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Archive for the ‘Elder’ Category

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.

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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.

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The Harvest Moon shone bright and beautiful in the sky at the beginning of the week and it seems there is no denying it any longer, autumn is here.

Autumn signifies many things to many people but for me, aside from its obvious beauty, it represents a time of community and friendship. I normally like to go out harvesting alone and wander in silence amongst the plants and the trees but in autumn there is something so special about gathering together with a friend and filling your baskets with the glorious bounty of the land. Now is the final celebration of the abundance and generosity of Mother Nature before we start to withdraw against the harsh onslaught of the winter months and what better way to celebrate than with each other.

I have been blessed to go out berry harvesting with two lovely friends and wonderful herbalists, Therri and Mindy this month and have spend a great afternoon up the step ladder with my lovely husband collecting Hawthorn berries and sloes.

Mindy amongst the Hawthorn

When up in my favourite elder picking spot we noticed both flower and fruit on the same tree. This is something I have never seen before, have you? Excuse the poor quality photo, the light wasn’t great that day.

Flower and berries on the wise Elder Mother.

The result of these outings was lovely fresh tinctures, dried berries and lots of delicious syrups!

The first elderberry harvest.

My first syrup making session was with elderberry, unbeatable for tastiness and immune supporting goodness for the colder months. I have already posted my method for elderberry syrup making here, so I won’t repeat myself but this year I added a vanilla bean to the ginger, cardamom, clove and orange peel and it turned out really well, so tasty I keep sneaking to the fridge for an extra spoonful.

Next up was the hawthorn berry syrup. The Hawthorns round here have been so fat and large this year and the trees literally dripping in them. I wonder if that means we are in for another hard winter.

I made a simple hawthorn and ginger syrup by simmering them together in a pan with enough water to cover, straining the liquid and adding about 2/3 the amount of raw honey once the liquid had cooled sufficiently. I use a fair amount of ginger because I love the resulting taste of the two combined but you can adjust according to preference.

You can tell when it is almost ready because the berries start to loose their colour. I simmered mine on a low heat for about half an hour.

Berries starting to loose their colour.

At the time of straining they have gone a yellowy colour.

It’s basically the same technique as the elderberry syrup but it’s good to store your hawthorn syrup in jars rather than bottles because the berries are high in pectin which means it can set like a jelly and you’ll need to be able to spoon it out. The more of the thicker, mushy liquid you strain into the end product the more likely it will set. There is lots of goodness in this bit too however, so I say go for it. Do be warned though as I can’t imagine many things more dissapointing than being unable to get at all my delicious syrup because it had set in the bottle.

Look how firm the resulting syrup/ jelly is here on our morning porridge.

Finally, the pièce de résistance was the five berry syrup I made which included elderberries, blackberries, hawthorn berries, rose hips and sloes. I used the same technique again but this time added no spices or other flavourings and just let the natural flavour of the berries shine through. It’s so yummy I am wishing I had made litres of it!

Simmering berries.

Give them a good mash to get all the goodness out.

This syrup feels so vital and nourishing and is packed with antioxidants and other immune supportive constituents.

Another advantage is that it gives you a wonderful opportunity to polish up your Lady Macbeth impression.

“Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow’r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?”

Watch out amateur dramatics… here I come.

I hope your autumn has also been full of harvests and community or anything else that nourishes your soul.

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There’s always a point in the herbal year where I realise that everything is growing, blooming and fading so quickly and I have not been organised enough to make all the medicines I have planned. With all the delightful warm weather this spring it’s got to that point earlier than ever before!

Seeing my first nettles in flower gave me a shock this week, I have made some nice tinctures but haven’t dried even a single plant yet. As many of you probably know, nettles are said to become irritating to the kidneys after flowering due to the presence of cystoliths.

I managed to dash out on May day weekend to collect elder leaves for making infused oil and salves before the flowers burst fully into bloom this week. If you live further north and your elders aren’t quite flowering yet then it’s not too late to make some elder leaf infused oil which is great as an all purpose healing salve for rubbing onto bumps, bruises, bites, minor wounds and chilblains. David Hoffman writes, “some reports hold that elder leaf may be effective as an ointment for tumours” which is particularly interesting and Gabrielle Hatfield states that it was used as an insect repellent as well as a treatment for bites. Both these uses were new to me so I look forward to trying them out.

