Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

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.

DSC_0035

DSC_0122

DSC_0119

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.

DSC_0044

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.

DSC_0048

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.

DSC_0058

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.

DSC_0059

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.

DSC_0040

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.

DSC_0146

DSC_0156

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.

DSC_0230

One of my first attempts at botanical illustration – Viola odorata

Read Full Post »

DSC_0018

Despite the chilly temperatures, March is upon us and spring is most definitely on its way. Young nettles are popping up amongst the snowdrops and the first little cleavers, sweet violets and wild garlics can be seen in our wakening countryside.

As the weather is cold, I am still enjoying some of the more warming foods of winter but this is now tempered with an urge for the fresh green foods of spring. Yesterday was bright but bitter, leading me to combine my inter-seasonal desires into this tasty dish which filled our bodies and our hearts with both the wintery sustenance and the spring-like vitality that we craved.

DSC_0051

Nettle, Squash and Almond Curry:

Ingredients:

1 tblsp coconut oil
1 large onion
6 cloves garlic
Inch long piece ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 large butternut squash
3 courgettes
1 colander fresh nettle tops
1 tin coconut milk

For the curry sauce:
1 cup blanched almonds and water for soaking
1 1/2 cups water
3 cardamom pods
2 chillies
Another inch chopped ginger
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp garam masala
Salt and pepper to taste

DSC_0242

See how red and rich in iron these young nettle tops are.

Method:

First soak the blanched almonds for an hour before you begin to prepare the other ingredients.

Gently fry the cumin seeds in the coconut oil for a few minutes before adding the onion, garlic and ginger. When this has begun to soften add in the cubed butternut squash and the courgette. Leave cooking on a gentle heat whilst you blend the strained, soaked almonds with the cup and a half of water and the spices and seasoning until you have a thick fragrant paste. Add to the cooking vegetables with a tin of coconut milk and stir well. Leave to cook for about 20 mins or until the vegetables are soft adding a little hot water now and again to prevent the sauce from thickening too much. When just about done, add the washed nettle tops into the pan and allow to cook down for a few minutes.

We served ours with saffron and cardamom spiced brown rice.

if you prefer something lighter, you can find some of my recipes for nettle soup here.

DSC_0252

 

I hope that, if you are here in the northern parts of the world, your spring is bringing you many blessings and that those elsewhere are also enjoying the delights of their season. Happy nettle picking!

Read Full Post »

Simplest Rosehip Jam

DSC_0135

A few days ago I spent a lovely afternoon with my friend Deborah making rosehip jam from a stash that were picked last month and stored in the freezer. I noted on my walk yesterday that there are still a fair few rosehips about, though they are starting to look thin on the ground, so I thought I would share this recipe with you before it gets too late to make it. Rosehips are always better after a frost anyway and it is only in the last week that we have had hard frosts in this part of the country. If you pick your rosehips before the frost then you can always pop them in the freezer like I did to sweeten them up a little.

DSC_0133

To make this recipe you need only four ingredients; rosehips, half a lemon, sugar and water and the method is simplicity itself. What is a little challenging is halving and de-seeding your hips before you begin which can be a surprisingly lengthy process so make sure you have allotted a good amount of time for it and perhaps enjoy it as a relaxing task whilst listening to music or watching a film. To do this you just need to cut the stems and bases off the hips, then slice them in half and scoop out the seeds and little irritating hairs which can make your hands itch after a while.

DSC_0088

Method:

  • Begin by adding  just enough water to cover the de-seeded rosehips (add too much and the resulting jam will be too runny) and bringing to a slow simmer.
  • Allow them to continue simmering for about 20 minutes, mashing regularly with a potato masher.
  • You should have a nice thick pulpy liquid at the end of this time which you now want to push through a sieve. I used a fairly coarse sieve as it’s nice to get as much of the pulp and goodness into your jam as possible. You really just want to catch all the odd seeds and hard bits of hip that inevitably get missed in the preparation, though you will end up losing some of the pulp of course too.
  • Weigh the rosehip pulp and put it back in the pan with an equal amount of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. 1kg of rosehip pulp and 1 kg of sugar will make about 6 to 8 average sized jars.
  • Bring to a gentle boil for about 10 minutes or unti the jam has thickened to your desired consistency. Try to avoid boiling for too long though as you don’t want to destroy too much of the precious vitamin C that rosehips are so rich in.
  • Transfer the finished jam to sterilised jars and enjoy spread lavishly on your bread/ crackers of choice.

I hope you enjoy the last of the seasons wild fruits before winter tightens its grip. For more lovely jam making recipes and tips see this post on the Herbarium by Carol Church whose jams are the finest around, as I can attest from personal experience!

