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Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

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 May, Whitethorn, Quickthorn, all are country names for this most remarkable of trees that blooms so prolifically throughout much of the month. I believe I have written about hawthorn more than any other plant, yet every season and every year affords me fresh insights into her great worth.

The blossoming of the May is one of the highlights of my herbal year. Though many dislike the smell, which is deep, musky and often compared to rotting meat  (I don’t see the resemblance myself!) I find it nothing short of delightful – earthy, sensual and rich.  It ties me to a sense of time and place and fills the countryside with wonder for the few short weeks it is in flower.

If you live in this corner of the world, the South of England, now is the time to harvest hawthorn flowering tops for teas, tinctures, elixirs and anything else you fancy. It is usual to pick a little bunch of the blossom, either just before or just after opening, with the first few leaves attached, as both blossom and leaf have important medicinal constituents. The photo below shows the amount that I usually pick for drying or tincture making.

Do remember when harvesting not to over pick from a single tree and to just take a little from each one as the blossoms will become berries in the autumn which are an important source of food for the birds and other creatures, as well as being food and medicine for us. Hawthorns are pollinated by a variety of insects including solitary bees and, due to dwindling insect populations, there are said to have been declining numbers of berries in recent years. They are still abundant in most parts and we humans, without the benefit of flight, tend to pick from lower branches whilst the birds feast on higher ones but it’s always good to bear in mind how many other creatures rely on exactly the same species that are so beneficial for us.

Hawthorn flowers are often acknowledged for their benefit in treating heart conditions and are typically included in preparations alongside the berries for a range of cadiovascular and circulatory disorders ranging from angina to chilblains. This is in part due to their antioxidant content found in the form of phenolic compounds which are actually even higher in the leaves and blossoms than they are in the berries. We tend to think of antioxidants occurring mainly in highly coloured foods like berries but you can see that the colour of the tea made from the flowering tops is also rich and deeply hued after being left to infuse for fifteen minutes or so.

Though truly enjoyable when drunk as a simple, hawthorn blossom also combines with a variety of other herbs to make any number of delicious teas. Here are some of my favourites:

Spicy – Combine 2-3 flowering tops with a couple of slices of ginger and an inch of cinnamon stick to wake the circulation and protect the heart.

Floral – Hawthorn blossom is both deeply calming and nurturing when combined with rose petals and linden blossom in a beautifully heart opening brew.

Seasonally Sleepy – A few cowslips flowers along with hawthorn blossom make a great bedtime tea as mentioned in my last post.

Sensual – Hawthorn tops, rose petals and half a vanilla bean thinly sliced make for a sweet, earthy and fragrant tea.

Despite being placed firmly in the category of a ‘heart herb’ in Western herbal medicine, hawthorn has a multifaceted personality, just like so many of our herbal allies. I consider the blossoms in particular to be a primary nervine tonic as they are deeply relaxing and calming to states of anxiety and over stimulation. I like to use them alongside other nervine herbs, like avena, for people who are sensitive to everything; loud noises, strong colours, smells and sensations and need to be calmed and comforted. In 19th century France an infusion of the blossoms was used to treat insomnia and herbalist Maurice Messegue writes “I myself make use of the hawthorn for nervous spasms, arteriosclerosis, angina and obesity and it is one of my favourite tranquiliser herbs.” It therefore makes an exceptional choice in problems where the circulatory and nervous systems are both affected such as nervous palpitations, restlessness and arrhythmia.

The powerful combination of antioxidants makes hawthorn blossoms and berries good food for the immune system as well and modern research suggests they have an inhibitory effect on the breakdown of collagen, therefore aiding healing and having an all round rejuvenating effect. Hawthorn is a very safe medicine that is tolerated by almost everyone though it is of course wise to consult with a herbalist before taking it alongside medications. It has been traditionally eaten as food, the young leaves in spring salads and the berries in jams and preserves later in the year so it can be incorporated in our lives in any way that suits us best.

The blossoming of Hawthorn has long been associated with reawakening life; with spring, with fertility and with love and it leaves you with a kind of lightness of spirit that dusts away the very last of the wintery drear. These two holly blue butterflies flew along the hedgerow beside me for a time, flirting in and out of the branches and rejoicing in the return of the sunshine. And I rejoiced along with them, for the return of this most cherished of herbal medicines and dearest of friends.

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Dandelion Medicine

Common name: Dandelion
Latin: Taraxacum officinale
Family: Asteraceae/ Compositeae – daisy family.
Botanical features: Herbaceous perennial  with single yellow flower heads each made up of numerous florets on unbranched, hollow stems. Leaves are toothed or deeply lobed and form a basal rosette growing from a mostly unbranched taproot. The fruits are borne on silky pappi forming a globe which is easily blown apart by wind or by wish-makers alike.

Dandelion flowers are surely one of the most joyful sights at this time of year, carpeting roadsides and fields with their merry abandon. They have long been considered heralds of the return of the sun, blooming in spring, opening with the day and closing at night. True to form, this last week they have remained stubbornly closed in the incessant grey-skied drizzle.