I made this oil by covering the fresh leaves in olive oil in an ovenproof pan, putting the lid on and letting it macerate in the oven on the lowest heat for three hours. I usually infuse my leaves using the double boiler method which I wrote about here but this new dish lets too much steam in which risks ruining the oil so I opted for the oven method instead. The oil came out a delightful deep, dark green and feels full of healing virtues.

Several herbalists recommend using vaseline as a base to infuse elder leaves and elder flowers. I would recommend staying away from petroleum based oils and jellies as they prevent the skin from breathing, a vital function where healing is needed.

Energetically speaking the leaves are best harvested before flowering as the plants put their momentum into the blooms after this point. I’m not sure if anyone has measured the difference in chemical constituents but it makes sense to me that this would be so. I was just in time as all the local Elder’s have begun flowering now. Which means that along with the Wild Roses that are newly decorating the hedgerows there’s even more medicine making to be getting on with.

A herbalists work is never done!

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Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.
John Ruskin.

This is my little offering for the March Blog Party, the topic of which is herbal creativity. I must apologise if this post is a little rambling and incoherent, it started of in quite a different place to the one in which it ended and I fear the part of it that made sense may have got lost somewhere en route!

It occurred to me as I turned my mind to the topic of herbal creativity that nothing has quite the same creative potential as nature herself. One man who understood this well was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose work is testament to the depth of understanding that can be achieved when we enter into a communion with nature rather than imposing rigid theory upon her. He sought to understand the unity inherent in nature through a technique of contemplative observation which harnessed the cognitive perception of the mind rather than denying its existence. Where as empirical science sought to understand nature through objective observation of phenomena, then impose theory upon it, Goethe understood that pure sensory experience is not possible and that understanding only arises through a meeting of sense perception and mental faculties. What we perceive therefore, arises at the meeting point of mind and matter, “the complete phenomenon is visible only when there is a coalescence of sensory outsight with intuitive insight.”

For Goethe, science “involves not only a rigorous training of our faculties of observation and thinking, but also of other human faculties which can attune us to the spiritual dimension that underlies and interpenetrates the physical: faculties such as feeling, imagination and intuition.”

I wrote a post last year on working with Goethean observation in deepening my relationship with Comfrey which you can read here. This year I found myself captivated by the emerging buds of my favourite Elder and I decided to attempt the process once more.

When working with this technique it is wonderful if you can observe your chosen plant at least once a day as this allows for a deep observation of the subtle changes which are occurring. This wasn’t a possibility for me at this time so I had to content myself with twice weekly visits, all of which still afforded me a magical view into the dynamic processes involved in the life of this beautiful tree.

When I had a little more time I opted to draw the buds as this requires a much more profound engagement and necessitates a far deeper level of observation. Mostly I made do with photographing the changes I observed though and scrawling a few key lines in my notebook. The object here is not to produce a piece of fine art but to engage with what we see in a way that allows for a relaxing of our normal consciousness that sees the plant as ‘out there’ and ourselves as ‘in here’ and enables a kind of flow to arise which recognises both the seer and the seen as being at one.

“I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”

John Ruskin

Goethe realised that scientific, or indeed any truth is active and not passive, just as the observer themself is dynamic and ever changing. By entering into the flow of the plant he was able to see that each part is a metamorphosis of another. In botany we are accustomed to looking at and identifying different plant parts, such as leaves, sepals, petals and stems. When we pick a plant, press it and make a herbarium specimen -the traditional way of recording plants in botany- we only get a snap shot in time rather than facilitating an understanding of the continual metamorphosis of the plant, how each part belongs to a developing whole which is never static but forever adapting to the environment around it. He explained, “The variation of plant forms, whose unique course I had long been following, now awakened in me more and more the idea that the plant forms around us are not predetermined, but are happily mobile and flexible, enabling them to adapt to the many conditions throughout the world, which influence them, and to be formed and re-formed with them.”  In fact Goethe’s ideas were to become key in the developing theories of evolution.

What a wonderful thing it is to see new life emerging. By practising Goethe’s technique of gentle observation I was able to witness how each part of the Elder gradually transforms into another. How the stem lengthens into buds along its nodes. How from the buds emerge six little leaves parting slowly to reveal the sepals, like hands clasped in prayer, protecting and holding their treasure within.