DSC_0144

Read Full Post »

Elderberry Medicine

Common name: Elderberry
Latin: Sambucus nigra
Family: Adoxaceae
Botanical features: A small deciduous tree or large shrub with leaves in opposite pairs and large corymbs of creamy white flowers in June. The berries turn from green to purplish-black in colour and are held in large drooping clusters.
Key actions of the berries: Antioxidant, anti-rheumatic, anti-viral, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypolipidemic, laxative.

With autumn well underway and the evenings and mornings getting increasingly chilly it’s no wonder that many people are coming down with those mild colds and snuffles that often strike during the change of season.

Possibly the best preventative we have for this time of year is elderberry as unlike many other herbs that are specific for the immune system it seamlessly bridges the gap between food and medicine, making it both easy and enjoyable to include in our everyday diets.

Elderberries are also an important food source for the birds including blackcaps, robins and waxwings.

Green elderberries are never taken internally but were used in the past to make ointments for hemorrhoids.

Undoubtedly using the seasonal gifts of nature in our daily lives can ensure we enjoy our medicine as food and our food as medicine. Country people have always used these edible autumn berries to make preserves, wines, syrups and other delicious preparations that would have helped to keep them well and healthy throughout the winter months.

Elderberry isn’t the most delicious of the berries when eaten raw but a syrup made from elderberry with honey is sure to transport you to a heavenly realm of taste due to its rich, earthy sweetness. Elderberries should not really be eaten raw in any case (though it’s usually fine to sample a few) due to their ability to cause stomach aches, diarrhoea and vomiting. It is always best to cook or tincture them first. You can see some of my elderberry recipes here.

Elderberry is most famous these days for its antiviral and immune tonic effects which are in large part to do with its antioxidant properties. It is also mildly diaphoretic, especially when taken hot as a tea so can help you to sweat out colds and flus. Having a particular affinity for the respiratory system, elderberry will make a lovely tonic for you if colds tend to settle in your chest.

It contains many vitamins and minerals, being especially high in vitamin C and containing appreciable amounts of vitamins A and B6, so it feeds the immune system at the same time as exerting an anti-viral effect. A true ally, elderberry makes you stronger in yourself whilst also fighting at your side. The antioxidants can help stop viruses infecting a cell thus halting the spread of an illness and studies show that taking elderberry shortens the duration of an outbreak of influenza. Laboratory studies show elderberry extracts to be active against numerous strains of influenza but these need to be repeated in human trials before their claims can be substantiated.

Beautiful red stems on the elderberries.

Elderberry has an ORAC value of 14697 which is a measurement of the antioxidant capacity of different foods. This makes it one of the highest ranking of the berries, just after chokecherry but above blueberries. Rosehips however have one of the highest values of all being fantastically rich in vitamin C. Back in the 17th century John Evelyn wrote that elderberry extracts would ‘assist longevity’ and of course now we know that antioxidant containing foods are some of the most potent for protecting against premature aging.

Elderberries are particularly rich in antioxidant anthocyanins which are a type of flavonoid that is often found in red, blue or purple foods.

Antioxidants help to heal all our cells and are particularly useful where there is peripheral degeneration such as is commonly seen in diabetes. This most commonly affects circulation to the toes and eyes but a diet rich in antioxidants can help to heal damaged blood vessels and restore function. Elderberry is also thought to be able to lower blood sugar levels making it even more useful, though of course if you take it in a sugary syrup, jam or cordial it negates the effect somewhat! Best stick to tinctures or teas to maximise this property.

A serving of elderberries also contains about 13% of your daily intake of iron which may not seem a massive amount but is helpful when taken with other iron containing foods and herbs, especially as elderberry’s vitamin C content ensures the iron is well assimilated. In fact, Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends elderberry for iron deficiency anaemia as well as for treating coughs, colds, sore throats and tonsillitis.

Elderberry is both diuretic and mildly laxative making it an all round cleansing remedy which was commonly used in the past for rheumatism and arthritis. According to Mrs Greive “It promotes all fluid secretions and natural evacuations.” Another use for it that has fallen by the wayside in modern times was for treating skin infections and it was no doubt due to it’s mixture of cleansing and immune promoting properties.

Current research is also being done into potential anti-tumour properties of elderberry. The combination of high antioxidant activity, gentle cleansing ability and bio-available nutrients mean it is possibly very useful and it has also been suggested to have anti-angeogenic properties.

There are also studies showing the cardioprotective qualities of elderberry due to its hypolipidemic and antioxidant potential. Natural polyphenol compounds can help to minimise LDL oxidation, LDL being the more harmful type of cholesterol.