Dandelion is another of those plants that blurs the line between food and medicine as all parts can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes. It is not without irony that plants commonly viewed as weeds like nettle and dandelion are some of the most nutritious foods and helpful medicines we have available to us. The sorry result of living in a time and place of seeming plenty is that we forget to give value to that which is most worthy of it. Dandelions should always be encouraged in our gardens, not just for our own wellbeing but because they also support a variety of butterflies, moths and other insects.

Look closely to see how each flower is actually a flower head comprising many individual florets. This is a feature common to members of the asteraceae family.

The actions of dandelion are many and varied but include; hepatic, cholagogue, diuretic, alterative, anti-rheumatic, aperient, tonic, nutritive and digestive.

Dandelion flowers are the part least used in medicine but they do have some of both the cleansing and nutritive properties of the leaf and root. They are good infused in apple cider vinegar, either alone or with the whole plant, left for a month to six weeks and then strained to make a useful addition to salads, stir fries, soups and veggies.

They also make a lovely infused oil but be careful to pick them on a dry, sunny day when all the dew has dried as the high moisture content can easily spoil your oil. This is commonly used as a rub for fatigued and aching muscles after infusing for a week on a sunny windowsill and then straining. I like to combine dandelion, St. John’s wort and rosemary infused oils to make a warming and healing massage oil for everyday back aches and pains. Susun Weed also recommends it as a breast massage oil which is interesting because the greens were used in the past as a poultice for swollen breasts and breast cancers.

Dandelion flower fritters are a wild food staple and Danielle has a lovely recipe for them here. You can also learn to make dandelion flower wine with Rosalie here, something I have yet to try!

Do take a little care when picking though as the milky latex contained in the stem can cause contact dermatitis in some sensitive individuals.

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The leaves are tasty in salads when used sparingly. They are bitter so I tend to just use a few amongst the spicier tastes of mustards or wild garlic and the sweeter taste of lettuce but if you want the full medicinal effect then you can make a salad consisting entirely of dandelion leaves. I recently came across this wonderful video from 94 year old Clara about how she makes her dandelion leaf salads, definitely worth checking out! Culpepper recommended it as a pot herb, made into broth with a few Alexanders. Alexanders are growing freely right now so it’s a good time to give this a try.

The leaves are one of, if not the, primary diuretic used in modern herbal medicine. They affect the water balance in our bodies by encouraging excretion of excess fluids but they also strengthen the entire urinary system. They are well known for their country name Pissabed, or the French pissenlit, but interestingly they were also used in the past to treat bed wetting and incontinence, as well as causing it. They are a useful addition to a constitutional formula where there is oedema due to heart failure or high blood pressure as they will not aggravate the cause whilst treating the symptoms as pharmaceutical diuretics have been shown to. This is because, rather than depleting it, they restore the body’s natural balance of potassium as the areal parts of the herb can contain as much as 4% of this vital mineral. Dandelion greens also contain iron, calcium and a host of vitamins including A, B’s and C.

As well as being eaten in foods they can be dried and added to teas or made into tincture.

They can vary in size and colour depending on where they grow as this page from my journal attempts to capture. The larger, leafier ones are nicer in salads in my opinion as the smaller, darker leaves can be a little tough.

The root of dandelion is the part that is commonly used to support the liver and gallbladder though the whole herb has enough bitterness to get the bile flowing and tone digestion. All tap roots have a nourishing quality to them as they act as a storehouse for vital nutrients and dandelion’s roots go deep into the earth to access minerals held in the subsoil. It is a helpful medicine anywhere that there is heat or stagnation in the liver as it demonstrates, in Cupepper’s words, an ‘opening and cleansing quality.’ It both stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder and the production of more in the liver so it can help in our ability to digest fats and can also work as a mild laxative or aperient by toning the whole digestive system. Moving liver congestion can help our bodies to work more efficiently on many levels and assist in conditions from headaches to skin conditions to foggy headedness and inability to concentrate. The liver also processes hormones so dandelion root can be very helpful in PMS and other hormonal complaints.

Dandelion root is an excellent tonic for the pancreas as it works on both the exocrine and endocrine functions of this important organ. By stimulating the release of gastric juices it aids the digestive capacity and by increasing insulin secretions it helps to balance blood sugar levels.

Roots are commonly harvested in autumn or spring. In autumn the long tap root is busy storing nutrients and polysaccharides away for the winter and the resulting medicine will be sweeter and richer in inulin so more appropriate for people who need building and nourishing, general digestive support or help balancing blood sugar levels. In spring the roots will be nice and bitter and great for people who have symptoms that indicate more heat and inflammation in the liver. Having said that most people can benefit from a more stimulating bitter in spring and a more nourishing bitter as the cold months come around so there is something to be said for making batches of both to use at the appropriate time as well as just looking at the energetics of the individual.