Slowly, as these hands begin to open we see another transformation has taken place. Somewhere, hidden from sight, the tiny beginnings of the elderflowers have formed. These in turn will open out and become the large, flat, white flower heads that mark the beginning of summer in June. As the year continues to turn they will become the ripe black elderberries that will help keep us healthy all winter long.

At what point in time can we say the elderberry is born? When the first buds appear? When we see those first little clusters that will become the flowers? Or not till later, when they become recognisable as such? We tend to see bud, flower and fruit as separate instances in time and neglect the thread that runs through all, from life to death and back again.

Taking any point in time as static can tend to inhibit understanding rather than promote it, and that is why practising Goethean observation can be so transformative. We stop looking for a phenomena that is inherently existing, as we Buddhists say, “from its own side’, and start to understand that life and its myriad expressions are part of a continuum that is constantly creative, never still, always metamorphosing.

“How difficult it is not to put the sign in place of the thing; how difficult to keep the being always livingly before one and not to slay it with the word.”  Goethe.

Through our own creative process we can start to become one with the miraculous creative process of  all nature.

Please pop back tomorrow when I’ll be posting the links to everyone else’s creatively inspired ideas.

References:

Henri Bortoft – The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science
Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird – The Secret Life of Plants

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This is going to be my last elder post of the year (probably) so bear with me!

Today we went to Westonbirt Arboretum and spent a wonderful day admiring all the beautiful, majestic and exotic trees. I loved seeing them, especially the incredible collection of Japanese Acers, though I must confess to enjoying the Native Tree Walk just as much with its wonderful assortment of hawthorns, hazels, oaks, junipers, aspens, pines and birches. One tree that I didn’t notice there was the Elder. Only as we left the Arboretum did I see her, just outside the walls, growing straggly yet strong in the place she likes to be the most… on the edge.

The idea of ‘Edge’ is one I first came across during an introduction to permaculture design and it’s one I come back to, now and again, and understand more deeply each time I do. Edge is the meeting point between any two things, where garden meets hedgerow, where river meets shore, where ground meets sky- these are all examples.

Of course in the case of the Elder it’s also where life meets death, where old meets new, where known meets unknown and where the world of spirit meets the physical world. Elder has always been a plant of the edge, both physically and metaphorically.

 

Walking the Edge

 

In the permaculture philosophy, the edge is where it’s all happening. Change, variety, the arrival of new species – the ‘edge’ often has a greater biodiversity then the ‘middle’ as it is where two different ecosystems meet.

Here’s a nice description of the concept of ‘Edge’ and its use in design from the Permaculture Association.

“The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own. In ecology this is called ‘ecotone’. This is central to the idea of using edges as a design method. The logic is simple. If the most productive bit of woodland is the edge, then design it to have a bigger edge. These ideas are used in alley cropping, shelterbelts and pond design. Marginal could be ideas, views, unusual plants, wild animals or people at the ‘edge’ of society. Permaculture itself has been seen as marginal for many years….”

So this idea of edge can also be applied to new and diverse ideas, to people and to cultures. The margins are where new things begin before they start to spread out and colonise new places.

The edge is always a little bit unknown. Where else would I expect to find the Elder?

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Elderberries

I’ve managed a few elderberry harvests in the last couple of weeks and have been mixing up some different syrups and other medicinal and delectable preparations. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is one of our most important herbs at this time of year as both a treatment and preventative for autumn and winter colds and flus.

Harvesting Elderberries

Collect  your elderberries when they are ripe and a deep purple/black, remembering of course to ask the Elder Mother’s permission first. When you get home, strip them from the stems and discard any that are still green or red as well as any that have shrived. Elderberries should be cooked before ingesting as they can be laxative and emetic when eaten raw.

Ripe Black Berries

Discard the unripe berries

Elderberry Syrups

I have made a variety of different elderberry syrups this year with different healing properties emphasised in each one. The basic method for all the syrups is the same and is as follows:

  1. Place 2 cups of elderberries in a pan with 2 cups fresh water and whichever additional herbs you are using (see below for variations.) Simmer gently for about 30mins with the lid off until the water has reduced to about half it’s original amount and the berries have released all their juice. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
  2. When cool, strain through a jelly bag into a measuring jug.
  3. Add approximately the same quantity of raw honey to the elderberry juice and stir until dissolved. You can use less honey but the mixture will not last so long.
  4. Bottle in sterilised preserving bottles and label. Store in the fridge.

