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Beauty is a Doorway

DSC_0250 Whilst discussing the importance of encouraging nature appreciation with an inspiring friend recently, she said something that has stayed with me since. “Beauty is a doorway.” This struck a cord with me, having learnt the hard way that people will not value the natural world just because others attempt to tell them of its importance. They must find their own way in, their own doorway, and what lovelier doorway is there than beauty?

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Beauty is indeed a doorway to nature appreciation but also to presence, to stillness, to stopping for a moment in a busy day and feeling filled with awe for the living world.

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A doorway to connection, to sensing the resonance with other life forms inside our own being and realising, I am because this is.

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A doorway to healing. To relaxing the body and mind and opening the heart. To peace.

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The quest for beauty and harmony drives much of what we do and has led to increasing materialism as we seek to beautify ourselves, our homes, our wardrobes and our children with more and more things.

However beauty is not static and that is why nothing we buy can truly fill this need to see and appreciate beauty in the long term. It is by nature fleeting, changing, replaced by new and different forms of beauty. Even if the thing remains unchanged, the eye that beholds it will not.

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Spring is a time of great beauty but by its very nature it will not last for long.

Delve fully into its moment, the present moment and you will find beauty is also a doorway to the timeless awareness in which all things are beheld.

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Here in the UK spring is springing, new life abounds and people are visibly more relaxed and open as the sun gently warms their faces. We have been out on the Downs, sampling the spring greens and enjoying all the sights and sounds of nature.

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What a lovely time of year this is, not least because of the swathes of violets that carpet areas of the woods and verges. Violet is surely one of our most treasured spring plants and is synonymous with the return of brighter days as the wheel of the year cycles round. I have written a few posts on violet before but this year I wanted to write a little more about why it is such a lovely spring tonic herb and how well its virtues are rooted in the season.

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Firstly violet is a wonderful herb for awakening the lymphatic system which functions, in simplistic terms, as a kind of waste disposal and treatment facility for the body tissues. It carries the lymph fluid that originates from blood plasma through a series of ducts and nodes which are also primary sites for immune activity. Lymph nodes become swollen when overloaded which we notice as hard or raised glands. Conditions such as sinusitis, ear problems and breast tenderness are all connected to under functioning lymphatics. The lymph tends to become quite sluggish over the winter months due to the fact that we move less, eat more and the cold contracts our vessels and thickens fluids. Spring is the most wonderful time to give your lymphatic system some love by moving your body, breathing deeply and enjoying spring greens like violets and cleavers. The lymphatic system has no pump of its own so is reliant on the movement of the muscles, the blood circulation and the breath to assist it around the body. It is in this relationship of fluids and movement that I see violet’s qualities coming to the fore.

Violet is considered a cooling, moist herb. When I consume the leaf and flower fresh or as a tea my first impression is of the demulcent quality it is famed for, but always there is a slightly astringent after effect, a subtle yet noticeable toning. The combination of soothing moisture and gentle tonification reflects the relationship between tension and relaxation that the lymphatic system needs to move freely and do its work effectively.

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Secondly it is rich in minerals and vitamins and helps to restore lost nutrients after the months of winter stodge (what another roast potato? I don’t mind if I do!).  It has that light, fresh greenness that our bodies crave when the warmer weather arrives and it contains plentiful vitamin A and C along with other antioxidants.

Next it can be helpful for sore throats and dry coughs or those where the mucus is sticky and not easily expelled, afflictions which can often strike at the change of season as warmer temperatures encourage bugs to multiply.

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Fourthly it is beautiful aromatic, a quality which uplifts and opens us physically, mentally and emotionally after we have been more closed in over winter. The fragrance on the wind helps us to breath more deeply, which in itself improves lymphatic flow and expulsion of toxins through the lungs.

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Finally, and somewhat metaphorically, it is a great herb for childhood which has long been associated with the springtime of life. It has a number of useful applications; as a syrup or honey in the over ones for coughs and sore throats or to ease mild constipation and also as an infused oil made into a salve or cream for easing dry skin conditions. My little one has been sampling his first violets this spring and has been enjoying the tea diluted in his beaker for the last few days.

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Violet tea made with the fresh leaf and flower turns the most beautiful colour – vivid green if you include mainly leaf and rich turquoise with the addition of more flowers.

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Violet is the perfect example of medicine that is more than the sum of its constituents.