The energetics of dandelion are interesting. It is considered cooling due to it’s bitterness, and drying, primarily for its diuretic properties. Therefore it is often used for people who are hot, red faced, liverish and irritable, swollen, stressed and with high blood pressure. For the most part the leaf does tend more towards the cooling, drying and cleansing end of the spectrum but the root I find to be more complex. I currently have three dandelion tinctures sat on my shelf and each one is completely different from the next. This is partly due to the time of year they were harvested as explained above but also due to other environmental factors. One of the tinctures is so thick, sweet and nutritious that I would almost classify it as moist rather than dry and would always think to use it for people who were depleted, weak or fatigued. This is one reason why it’s so important to taste your herbs and get to know them rather than assuming all dandelion tinctures will be the same. I happily use dandelion root for a variety of people who need some liver support, though I would balance it with other herbs as appropriate to the individual.

Dandelion has often been associated with joy and I like to think it encourages happiness both actively, through the unfettered cheeriness of its flowers, and passively, by releasing anger and emotions held in the liver and allowing the happiness that is naturally our nature to shine through.

Everyone enjoys a few dandelion leaves in our house!

 I will finish with a quote from Culpepper which I found most amusing. Always one to call it as he saw it you can understand why he was so unpopular with the medical establishment of his day. I wonder how much has changed in the intervening years. “You see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the Spring; and now if you look a little farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people.”

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A bright sunny Sunday morning meant the perfect opportunity to get out early and make a Blackthorn blossom remedy.

Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, the same tree that gives us the deep blue sloes in autumn, has currently exploded into confetti-like blooms all over the hedgerows and woodland edges, making such a cheerful sight after the muted tones of winter.

Because the blossom of blackthorn comes out before the leaves the effect is even more striking as the pure white flowers stand out so dramatically against the hard, dark wood, without any background of green to soften the effect. This makes it easy to differentiate from the hawthorn, also known as whitethorn, whose leaves appear before the blossoms.

Blackthorn has long been associated with darkness; the unknown and mysterious, the subconscious and feared, and yet, in early Spring, it is the very epitome of brightness, beauty and expansion. As such it was considered symbolic of the cycles of life and death by our ancestors who honoured it as one of the trees in the Celtic alphabet or Ogham.

For me Blackthorn is the tree of transformation; from winter to spring, from darkness to light, from introversion to extroversion, from sadness to joy. It honours each part of the cycle as equal without only valuing the experiences that feel most pleasant. It is a great remedy for everyone to take as we emerge from winter but can be supportive all year round for those who are experiencing change or feel overwhelmed by negative emotions. Blackthorn will support us with moving through these whilst also helping us to go deep within ourselves to find the lessons in all our experiences.

It is important to understand that this, or any, flower remedy is not about superimposing a ‘positive’ emotion over a ‘negative’ one in order to live a life devoid of painful experience. They are just about offering support and the potential of opening up a little when we feel overwhelmed or constricted and thus unable to flow freely with our feelings. At some point we may find we no longer need them but until then we have them as support when the way ahead is unclear.

It has often been observed that the word emotion refers to energy in motion (e-motion) and this is a beautiful reflection. Emotions come and go, we as the witnesser of emotion remain in stillness.

However it is our habit, or the habit of mind, to immediately relate to every emotion that arises as a true and rightful aspect of who we believe ourselves to be. Thoughts such as ‘I am unworthy,’ ‘I am afraid’, ‘I am ugly’, or equally, ‘I am worthy’, ‘I am brave’, ‘I am beautiful’, remain unchecked and unverified and thus we believe them to be reality. Beauty, worthiness and bravery are concepts that exist in the mind only. Comparing them to other concepts lends them a kind of weight but what we as consciousness are is beyond all concepts.

It is formless, unchanging being and we are always it, whatever we may be experiencing in the moment.

When we begin to identify less strongly with our emotions the need to change them becomes less pronounced. We may still feel any number of strong emotions, from fear to grief or even hatred, but we no longer think these define us and so they do not make us suffer in the same way as before. In fact, often when the tempests come, we can find a joy and a peace that co-exist alongside them. Somehow we are both and neither, they simply arise in the vastness of our own hearts.

“I am not enough is a thought. I am enough is also a thought. They are not original to you… A thought without belief has no power at all but a thought with belief can start a war.”  Mooji

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Spring fever is most definitely upon us as I get busy in the garden, the cats lounge in sunbeams and all of nature seems to be rejoicing. Today I noticed a squirrel prancing around for what looked like the simple joy of being and a friend sent me a link to this video showing the cows on one farm celebrating their release from their winter housing.