There are a few potential interactions to consider when taking elderberry in medicinal doses, though these are at present theoretical. It may lower blood sugar therefore altering the effect of diabetic medications. Also by stimulating the immune system it may interfere with immune suppressing drugs and as a mild diuretic it may have an additive effect with diuretic medications.

Generally consumed in food like quantities however it is a gentle and safe remedy for the whole family and one we should all be taking advantage of at this time of year.

Read Full Post »

Thyme infused honey

After my recent post on aromatics  several people commented on the herbal honeys I mentioned which are surely one of the most delicious ways to enjoy taking herbs. Although I have talked of them often in other posts, I thought it time to focus on herbal infused honeys more specifically and explain a little more about how to make and use them.

Herbs that make lovely infused honeys include most of the aromatics- especially those with floral, spicy or herby tastes. Some of my favourites are plants that are at their best over the summer months including rose, sage, thyme, lemon balm, mint, lavender, chamomile or lime blossom. It is usually nicest to keep them plain but sometimes it works well to add a complimentary flavour, cinnamon or cardamom for example is delicious with rose petal honey.

Lemon balm in set honey

Chamomile in runny honey

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Making a herbal infused honey is very straight forward. All you need is a jar, a chopstick or spoon, some honey and your herb of choice.

You can use dried or fresh herbs. The benefit of fresh herbs is that they are softer so will be nicer if left in the honey where as dried herbs will be a bit chewy and you will therefore probably want to strain them out before eating. Also, the aromatic quality of freshly picked herbs is often much more vibrant. The drawback of fresh herbs is that they can make your honey more liquid, which is why it is good to use a thicker honey for infusing fresh herbs into.

You can use set or runny honey but if using set you’ll want to warm it in a pan of water to liquefy it before pouring. Just warm it enough to stir and pour, never overheat honey, as it will destroy the beneficial enzymes.

Always get good quality honey from a reputable supplier where you know the bees are well cared for.

Mint infused honey

Method:

First lightly pack your jar with herbs. Don’t cram the plant material in like you would if making a tincture, as you want plenty of space for the honey to go in and move around.

Next pour your honey over the top, stopping every now and then to give it a good stir. When you have fully covered all the plant material with honey, give it another stir and leave on the side for a fortnight before eating, stirring every couple of days or so to re-integrate the plant material.

If you wish to strain the plant material out then leave it for a month before straining.

For softer plant parts like rose petals or thinly sliced lemon balm leaves you can happily leave the plant material in the honey and enjoy just as it is however for tougher plants or those with bits of woody stem, you’ll probably be better of straining it out through a coarse sieve. Gently warm the jar with the infused honey in before you strain it to make sure you get the most honey out of the plant material. You can keep the spent herbs in the fridge for a few days and infuse in hot water to make sweet teas if you wish.

Give it a good stir!

Herbal honeys can be eaten as a delicious food, either alone, on bread or crackers, in salad dressings or teas or anything else you fancy. They can also be used medicinally. Though weaker than a tincture, they will still carry the medicinal qualities of the herbs and can be taken internally or used externally where they are particularly beneficial for minor wounds or burns. Lavender or chamomile are particularly nice for this purpose. Sage or thyme honeys are lovely taken for a sore throat and chamomile can soothe digestive problems that are exacerbated by anxiety. The fact that these honeys are both gentle and delicious makes them fantastic options for children, though remember that many people advise against the use of honey in children under two.

They can also be used cosmetically, either as a simple face wash or as a soothing anti-bacterial face mask. I sometimes mix a small teaspoon of honey with a little ground almonds to make a skin brightening (and delicious!) facial scrub.

Scented rose petal honey

There was also a lovely post recently on Nettlejuice about honey medicine which you can read here.

Read Full Post »

So it’s been gloom, gloom, gloom here in Sussex, as in so much of the UK, for most of the summer so far. Whilst I appreciate that Mother Nature’s patterns are greater than I can understand, the continual rain, mist and grey skies have started to feel a bit depressing over the last week or so. Summer is due to arrive in the next couple of days however and I know many of us are looking forward to enjoying a bit of sunshine. In the meantime I’m joining in with Debs and other bloggers over at Herbaholic’s Herbarium for a July Blog Party, the topic of which is ‘herbal sunshine’.

Lavender

Lots of herbs are at their peak during the summer and even though the weather has been poor, plenty of flowers and aerial parts are ready to harvest in the gaps between showers. Some of the herbs that I associate most strongly with summer are the herbal aromatics, many of which are native to the Mediterranean and somehow seem to carry the very essence of the sun with them, even here in this damp UK summer.