Whist it is not perhaps the strongest acting of herbs when it is tinctured and bottled, though of course it still has valuable uses, when it is admired in the wild, eaten and drunk as part of a seasonal diet and appreciated for it’s beauty, violet is perhaps one of the best spring medicines we have. We tend to think about constituents and medicinal actions as something apart from how we experience the plant in our bodies – our senses being subjective and treacherous when compared to cold, hard science – but, much like spring itself, violets help you to feel well through their simple act of being.

You can read more about violets as medicine in this post here or see here for information about using them in a breast massage oil. Also here is a recent and informative post written by American herbalist Jim McDonald.

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One of my first attempts at botanical illustration – Viola odorata

When the abundant beauty of summer dies back and Autumn begins to turn to winter, our eyes turn to the underlying forms and patterns of the natural world.

First we begin to appreciate the vibrant pigments that lie beneath the leaves’ green chlorophyll and then, when these themselves begin to pass, we look to veins and bark, root and stone and the incredible beauty of the matrix that is uncovered once more.

Though it is still relatively mild where I live, I see the beginnings of winter in line and edge, in soft moss and hard, bare branches and I am grateful for the beauty that underpins it all.

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Summer Retrospective

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As I stand in the kitchen with elderberries simmering on the stove and apple and blackberry crumble cooking in the oven, I have the feeling that autumn is settling in. There is a particular feeling of wellbeing that I associate with the autumn harvests, more so than any other season, though each has its own peculiar kind of magic. Autumn is the season of nourishment, of protection and of the wonderful hedgerow bounty that provides it. You can smell the changing season in the air, feel it in the early morning chill and taste it in every ripening berry.  And perhaps most peculiar of all, the very presence of autumn has within it the promise of spring as the tiny seeds of new beginnings ripen and fall into the Earth’s embrace.

Autumn skies can be some of the most beautiful. My husband took this little video from an upstairs window a couple of days ago showing the clouds rolling across the weald.

Before I get too caught up in autumnal reverie however, I wanted to share some of the highlights of my summer, not quite all of which has been spent pinned under a feeding baby!

June bought us bright sunshine and an abundance of elderflowers which I harvested mainly for diaphoretic teas.

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The wild roses were as good as I can ever remember them, spilling over hedges and farm tracks with abandon.

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The roses in my garden also put on a fine show, despite me having so little time to care for them this year.

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The Downs enjoyed its usual display of wild flowers including eyebright, yellow loosestrife and common spotted orchid.

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And what a wonderful year for butterflies it has been. It gives me hope for the future of our declining populations. There have been lots of small skippers and large whites (not pictured) along with the fabulous peacocks, tortoiseshells and commas.

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Plenty of bees have been spotted hanging off the garden herbs too!

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And once the summer flowers have faded there are still plenty of beautiful seed heads to enjoy.

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Goat’s Rue

This week is World Breastfeeding Week which this year is highlighting the importance of peer support for mothers who, all too often, do not receive adequate support to enable them to continue, or even begin, to nurse their child.  Nursing can be a physically and emotionally draining time for some people along with being a wonderful and loving way to connect with your little one.

It is so important to ensure adequate nutrition to support the body through the nursing relationship, whether it lasts for months or years. It is generally recommended for most people to consume 500 extra calories a day and plenty of extra fluids. Often when a new baby arrives however there is little time for focusing on preparing healthy meals and it is all to easy to rely on quick snacks or packaged food. The body will prioritise giving available nutrients to the baby so it is all to easy for the mother to become depleted.

In Chinese medicine there is a saying, ‘one drop of milk equals fifty drops of blood’ referring to the tendency towards blood deficiency in nursing mothers which is exacerbated by lack of sleep and has symptoms such as pallor, dizziness, fatigue, dry skin, anxiety, poor focus and floaters in the eyes. Some also believe it pre-disposes us to post natal depression. Ensuring a healthy nourishing diet is especially important for mothers who tandem breastfeed or have fed more than one child in close succession.

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Fenugreek

Along with a generally healthy diet a few general and easy to implement tips to increase vitality during breastfeeding are:

  1. Take a high quality multi-vitamin. Breastfeeding, pregnancy and other times of physical or emotional stress are times when it is really worth ensuring all your bases are covered with a good multi-vit.
  2. Ensure an adequate intake of protein. When nursing you are supporting the rapid growth of another person as well as sustaining yourself so it is even more important to ensure you include high quality protein with every meal. If you are a vegetarian as I am, then it is even more vital to be aware that you are not just filling up with carbs. I found it really helpful to pack my freezer with meals I made before my baby arrived to help sustain me in the first weeks.
  3. Try to include dark leafy greens every day as they are rich sources of minerals that help to build the blood.
  4. Include herbal blood tonics such as nettle nourishing infusions and other herbs that are rich in iron such as ashwagandha, both of which will boost vitality in a variety of ways. Ashwagandha is nice taken mixed with shatavari – another Ayurvedic herb (1 part ashwagandha to 3 parts shatavari) in powder form in a small glass of milk to aid assimilation. Shatavari has traditionally been used to support breastfeeding.
  5. Add oats to the diet, another traditional method of promoting breast-milk.