Now the weather is warming and we are surrounded by fresh green plants again it’s a good time to start gently cleansing the body of the accumulations of winter with delicious spring treats. When temperatures rise, the mucus in our bodies thins and begins to move and can result in runny noses and phlegm. Whilst an excessive attitude to ‘detoxification’ can be detrimental, spring is a natural time to work with plants in assisting the body to release and let go. Last week I had a dream that I was sat in a cafe with friends eating cake and chatting. Within dream-time, hours passed and I kept on eating more and more cake until the glands on my neck started to visibly swell. Upon waking I thought that my body was perhaps trying to tell me that it was time to indulge in some good lymphatic tonics and have a little break from the various cakes that have indeed found their way onto my plate in recent weeks!

At this time of year we have two great lymphatic remedies freely available in this part of the world with our lovely spring cleavers and sweet violets. I wrote about cleavers and their relationship with the lymphatic system here if you would like to read more about it. I have been incorporating them into my daily routine in three ways over the last fortnight or so; in juice, as a succus and as a cold infusion.

A large handful of fresh cleavers is delicious in a juice with apple, cucumber and perhaps a little lemon on a warm day, or ginger when the mornings are still crisp and cool. Cleavers succus is made by juicing several large handfuls of fresh cleavers and mixing with equal quantities of runny honey to make a syrupy liquid that will keep in the fridge for a month or two. I have been taking a couple of tablespoons a day when the urge takes me and though it closely resembles murky dark pond water in appearance, in taste it is fresh, sweet, green and totally divine! (If you like pond water that is.)

Cleavers cold infusion

Cleavers cold infusion is the simplest way of taking them as it requires no extra equipment such as juicers or blenders. All you do if place a couple of handfuls of freshly picked cleavers in a jug, cover with cool water and leave to infuse overnight. In the morning you will have a delicately flavoured liquid that will gently cleanse your body and help the lymphatic system to move and clear out the stagnation of winter.

Violets are also easy to add into our every day diet as long as you have a plentiful supply growing nearby. Great ways to take them include a few leaves and flowers added into salad or as a fresh tea with other spring greens such as cleavers and young hawthorn leaves. You can also snack on a few flowers when out walking. Taking one on your tongue and holding it there as the flavour infuses your senses is one of the truest delights in wild cuisine. Just eating a few flowers and leaves will have a beneficial effect on the lymphatics, you don’t need many. For more violet inspired ideas see this post from last year.

While we are on the subject of spring plants I just wanted to share a little story with you about an encounter I had last weekend. Whilst walking down Brixton Hill in London I noticed this old Sweet Chestnut tree.

An ecosystem in the city

I felt drawn to take a closer look and wondered over to it. Beneath its trunk were growing great clumps of cleavers and dandelions with young yarrow leaves interspersed with the grass nearby.

Cleavers beneath the Sweet Chestnut

The tree itself had a few little shoots with the characteristic sticky chestnut buds willing it to life and the trunk was covered in our local ganoderma, the artist’s bracket or ganoderma applanatum.


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As I wandered around, marvelling at all the beauty and medicines available in and around this one tree and snapping these few shots with my phone, I became aware of a lad standing nearby watching. After a short while he addressed me, “Excuse me lady, what are you doing with your phone and that tree?” After a moment of lamenting the fact that I am now clearly old enough to be addressed as ‘lady’ by the youth of today, I invited him over and proceeded to tell him about all the plants and what they are good for. He seemed really interested and curious and we had a lovely little interaction. As I turned to leave he said, ‘this is cool, it’s like bush tucker land.’ Yes indeed, I thought, even in the midst of Brixton the wild is marginalised yet somehow still thriving. Afterwards I reflected on how, when you are involved in the thing you love, people are drawn to see what you are doing and you can share in each other’s curiosity and inspiration. It’s perhaps not always necessary to go out preaching the importance of valuing biodiversity, wild plants and natural health, for when you do what you do for the simple joy of doing it, the rest happens all by itself.

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It’s that time of year again! It seemed like one day there was hardly anything green and the next the lane was covered in fresh young nettles, assuring me that, despite some cold evenings this week, spring has well and truly sprung.

I have written a few posts on nettles in the past and do excuse me if I repeat myself a little, but this time I wanted to go into a bit more detail on why nettle is so fantastic, as both food and medicine.

This is the time of year when we are both a bit deficient and a bit stagnant as we reach the end of the long winter months. Our bodies slow down during the cold weather, fluids thicken and we are generally less active as well as tending to eat more rich or stodgy meals and less fresh foods. I wrote in my post on January detox recently that often the foods we think of as either ‘cleansing’ or ‘nourishing’ can be just the same thing- and there is no finer example of this than the lovely nettle herself.

For a start nettle is one of the most nutrient dense wild foods that we have readily available to us. High in calcium, chromium, magnesium, zinc, iron, selenium, potassium, trace minerals, protein and many vitamins including A and C, nettle is a very good all round nourishing tonic herb. Nettle has a good reputation as an iron tonic, not just because it contains relatively high levels but because it also contains amino acids and vitamin C which are both required as co-factors for iron absorption. This is the beauty of our nutritive herbs, unlike the average vitamin and mineral supplement, the constituents are presented in a balanced way which allows for greater assimilation and absorption but also prevents excessive build-up. Nettle contains tannins which will tone the mucus membranes of the digestive tract and also prevent too much iron absorption. Nature is so much cleverer than we are.