Aromatics are herbs with a strong taste and aroma. The aroma is created by volatile oils within the plant and can serve in numerous ways; to attract pollinators, as part of the plant’s immune system or to taste unpleasant to grazing animals. Many plants contain these volatile oils but only those with strong aromas contain sufficient quantities to really be considered true aromatics.

Thyme

What all the aromatics have in common is an ability to open up and move the body’s energy. They help to avoid stagnation and disperse anything that is stuck. They are great at drying dampness and moving the congestion that it often causes and they help us to feel brighter, more energised and uplifted as a result. Many people have commented to me that the weather has left them feeling sluggish and tired over the last couple of months and aromatics are just the thing to get everything moving again.

Therefore some could be used to move stuck catarrh in the sinuses, some to dispel gas in the gut and others to promote sweat and let go of trapped heat in the body. Think of how thyme or eucalyptus feel in the lungs, how peppermint feels in the gut or how ginger feels in the circulation; they all have a quality of movement and dispersing energy. The volatile oils in aromatic plants escape easily into the atmosphere when in the presence of warmth or light, that is why we can smell them in the air on a summer’s breeze. This ability of the volatile oils to move upward and outward reflects what we feel in the body when we take them, they move through us and clear the clogged up pathways as they go!

Mint infused honey.

They have a similar effect on a mental/ emotional level, opening and uplifting us when we feel glum and heavy. There is no doubt that a moderate amount of sunshine encourages feelings of joy, openness and relaxation and the aromatics can help fill that gap when the sun is nowhere to be seen. In fact, many of them are effective nervines such as lemon balm, lime blossom, chamomile, lavender or rosemary.

Many aromatics are warming and therefore useful for people who tend to feel the cold. Some however such as peppermint, rose and lemon balm are more cooling and therefore suitable for calming people who are hot.

Aromatics tend to have a positive effect on the digestion and the warming ones will stoke the digestive fires and improve metabolism. The more cooling ones often help to dispel gas and calm spasms and digestive cramps. One thing that is fantastic about these herbs is that they give their aromatic constituents up easily to a variety of different mediums and therefore make excellent infused oils, honeys, vinegars, teas and tinctures.

Lemon balm

Many of our favourite and best known herbal teas are made with aromatic herbs. Think mint, chamomile, fennel, lemon balm, cinnamon and ginger as examples. Most aromatics have quite a bit of cross over in their actions but some will have a certain resonance with a particular effect or area of the body such as thyme with the lungs, fennel with the digestion and rosemary with the circulation.

Teas that are particularly uplifting when the weather is poor include lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, rose and cardamom as all these have a gently uplifting and cheering quality.

Adding generous amounts of  fresh oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, basil or rosemary to our food also gives us this wonderful aromatic effect.

Infusing honey or vinegar with aromatic herbs and adding to foods is another lovely way to integrate them into our daily lives. Also, infusing them in oil and massaging them over the body can be delightfully restorative, or use a few drops of an appropriate essential oil mixed with a base oil to enjoy the beautiful aromas another way.

In this way we can go to the sun… even if the sun won’t come to us!

 

Read Full Post »

Despite the incessant rain, I have been lucky enough to get good harvests of two of my very favourite plants recently; vervain from my garden and avena, or milky oat seed, from a local organic farm along with my friend Therri (known to some as the herbal muse!).

Friends that I studied with used to tease me for giving these two herbs to nearly everyone that came into our clinic but they are so useful, healing and restorative that there seemed few cases where they were not indicated! Now that the vervain is about ready for pressing I thought I would share with you a few of the many reasons why I so love this wonderful plant ally.

Common Name : Vervain. Also Wizard’s Herb, Herb of Enchantment, Simpler’s Joy, Holy Herb.
Latin: Verbena officinalis
Family: Verbenaceae
Botanical Features: A perennial herb native to Europe and parts of Asia. It has toothed, opposite leaves on spindly, branched square stems with spikes of tiny fairy-like flowers, whitish- mauve in colour.
Key constituents: Iridoides including verbenin and verbenalin, flavonoids, volatile oils, phenylpropanoids, triterpenes, mucilage, tannins and saponins.
Actions: Nervine, anti-spasmodic, sedative, diaphoretic, hepatic, alterative, galactogogue, aphrodisiac, emmenagogue, thymoleptic, vulnerary, hypotensive, anti-bacterial.
Energetics: Cooling and drying.

This is a different but related species to the American native, Verbena hastata, or blue vervain, which is used in a comparable way. I have never worked with, or even tasted, this variety so I can’t make any comparison myself. It is also important to distinguish it from lemon verbena which is confusingly sometimes also called vervain. Whilst both plants belong to the wider Verbenaceae family, lemon verbena, Aloysia citrodora, (formerly Lippia ctrodora) is of a different genus.