Making Different Syrups

Simmering Elderberries

Deliciously gruesome!

During the first stage you can add different herbs according to your preference. I added a handful of fresh thyme and hyssop to my first batch to make a syrup that is particularly effective for winter ailments that affect the respiratory system. My next batch included orange peel and cloves to make a Vitamin C rich, anti-microbial blend that will also ease the digestion. Cardamom and ginger added to the next batch are warming and stimulating to sluggish winter circulation. Finally I simmered a batch of elderberries on their own and added 12 pink rosebuds when I turned it off the heat. I let these infuse whilst the mixture cooled and added half the quantity of linden blossom honey (I used less so as not to overpower the beautiful and delicate rose flavour) to make a divinely comforting blend for grey days which also encourages a healthy heart. As I mentioned before this syrup won’t last as long as the others but it’s so delicious I don’t think it will be hanging around for long anyway! In the fridge these syrups should last 3/4 months, slightly less for the rose one.

Syrups can be taken directly off the spoon, added to hot or cold drinks, drizzled on porridge, added to smoothies or any other way that takes your fancy.

Sugar vs. Honey? Most traditional syrup recipes use sugar instead of honey and heat the elderberry juice a second time after adding it to make a thicker syrup. The advantages of this are that it will last longer, potentially the whole year until the next harvest comes round, and that it’s much cheaper- raw honey can get a bit pricey in large quantities. The downsides of course are that sugar does not contain the medicinal benefits of raw honey which is antibacterial and rich in antioxidants and enzymes. In fact, sugar can act to deplete the immune system and many people in today’s sweet-crazed society already have imbalances caused from an excess. Still if you want to make large quantities that will last, it’s pretty much the only option and the damaging effects won’t out way the benefits of the elderberries.

Elderberry Elixir

If you want a long lasting and delicious preparation that warms your wintery cockles then this could be the one for you. I go to town a bit on my elixir, making it with a combination of port and brandy, local raw honey and warming spices. When i was at university I was introduced by a friend to the winning combination of port and brandy as the ultimate cure for colds and flus. Nowadays I tend to turn to herbs first but I still respect these warming alcohols for driving out the cold and the ache. That’s why I combine them with the elderberries and the warming spices from another of my favourite beverages, Chai. For me, this blend is the ultimate winter warming wonder recipe. Take a tablespoon in a small glass of warm water each evening as a preventative or take half a teaspoon every couple of hours at the first sign of infection.

Elixir Magic

To make it fill a jar with freshly picked elderberries and add one cinnamon stick, broken into pieces, 8 thin slices of fresh ginger and then 12 cloves, 12 black peppercorns and 20 cardamom pods lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle. Add brandy until 1/3 jar is filled with liquid, then add 1/3 port and top the final third up with honey. Stir everything thoroughly with a bamboo chopstick or glass stirring rod. Lid, label and store out of direct sunlight, somewhere cool and dry for a month to six weeks before straining and rebottling. I like to hold the jar between my hands every few days and add some energy healing to the mix.

Elderberry Tincture

This  can be made very simply by filling a jar with elderberries and covering with vodka, lidding, then allowing to sit for a month stirring occasionally, before straining and re-bottling. This will last at least the year and has the advantage of being easily added to blends of other herbs.

Elderberry, Blackberry and Apple Autumn Crumble

Add some elderberries into your favourite crumble recipe to give your immune system a boost and lend a lovely tang to the other fruit. I made this one with cooking apples, blackberries and elderberries with a few dates to sweeten it. The topping was made from oats, ground almonds, seeds and pecan nuts with a few more chopped dates and some ground cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and vanilla powders. Scrumptious.

Elderberry, Blackberry and Apple Crumble

Elderberries can also be dried or frozen to make into teas or add to other preparations later in the season. I’ve had lots of fun creating delicious elderberry concoctions this autumn and I’ve enjoyed reading about other people’s adventures with elder too. Some posts from other bloggers I’ve been enjoying over the last few weeks include a lovely one over at Nettlejuice which you can read here. This one here from Moment to Moment which is full of beautiful photos. And this one here from Sensory Herbcraft which has an alternative syrup recipe using sugar.

Update: I’ve just read this post over at the delightful Teacup Chronicles which is full of great information on elderberries and some lovely reflections.

Enjoy!

Elderberry Medicine Chest

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