Nettle is also high in flavonoids, including quercetin and rutin, as well as  chlorophyll, both of which help to improve the health of the blood and circulatory system. All this and more has led to nettles reputation as a blood tonic. In traditional Western herbal medicine nettle was considered specific for pale, tired, anaemic people and has been used by practitioners of Chinese medicine to treat what is called blood deficiency. This is not just what we think of as anaemia but a more complex picture of the health of the blood as a whole. If, like me, you are vegetarian or vegan then nettle is one of the best things you can include in your diet to ensure your blood stays healthy and vital. Nettle has long been used as a hair tonic as it feeds the follicles through increasing the health and nutrient content of the blood and I always notice how quickly and strongly my hair and nails grow when taking it regularly.

Through its nutritive action on the blood and body fluids, its cleansing action via the organs of elimination and its tonifying action on the mucus membranes, nettle will have an effect on the whole body and this is one of the reasons that, like so many of our herbs, it is hard to put into rigid categories. The effects of having well nourished blood will include more energy, better circulation, improved mental clarity and better sleep. Effects on the mucus membranes might include improved digestion, increased kidney function or relief from chronic lung symptoms such as coughing wheezing and phlegm. It can be very tempting in today’s climate to look for a more reductionist explanation of how herbs work – the ‘this chemical constituent has this action’- approach to treatment, but herbs are, by their very nature, holistic in the way the act and that is part of their wonder.

Nettle is a prime remedy for treating fatigue and blood sugar balancing. Nettle can help to regulate body metabolism and has been used for the entire endocrine system, from balancing the thyroid, strengthening adrenal function and restoring the reproductive organs. According to Chinese herbalist Peter Holmes, ” Nettle herb provides excellent support for complex metabolic disorders, especially when they involve the connective tissue and/or endocrine glands and metabolic toxicosis – insufficient breakdown of metabolic wastes.” I think it works on blood sugar levels both directly and also indirectly as, by energising us and increasing vitality, it reduces cravings for artificially stimuating foods like sugar and caffieine.

Nettle has astringent, toning and cleansing properties that enable the liver, kidneys, skin and lungs to all work more effectively, thus increasing natural detoxification. It helps to drain damp, or excessive and stagnant fluids in the body, and has been used to help oedema, resolve problems of chronic phlegm and reduce accumulations in conditions such as arthritis and gout. It is a herb we commonly turn to for atopic conditions such as eczema, asthma, allergies and hayfever. Though it is useful for most people with these conditions, in a very few others it can actually cause allergies. Because of its astringent nature it is considered a haemostatic and can help to check excessive bleeding in the body when taken internally.

The energetics of nettles have been somewhat disputed over the centuries. Because of it’s stimulating and moving qualities it was once considered hot, notably by Culpepper who considered it a herb of Mars- hot and dry. Most modern herbalists however consider it cooling and drying. At the risk of being a non-committal fence sitter, I tend to think of it as fairly neutral in temperature, mostly because of it’s nutritive and balancing properties. Being astringent, it is certainly towards the drier end of things but again, how much so will depend on numerous other factors such as environment and climate. In Ayurvedic medicine nettle is considered to increase Vata, because it is cooling and drying, and decrease pitta and kapha. However in the Western tradition it would have been considered mostly quite specific for Vata type people who are often thin, pale, emotionally scattered and dreamy, though it would have been used with more moistening herbs if the person was overly dry. I often think that these kinds of discrepancies are to do with the climate in different areas. For example in northern Europe the climate tends to be very damp so the drying aspects of nettle would not be so problematic but some parts of India may be much drier so people with dry conditions would be more easily aggravated.

There are many ways to include nettle in your diet and here are just a few ideas:

  • Raw from the hedgerow – just like this.
  • Juiced – mixed with other fruits and veggies such as apples, celery, fennel. ginger, lemon or other greens.
  • Tea – One teaspoon of dried nettle herb or two teaspoons of fresh per cup of boiling water makes a nice refreshing and nutrient rich tea.
  • Nourishing infusion- Like a very strong tea, this utilises 25g of herb to about a pint of boiling water. Allow it to steep over night in a cafetierre then strain out in the morning and drink throughout the day, providing an abundance of vitamins and minerals. Teas made in this way used to be known as ‘standard infusions’ and were considered both more nutritive and more therapeutic than normal teas. In recent years they have been popularised by Susun Weed as ‘nourishing infusions’ which I think is a lovely way to describe them. After drinking I always use the spent plant material from my nettle infusions as a mulch around my roses.
  • Infused vinegar- Loosely fill a jar with fresh nettle tops, cover in apple cider vinegar, cap with a plastic lid and leave to infuse for a month to six weeks. Strain and bottle then add to salads and other dishes. We add a few mls of nettle infused cider vinegar to our hens drinking water to increase their nutrient intake.
  • Soup- See my recipes for nettle soup here and here. You can also add powdered nettle or nettle infusions to the stocks of other soups.
  • Stir fries, bakes and curries – Slice the nettle tops finely and cook them up just like you would spinach.
  • Hair washes and baths- make a strong tea as above and use as a final hair rinse after washing or add to bath water.
Here’s a photo of the nourishing infusion, looks pretty packed with nutrients doesn’t it!