Though often described with words like, ‘straggly’, ‘meagre’ or ‘weedy’, for those who appreciate the small and the subtle, vervain is one of the most beautiful plants in the garden. It used to grow freely in the wild but is rarely encountered these days. In fact I think I have seen it growing wild only twice so it is a plant best cultivated if you wish to ensure a harvest. The ethereal grace of vervain is hard to capture in words or images but when you sit with this plant it appears as if illuminated by the softest of radiances. To me it seems the very embodiment of the fey here in this physical world.

Along with Meadowsweet, which I wrote about last week, Vervain was another of the Druid’s most sacred plants and it is often referred to as the ‘Druid’s herb’ or ‘wizard’s herb’. Interestingly it was also revered by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and was used as an altar herb in all these cultures. In folklore vervain was the plant used to staunch the bleeding from Christ’s wounds after he was bought down from the cross. As is so common with herbs that were popular in pre-Christian Europe they are associated both with witches, enchantment and devilment (due to their popularity in pagan times) and with holiness and therefore protection from those same forces (due to the usurping of powerful symbols by the new ideology.)

From the sunny Mediterranean to the damp shores of the UK, vervain was once considered something of a cure all and was a favourite of Hippocrates himself.

Tales of vervain as a universal panacea became somewhat overblown as it was considered to do such diverse things as grant love, heal any wound, treat the plague and even bestow immortality. Gerard scorns this over enthusiasm in his herbal of 1597 saying, “instead of a good and sure remedy they minister no remedy at all; for it is reported that the Divell did reveal it as a secret and divine medicine.” The truth, as is so often the case, lies somewhere in the shifting sands between. Of course it cannot bestow immortality but it does have the ability to assist in an impressive range of health conditions.

These days vervain is used primarily as a relaxing nervine with a particular affinity for the digestion and the liver/ gallbladder and this is certainly the main way that I use it. Culpepper describes it as being useful for people who are ‘frantic’ a particularly apt description I think as it calms and centers the stressed out, workaholics of this world.

However it is also a fine nervous system restorative so it’s ideal for those that have been frantic and are now exhausted as a consequence or for those who are deficient due to prolonged stresses and strains. It is wonderful for sensitive souls who feel easily overwhelmed and tend to nervousness and restlessness which often manifest as constriction, cramps and poor digestion.

It is a helpful herb in convalescence for this very reason and Bartram recommends it in cases of ME and post viral fatigue. It has a very calming effect so it is helpful when we feel scattered and fearful or anxious. Due to it’s affinity with the liver it is also helpful when we are irritable or angry, making it a prime tonic herb for PMS. It’s antispasmodic and calming actions help to soothe menstrual cramps and its cleansing effect on the liver helps to flush out hormones whilst increased bile flow from the gallbladder aids in bowel function and elimination. It is often used in cases of hormonal headaches due to these same effects. It helps to open and move congestion which is often an underlying factor in menstrual complaints.

As vervain is slightly stimulating to the reproductive system it is best avoided in pregnancy. It has however been used to assist with labour.


_________________________________________________________________________________________

It is a helpful ally throughout the menopause as well and helps to reduce hot flushes, dispel headaches and irritability and improve sleep. It has a hypotensive effect and can assist with palpitations. It should be teamed with more moistening herbs if dryness is a factor however.

One of the reasons it helps with hot flushes is because it is a gentle diaphoretic when taken as a hot tea. This means it helps to open the periphery and release excess heat. For this reason it was often used in cold and flu blends. I don’t really use it in this way as there are other diaphoretic herbs that taste more pleasant in tea form such as elderflower, lime blossom and peppermint, but if I was in a pinch then I would certainly turn to vervain.

Like many diaphoretics, when taken as a cold tea the action is more diuretic so it can be useful for promoting kidney function and has even been used for kidney stones in the past, probably due to it’s mix of anti-spasmodic, pain relieving, diuretic and tonifying actions.

Vervain is certainly a key herb for promoting digestive function as it increases digestive juices, improves absorption and assimilation and promotes bile flow and emulsification of fats. It helps to stimulate the appetite and also relaxes the stomach when tension is held there, both of which are key for promoting digestion. When we are stressed out, our digestion shuts down as it is seen as non essential when we are dealing with a serious threat and the ability to breath deeply, run away or fight is prioritised. Chronic stress results in chronic digestive tension meaning that the digestive juices don’t flow well, we feel less hungry and our energy is sourced from our adrenal glands. This in turn places stress on the liver and we can become prone to cramps and spasms as the nervous system goes into overdrive. It combines very nicely with chamomile and gentle digestive spices where this is the case and is an important herb to consider in cases of IBS because of it’s affinity with both the nerves and the digestion.

