company has a nap.

Digging for roots whilst the smallest member of the company has a nap.

Talking about Hawthorn, one of my favourite trees.

Talking about Hawthorn, one of my favourite trees.


Singing Anna’s beautiful Hawthorn song.


Fruits of our labour.

Foragers of all ages.

Foragers of all ages.

Taking time to meet the plants.

Taking time to meet the plants.


Anna talks about chickweed.

Anna talks about chickweed.

Busy with preparations.

Busy with preparations.


Berries simmering over the fire with hazelnuts roasting in a shallow pit beneath.

Berries simmering over the fire with hazelnuts roasting in a shallow pit beneath.

Ingredients for iron tonic.

Ingredients for iron tonic.

Food and medicine from the Earth.

Food and medicine from the Earth.


Wildflowers and Waterways

It’s been a little while since I have shared a post here as the summer has been a busy one.

I am really excited to be running a wild plant craft workshop over the Autumn Equinox weekend with Anna Richardson who is an amazingly knowledgeable wild food and bushcraft teacher and beautiful plantswoman! We will be doing a foraging walk on the Saturday morning for those who wish to come but not commit to the full weekend.

It’s been a wonderfully sunny summer with abundant herbs and wildflowers in the garden, waysides and hedgerows and I wanted to share some photos with you before autumn takes too firm a grip.

We recently moved house and there is plenty of self heal, a particular favourite of mine, in the lawn of our new garden. A herb with many uses, both internal and external Culpepper described it thus, ‘whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself.’


Calendula is another firm favourite that is wonderful medicine both internally and externally, you can read more about it here.


Yet another herb for inside and out is the beautiful heartsease, just looking at it does what it says on the box!



Mullein is an excellent  tonic for the respiratory system among many other useful properties, too many to list here. It surely deserves a post of its own sometime soon.


Californian poppy is famed for its soothing properties and makes a lovely children’s herb also.



Bees and humans both enjoy red clover.


I love to see great swathes of meadowsweet growing in wild and abandoned places. I have written about some of its medicinal virtues here.




Queen of the Prairie is Meadowsweet’s American cousin and makes a beautiful garden addition.


Soldier beetle on Tansy.


Lovely Evening Primrose.


Madame Mugwort, a fabulous aromatic and bitter herb which grows plentifully throughout most of the UK.


Yarrow, the many benefits of which are touched on here.


Agrimony is not only a useful herb but also one of the most beautiful wildflowers.


St John’s Wort, much loved by most herbalists and another very useful plant for both internal and external ailments.


Black Horehound, Ballota nigra, is most often noted for its smell which many find disagreeable. I think it smells like the smokey bacon flavour crisps I remember from childhood! It is useful for quelling nausea and sickness, though if the smell and taste repulse you, it might not have the desired effect!


Nettle seeds, wonderful medicine and walker’s snack.


An abundance of wild flowers.





And finally the beautiful passion flower. A plant that always seems quite out of this world to me.





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