“Our doctors and pharmacists are ashamed of fetching such a common weed from behind the fences to include in their formulas, even though in both cookery and medicine it has proven its mightily impressive effects.” Hieronymus Bock, 1532.

“Nettle is one of the most widely applicable plants in the materia medica. The herb strengthens and supports the whole body.” David Hoffman, 2003.

References:
Medical Herbalism – David Hoffman
The Energetics of Western Herbs – Peter Holmes
The Book of Herbal Wisdom – Matthew Wood
The Yoga of Herbs – D.Frawley and V.Lad

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Valentine’s Delights

Three of my all time favourite herbs are most definitely herbs of love and, with Valentine’s day just around the corner, I thought it an auspicious time to share a little more about them.

They are Avena, Rose and Cardamom, all famed for their aphrodisiac properties, but all quite different, though they do work in some similar ways.

Avena – Oats are one of the best remedies we have for building and restoring the nervous system and this makes them a wonderful love tonic as they strengthen our reserves helping to make us more resilient and energised. Although we tend to think of aphrodisiac herbs as stimulating rather than relaxing, these kind of nerve tonic herbs act to energise us in a more roundabout way, by releasing the stresses that caused our problems in the first place and getting us strong and vital once more. So many arguments are caused by being frazzled and over-sensitive, making regular doses of Avena a great relationship soother.

Rose – What need I say about the rose, the ultimate symbol of love? It is gently moving, gently stimulating, relaxing, aromatic and uplifting. It also opens the heart to allow greater self love and acceptance, something which enables us to partake more fully in any relationship, romantic or otherwise.

Cardamom – Cardamom is one of the most balanced of the spices and for me this makes it the true spice of love. It is both slightly stimulating, like most spices, as well as calming and centring. As I mentioned above, it is often a combination of stress and resulting fatigue that stops us from giving time and attention to our beloveds, so balancing herbs, like all those mentioned here, are exactly what the love doctor ordered.

All these herbs help us to feel loved in order to feel loving. They work at the meeting point of relaxation and stimulation, of uplifting and of soothing. Essentially they work from a place of balance from which all things can flower, not just love for a partner, but love for ourselves, for the wider context of people and other sentient beings and in the knowledge that there is no real difference anyway. After all, love is just love and when it is in our hearts, all will benefit from its radiance.

Here are just a few of the ways you can combine these herbs to make some deliciously delectable treats, for Valentine’s or any other day.

Tea – A simple tea of cardamom (gently crushed in a pestle and mortar), rose petals and oatstraw makes a lovely soothing and heart opening blend for drinking anytime. To make an extra special tea, add some Ashwagandha root which is a traditional adaptogen and aphrodisiac of Ayurvedic medicine. To make the tea gently simmer about half a tablespoon of ashwagandha root in a pan for about 15 mins. Turn off the heat and add the other 3 herbs leaving to steep for another 15 mins before straining and serving with a little honey. Ashwagandha can be a little bitter in flavour so the addition of the honey makes it more deliciously balanced.

Ashwagandha root and rose buds

Bath – A lovely romantic bath can be made by mixing rose petals and rolled oats with a drop or two of cardamom essential oil and tying up in a small square of muslin. Tie this around the taps as the bath is running, making sure you squeeze out all the creaminess of the oats as you go.

Honey – Infuse rose petals and cardamon seeds in honey for a delicious aromatic treat.

Massage Oil – Cardamom and rose are both divine as essential oils and a beautifully romantic massage oil can be made by combining them both with a base oil such as almond, olive or jojoba. To 50 ml base oil add 5 -10 drops each of rose and cardamom oils.

And last but not least…

The Flapjacks of Love – 
Combining oats, rose, cardamom and other delicious ingredients into a sticky sweet treat that is sure to delight anyone you serve them to.

Ingredients:
250 g rolled oats
125 g coconut oil
75 g muscovado sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
Small handful of broken up walnut or pecan pieces
1 tsp rose petals (dried is fine)
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground ashwagandha root (optional)
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 180C and grease a baking tray ready. Mix all the ingredients well in a mixing bowl, I find it easier to melt the coconut oil first. Transfer to the baking tray and spread evenly. Cook for about 25 minutes until golden brown then remove from the oven and score into rectangles. Allow to cool thoroughly giving the coconut plenty of time to set. Enjoy with some cardamom, rose and avena tea and a small smile of satisfaction.