It’s gentle astringency made it popular as a wound herb in the past and also as a mouthwash for sore, bleeding or inflamed gums. This ability to tone mucus membranes along with the antispasmodic action means it was once used to treat coughs and asthma. Juliette de Baïracli Levy recommends it, ‘for pulmonary ailments, including asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis, whooping cough.”

Vervain is pretty hardy, this plant grows out of the concrete on my front path.

Vervain is bitter-bitter, of this there is no denying, but it also has a kind of softness that other bitters often lack, making it both grounding and uplifting all at once. It is considered a thymoleptic, that is a substance that favourably modifies the mood and is therefore useful in cases of mild depression, especially when it’s accompanied by anxiety. Like many diaphoretic herbs it has a gently opening quality which makes you feel more present and connected, less closed in and contracted.

It is a very balancing herb and it is perhaps because of this that I find it to be suitable for most people’s constitutions. Though some might disagree, due to it’s cooling and somewhat drying nature, it seems beneficial to almost everyone, especially when used with other herbs that are specific to an individual’s constitution.

When working with someone with nervous and digestive complaints – which so often go hand in hand – it would always be high on my list of considerations. For the Vata person who can tend to be anxious and ungrounded it is ideal as a nerve restorative and anti-spasmodic. For them I like to team it with something deeply nourishing like avena and a gently warming digestive spice like cardamom. For the Kapha person who can be heavy, damp and sluggish it is great to clear obstructions, and promote the flow of bile from the gallbladder. I would want to add something more heating and drying such as dry ginger and rosemary for this individual. For the Pitta person it’s qualities are ideal to drain excess heat, calm stress and hypertension and release irritability. For these folk it is nice with skullcap and melissa or peppermint.

For the most part I use vervain in tincture form as it is a bit bitter to make a pleasant tea. You can also make capsules from the dried and finely ground herb if you prefer however.

There is no doubt that this is one of the most useful and precious herbs in my dispensary as well as one of the most beautiful in my gaden.

When I read of how people in India venerate the sacred herb Tulsi, also known as the ‘Incomparable One’, I always think of vervain as the European equivalent. Though we may not treat it with such respect in this day and age, it’s importance is no less diminished and it’s offerings no less profound as a consequence.

Read Full Post »

Last week I had the pleasure of harvesting meadowsweet on one of the few sunny days so far this summer so I thought it would be an opportune moment to share some information and thoughts on this most useful of herbs.

Common name: Meadowsweet. Also Queen of the Meadow, Brideswort, Meadwort.
Latin: Filipendula ulmaria.
Family: Rosaceae – Rose family.
Botanical features: A perennial herb that enjoys damp conditions and grows abundantly throughout most of the UK in meadows, ditches, road or stream-sides. It has reddish brown stems growing up to 1.5 metres high and deep green pinnate leaves that are paler on the underside. It bears creamy puffs of tiny, fragrant flowers that bloom between May and August, though I personally have never seen them before mid June.
Key Constituents: Volatile oils, methylsalicylate, tannins, mucilage, flavonoids, phenolic glycosides.
Actions: Anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antacid, stomachic, astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, carminative, anti-emetic.
Energetics: Cooling and drying.

The name meadowsweet  is said to come, not from the fact that it grows in meadows as one would expect, but from its early use to flavour mead, evolving from Middle English Medewurte, as it appears in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. 

This is a herb that has had its place through all the ages of European history. Evidence of meadowsweet has been found in several Bronze Age burial sites suggesting the value placed on it even many centuries BCE. The Druids are said to have considered it one of their most sacred herbs for use in ritual and medicine and it was a favourite of medieval herbalists too, being regularly used by folk healers and monastic communities alike. It was prized at this time as a strewing herb, one that was used to cover floors in medieval homes and churches to disguise unpleasant smells, reduce fleas and lice and help counter infections.

In Irish mythology, Cú Chulainn, the warlike hero of the Ulster Cycle, is said to have used meadowsweet baths to calm his rages and fevers and in Wales, the beauteous but adulterous Blodeuwedd, was made by two magicians from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet.

It is perhaps most famous for its role in the development of aspirin however, a drug named after its previous Latin name, Spiraea ulmaria. In the mid nineteenth century salicylic acid was isolated from meadowsweet which lead to the later creation of aspirin.