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When considering herbal support for breastfeeding we can think of herbs that promote quality and those that promote quantity of milk, though in some cases the same herbs will do both. Nourishing herbs, full of vitamins and minerals will help to improve the quality of the milk where as those that promote the quantity are commonly known as galactagogues.

Nourishing  herbs like nettle, milky oats and oatstraw, raspberry leaf and alfalfa are all wonderful, mineral rich herbs that help will support the whole body when under any kind of stress. They are also gentle galactagogues that are safe to take by most people. Shatavari, mentioned above, also falls into both categories as a general adaptogenic herb that also increases breast-milk.

Galactagogues are herbs that promote breast-milk production. The majority of women will have an adequate flow of milk and many will in fact have an excess until it balances out to meet the baby’s requirements after the first few weeks. Some however do need additional support to get things flowing and many will experience a dip in production at some point in their nursing journey. Many traditional galactagogues are aromatic and these are thought to work in part because of their anethol content, a constituent found widely in essential oil containing plants like fennel, fenugreek, caraway and anise. Other useful galactagogues include goat’s rue, holy thistle, marshmallow and milk thistle.

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Herbal teas are lovely to include when breastfeeding as they can nourish the body. increase hydration and, if necessary, increase milk production. Here is a recipe that can be taken by most nursing mothers. One cup a day is sufficient if you have adequate milk and three is recommended for stimulating production.

Nursing Mother’s Herbal Tea Recipe:

1 part Nettle leaf
1 part Alfalfa leaf
1 part Raspberry leaf
1 part Oatstraw
1 part Fennel seed
1 part Fenugreek seed
1/2 part Holy Thistle

Give the fenugreek a bit of a bash in the pestle and mortar, it is very tough so don’t expect to break it down too much. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl and then keep as a loose tea to use in a pot or tea ball or spoon a large heaped teaspoon into pre-made bags like those I have used here. I get mine from woodland herbs.

The addition of catnip, lemon balm, chamomile or spearmint to your tea blend can be helpful in soothing stress and tension for both mama and baby as well as helping to ease colic in the newborn. Fennel is also useful for easing wind and colic as when drunk by the mama, the aromatic constituents pass through the milk to the baby and relax spasms in the GI tract.

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Cautions and Considerations:

The herbs mentioned are all very safe but it is worth noting a few considerations if taking them in quantity. As always if you are on any medication please consult a herbalist first. Both goats rue and fenugreek are known to lower blood sugar levels which could be problematic if you are diabetic or taking certain medicines.

Some herbs are fine as culinary additions but would not be recommended in medicinal doses, for example garlic which can cause colic (in some babies even in small quantities) parsley or sage, which is fine in stuffing but in any quantity can actually dry up breast-milk production.

Borage and comfrey are traditional galactagogues and nourishing herbs and would probably be fine for most people but it is considered wise to avoid them these days due to the Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) they contain which may contribute to liver damage in susceptible individuals.

I would also avoid any strong essential oils whilst breastfeeding as the aromatic compounds are readily absorbed into the blood stream. I stick to using the same oils that are considered safe in pregnancy and in the same low percentages. Neroli, mandarin, lavender and chamomile are among those that are gentle and safe for most people.

Interview

I have been interviewed over at Herb Geek. You can check it out here if you are interested!

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Midsummer is upon us and with it that wonderful sense of aliveness that comes with the long days and warm evenings suffused with golden light. After our cold, wet spring everything seems particularly lush as nature rushes to catch up.

Speaking of catching up, I am somewhat behind myself and the post on herbs for breastfeeding that I promised is still half written and awaiting my attention, though I promise to finish it soon!

The little one and I have been enjoying walks to the woodland where his still maturing sight is captivated by the interplay of light and shadow in the sun dappled glades and my own gaze is also delighted by the sun through beech leaves and bracken. I love how it looks so different through the long silvery fingers of willow and the broad green hands of sycamore, the young freshness of hawthorn and the dark majesty of yew.

Whether it be summer, winter or season-less where you are. I wish you many blessings on this solstice.

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