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Firstly, apologies for not having posted the final cream recipe yet, I ran out of time before Christmas and have been having a little holiday from the computer so it will be with you in the New Year instead.

However as 2011 draws to a close, I would like to take a few moments to look back over the Hawthorn trees which I have been observing throughout the year as part of The Tree Year project. Inspired by the UN’s announcement that 2011 would be the International Year of Forests it encouraged people to pick a tree to observe closely for one year and record some of their findings in whatever way seemed appropriate to them.

I followed these trees which sit atop the Sussex Downs from Winter to Summer and back again, observing not only their individual transformations, but the way they have been shaped by their landscape and by the myriad influences of humans and nature.

For many years I have appreciated the Hawthorn as a fantastic source of medicine and food, not just for humans but for wildlife as well. This project gave me the opportunity to learn more about some of its other facets however and the more I learnt, the more I appreciated its story as that of a true survivor. It thrives in many environments, from cities and gardens to woodland edges, hedgerows and open grassland and it flourishes where other trees could not. The Downs themselves would once have been covered in woodland in all but the most exposed sites but centuries of animal grazing have ensured the trees have not returned. Only the hardiest survive atop these windswept and rain blasted escarpments with their shallow, chalky soil. And they are mainly gorse and hawthorn.

Sheep grazing the Downs prevent the return of natural woodland in more sheltered spots.

Here in the UK, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the privatisation of huge amounts of open fields and common land and the removal of  access rights of local people through the Inclosure Acts. This saw the planting of miles of Hawthorn hedging throughout the country as hawthorn grows quickly and densely and has sharp thorns – the perfect way to keep people out. This rapid growth gave rise to one of Hawthorn’s old common names, Quickthorn. I often think that perhaps one of the only good things to come out of such a travesty was the Hawthorn hedges which are now such a distinctive and cherished part of our countryside and support such a wide variety of wildlife.

The hawthorn is home to approximately 150 different insects and provides food and shelter for many birds. Blackbirds, greenfinches, yellowhammers, robins and wrens all make use of it along with migrant birds like redwings and fieldfares. They spread seed through their droppings making this a mutually beneficial arrangement. Small mammals like voles and wood mice also eat the fallen berries and seek shelter amongst the dense growth of hawthorn branches.

Whilst I love the hedges, Hawthorns are by far the most beautiful when allowed to grow into their full splendour as small trees. They will grow well in most soil types, though they need some sun, as their root system is not too extensive and doesn’t require large amounts of nutrients. They are often seen standing alone on hilltops, each one a unique individual having been shaped by natural forces. In folk mythology it was thought that these lone Hawthorns were inhabited by faeries and Hawthorn is still considered one of the faery trees to this day.

New leaf buds forming in early spring.

It is used as a rootstock for grafting pears and medlars and the wood was apparently one of those preferred by the Druids for making runes. A fascinating fact (which I am sure you will all find very useful) is that some myths claim hawthorn wood to be the best for staking vampires! I wonder if this refers to the long association with qualities of protection, part of which must come from all the many species it shelters and provides uses for.

Unfurling spring leaves - delicious in salads.

It is a tree that looks beautiful in each of its manifestations throughout the changing seasons. The small buds emerging early in the year give way to tender green leaves which are delicious in salads before they toughen up later in the year.

The blossom has equally fantastic medicinal properties as the berries and the two preparations are often used together by herbalists. You can read my accounts of some of the medicinal benefits of Hawthorn here and here.

Blossom buds.

One of the most beautiful sights of spring.

The blossom can be used to make teas, tinctures, herbal honeys, elixirs, flower remedies or to sprinkle on salads. Some people find the smell offensive but others, including myself, find its sweet headiness quite pleasant.

The oldest Hawthorn in the country is in a village in Norfolk and is thought to be about 700 years old! I would very much like to take a little trip to visit it this coming year. There is said to be one more than twice as old again in France, though apparently this hasn’t been verified.

Summer green glory.

The summer hawthorn is all green fullness and abundance. I often wonder how the leaves stay on in such windy conditions!

After the blossom dies back, small green berries begin to form which ripen into the wonderful red fruits we so associate with late summer and autumn. These can be made into all sorts of delicious syrups and elixirs as well as being used for tinctures and decoctions. You can read about my Hawthorn syrup here.

Early blushing berries.

Autumn harvest for wildlife (including herbalists!)

Hawthorn has a use for every season; food, medicine and wildlife habitat, it also keeps us warm in the winter months as its hard, dense wood burns hot without being too smoky.

The latin name, Crataegus, comes from the Greek word for strong. Whilst this is thought to reflect the qualities of the wood, I suspect it may actually refer to the nature of the tree itself which is resilient, tough, hardy and above all abundant and unfailingly generous.

Like many of the plants we consider weeds and many of our wilier animal friends like crows and foxes, the hawthorn has only survived and flourished in a changing habitat due to its ability to adapt.