Within the herbal world meadowsweet is very much considered a specific for the digestive system but it had many other uses in traditional medicine that have now mostly fallen by the wayside. Just like Cú Chulainn, people commonly used it as a treatment for fevers where it works through a gentle diaphoresis as well through the effects of salicylic acid in reducing inflammation and heat. It was used to treat hot conditions in other ways too; cooling sunburn, as a wash for inflamed eyes, as a compress for swollen, arthritic joints, to give relief from headaches and for calming an irritated cough. It is interesting that even before the discovery of salicylic acid many people used meadowsweet for conditions that they may take aspirin for today.

The smell is very distinctive and I have heard it compared to everything from deep heat to marzipan to pickled cucumber! To me it smells sweetly fragrant with an edge of the disinfectant TCP that I remember from childhood. Interestingly I recently found out that TCP contains salicylates so perhaps there is method in my madness after all!

In fact, meadowsweet is sometimes referred to as ‘herbal aspirin,’ a name which I find both inaccurate and vaguely insulting to this multi-talented meadow queen! It is noted, at least in the herbal community, that meadowsweet is a fine example of how nature so often buffers chemicals that can do damage with others that soothe and heal. So where as aspirin can increase the chances of indigestion, GI bleeds and ulcers, meadowsweet can be used to heal these exact same conditions.

Despite its cooling and drying nature, meadowsweet can be considered a normaliser for the digestion in the majority of people as it can help to balance both high and low stomach acid. This is interesting as it is increasingly acknowledged that symptoms of heartburn and indigestion can be caused by both hyper and hypo acidity in the stomach. As an astringent it helps to tone the stomach and the mucus membranes and it also increases their rate of cell renewal allowing irritated areas to heal quicker.

Due to its volatile oil content it has a carminative action and it also has some bitterness which can help stimulate digestion, increase bile flow and therefore relieve congestion in the liver. The astringency is balanced somewhat by this ability to stimulate and move so that it can still be effective for those with under active digestions. One herbal friend of mine uses it for everyone with gut problems and just moderates the actions with other herbs specific for the individual.

This effect on the mucus membranes can also be seen in the urinary system where it has been employed to treat cystitis through it’s healing, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It is also considered mildly immunomodulating and a useful diuretic.

You can use it as a tea, preferably taken hot for fevers to help stimulate the diaphoretic action and slightly cooler for digestive discomforts. It is gentle enough for use with children in whom it has been found effective in treating diarrhoea. Tincture is the way I most commonly use it and it is particularly nice made from fresh flowers in 25% alcohol.

A compress made from a flannel soaked in hot meadowsweet tea is an old fashioned remedy for arthritis and gout.

The general wisdom is to avoid this herb with people who are sensitive to salicylates or if they are taking warfarin as there is the potential of an additive effect.

“How lovely she is, queen of the springs and of the running brooks, standing there in the damp shady places with her big clouds of flowers; little white flowers that make up big feathery tufts and give off a strong sweet perfume.”

Maurice Messegue

Read Full Post »

June Is For Roses

June is almost behind us now but I couldn’t let it disappear completely without paying homage to the rose – for June is all about elderflowers and roses!

As anyone who has been following this blog for a while knows, I (like many others) am a sucker for roses. There is so much you can do with them at this time of year, for the kitchen, the bathroom or the medicine cabinet, and all will bring that gentle honeyed sweetness into your life, uplifting the spirit and gladdening the heart. In this post I wanted to share some pictures of a few of the roses currently in bloom along with some ideas about how you might want to use them.

Old favourite Margaret Merril has the most perfect blooms and a deliciously delicate scent.

Alex’s Red has suffered a bit with blackspot this year but the blooms are beautifully formed with a gorgeous deep burgundy hue. I have heard that you can treat blackspot with a spray made of a 50/50 mixture of milk and water but I haven’t tried it yet to confirm.

Below is a new addition, Cariad, which I bought last year as a bare root almost purely for the name which means ‘love’ in Welsh. It actually looks quite different from the photo I saw but I like it anyway and it looks lovely with red campion and vervain planted infront.

Scepter’d Isle is an even softer, warmer pink which is very relaxing to look upon. She can go a bit brown in heavy rains but now the weather is a clearer she is in finest of forms.

Warm Welcome is a miniature climber that was bred by my uncle. Both he and my great grandfather were rose breeders so I guess some degree of obsession must be in the blood! Both have also written books on the subject. A tipi support of hazel twigs lends this rose a fairytale charm.

Jude the Obscure is one of the most beautifully fragranced of all the roses. At this time of year I can hardly walk down the garden path without stopping to bury my nose in the blooms whilst my husband attempts to hurry me along calling ‘go, go, we’re going to miss the train!’

Goldfinch is a lovely small rambler that I bought to grow over the unsightly oil tank situated by our garden gate. The flowers are a soft apricot hue that fades to cream as they age.

The rose is the plant that is perhaps most closely associated with the heart and this summer I noticed an interesting connection between the two. The petals of the rose open in a spiral looking not dissimilar to the heart muscle itself which recent research has proven is actually one muscular band that pumps and suctions blood by opening in a spiral. You can see a video of this here, be sure to watch right to the end when you see how the heart actually pumps, it is quite amazing to behold and something of a revolution in the study of anatomy. Comparing the two put me in mind of the the doctrine of signatures, the idea that something in a plants aspect gives us clues as to what it can be used for.


_____________________________________________________________________________________
Along with the Apothecaries Rose and the local wild roses, Gertrude Jekyll is the rose I use most for medicine making. I wrote this post last year about using it in tinctures but it also makes the most fantastic infused vinegars, honeys and elixirs. It has a particularly high yield of essential oil so it imparts a beautifully sweet rose flavour to whatever menstruum it is infused in.

To make a rose infused vinegar or honey, all you need do is lightly pack a jar with any highly scented, unsprayed rose petals and cover with your liquid of choice. As the petals are so delicate they give up their flavour easily. If you leave the petals in the honey it can be used almost immediately but if you prefer to strain it then let it infuse for a couple of weeks first. A week is enough time for the vinegar. Remember to cap your vinegars with a plastic rather than metal lid to avoid corrosion.

To make a rose elixir you follow the exact same process but fill the jar a third full of honey and two thirds of brandy or vodka to cover the petals. This is a nice mix of the deliciousness of a honey infusion with a stronger alcohol extraction which will result in a more potent medicinal effect. This can be strained after only a day or two as the volatile oils in the plant are easily extracted into the alcohol and the medicine will become more bitter and astringent as time progresses, something that may not be desirable if you want to maximise the flavour of the end product. Rose petals are also delicious in a salad and look beautiful with other edible flowers. Danielle at The Teacup Chronicles recently posted a recipe for a strawberry and rose petal salad which looked delectable.

At this time there are so many roses in bloom that I can’t resist picking a few for the kitchen windowsill. Gazing at them and smelling their sweet scent on the air helps to make doing the washing up a far more pleasurable task!

Read Full Post »

Right now the elderflower reigns supreme as Queen of the hedgerow as she decorates the land in clouds of white blooms. Elder truly lives up to its name ‘the people’s medicine chest’ as each part has some use or other for humans or animals alike.

Juliette de Bairacli Levy calls elder ‘one of the greatest of all herbs’ and I could not agree more. She goes on to inform us, ‘it is sacred to the gypsies who will not burn it as wood in their fires: they declare that a tree which can help all the ailments of mankind and can restore sight to the blind, is too precious to burn.’

Elderflower is famous as a wild food but it is not only delicious in cordials, champagne and fritters but is also a fantastic medicine, being especially useful for any condition where there is congestion in the sinuses such as in hay fever, colds or sinusitis. It is diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory and anti-catarrhal and can be prepared as tea, tincture or a cold infusion like this one below.

To make a cold infusion of elderflower all you need to do is place a few heads of the flowers into a jug of fresh water, leave to infuse for a couple of hours and drink the heavenly yet delicately flavoured water throughout the day.

Elderflower is lovely in teas combined with nettle and rose for allergies, linden blossom for a relaxing floral brew or chamomile for a gentle anti-inflammatory effect. The classic cold and flu blend includes elderflower, peppermint and yarrow, all useful diaphoretic herbs.

When gathering elderflower for tea be sure to shake off any little black bugs as you do not want to wash the blossoms- they will loose all their pollen and delicious flavour. Also be sure to remove the flowers from the green stems which are emetic (i.e. can make you vomit) and taste unpleasant as a friend of mine recently discovered when making tea with the stalks still attached! If you are making the cold infusion you don’t need to worry about the stems as the cool temperature will not extract their properties or flavour.

Much like the berry, elderflower has also been shown to have a good anti-viral effect so can help treat colds and flus, not just by countering mucus or by provoking a sweat but by a direct effect on immune function as well. Culpepper was recommending elderflower to treat colds and flus back in the seventeenth century and its use as a folk medicine no doubt goes back many hundreds of years before his time.

Finally it is also wonderful in skin care recipes. Culpepper states ‘the distilled water of the flowers is of much use to clean the skin from sun-burning, freckles, morphew the like.’ Morphew is apparently a scurfy skin eruption. Juliette writes ‘Elder lotion is an old-fashioned but excellent treatment for the complexion and hair.’ You can read about some of the ways I use elderflowers in skin care in this post here from a couple of years ago.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,107 other followers