I look forward to many more years of knowing, appreciating and working with this remarkable plant.

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I love to make up blends of herbal oils and often give the people I see a little bottle of something to use externally alongside taking their herbal tinctures or teas. It could be a neck and shoulder rub, a stomach massage oil, a foot massage oil or something for helping to heal scar tissue. I believe that taking some time to massage a part of your body that needs some love and attention is a wonderful technique for healing as it brings our awareness to the places that need it and encourages an attitude of self care and nurturing. The blend I have given out more than any other is my breast massage oil so I thought I would share the recipe with you here.

Before I started to see clients I don’t think I was really aware of how many women suffer from sore or tender breasts, often with lumps and swellings, which can vary a lot with hormonal fluctuations throughout their cycle. The breasts are made up of glandular tissue (which includes lymph nodes and milk producing lobes), fatty tissue and fibrous or connective tissue. The lymphatic system does not contain its own pump so it relies on the movement of muscles to keep it flowing nicely around the body. As there are no actual muscles within the breasts themselves, massage becomes even more important for healthy breasts and lymphatics.

You can use any nice base oils to perform the massage but herbal infused oils add extra therapeutic value alongside that special something which I like to think of as the plant’s own consciousness. The base of my breast massage oil is violet (Viola odorata) infused in sweet almond oil, though a good quality, organic sunflower oil could also be used quite happily.

If you don’t have any violet infused oil (and now is of course the wrong time to be making it from fresh) you can use dried plant material infused into the oil using the heat method which I outlined in this post. I personally prefer the fresh oil because the flowers impart a delightfully gentle aroma but using the dried leaf will still be effective.

Calendula oil, which can be found in many health food shops, makes a lovely substitution, especially when mixed 50/50 with lavender infused oil which can be made from dried flowers all year round. A small amount of yarrow or chamomile infused oil makes a useful addition if there is inflammation. Rosemary infused oil can be added at about 25% if there is a need to increase circulation and many people also recommend dandelion flower infused oil. Rose infused oil is another delightful addition, though I tend to stick with a few drops of the essential oil as it has a stronger aroma which resonates so much with the heart and with feelings of self-love. You can also add castor oil which is useful for removing congestion but, as it’s ridiculously sticky, I’d keep it to around 5%.

If you really want to keep things simple then stick with a plain almond, apricot or coconut oil, all of which have wonderful healing properties of their own.

The recipe I use as an all purpose breast massage oil is as follows:

28ml Violet infused oil
2ml vitamin E oil
2 drops each geranium and rose essential oils
Combine all the ingredients in a 30ml bottle and use to massage the breasts regularly.

Geranium essential oil is one of the best oils for balancing the endocrine system so is lovely for sore breasts due to fluctuating hormone levels. It also has a very balancing effect on the mind and emotions too.

When massaging the breasts I like to do a combination of circular movements with gentle kneading and a sort of pulsing action which is great at getting the lymph flowing. There is a good video here which outlines some techniques for this lymphatic pumping action.

Another great tip for getting the lymphatics flowing well in the breast area is to splash them with cold water after a hot bath or shower. Alternatively you can alternate a few splashes of hot water (though not unbearable of course) with cold water for a few minutes.

Finally, (in something of an aside) while we are on the subject of lovely ladies with voluptuous breasts, regular readers of this blog may remember the rescue hens we adopted during the summer. One of them, the delightful Primrose, has shot to stardom and is appearing in the British Hen Welfare Trust’s 2012 calendar, having fought off hundreds of other hopefuls to become Miss June.

This is how Primrose looked when we first got her:

And this is her calendar girl shot, only a couple of months later.

All the money from the sale of the calendars goes to support the charity, so if you or someone you know is a hen lover, you can pick up a copy here!

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I finally managed to get out onto the top of the Downs last week to collect my harvest of yarrow. It was the prefect day for it, with bright sunshine to dry off the dew without being so hot that the volatile oils were too quick to evaporate. Now the tincture is steeping away and the flowers are dried for teas so it seems like the perfect time to share a few words about this most valuable of healing remedies.

Yarrow atop the South Downs.

Despite being one of the most important medicines in my healing repertoire, I have been avoiding posting about yarrow for quite sometime. This is for the simple reason that it is useful for many things it’s hard to know where to start, yarrow really requires an entire book to itself! For simplicity’s sake I will stick to the basics here but I will revisit this wonder herb with more specific information in the future.

Yarrow is a common weed native to the Northern hemisphere that grows freely in grassland, chalk land, roadsides and other sites with well draining ground. It is instantly recognisable due to its feathery leaves, strong stems and broad white flower heads made up of many small individual flowers.

Yarrow as a Wound Healer:
This is perhaps yarrow’s most famous and most ancient use. Yarrow was found amongst other medicinal herbs in the Neanderthal burial site in Iraq which dates from around 60,000 BC and has become famous in herbal medicine as one of the earliest indications of human’s use of medicinal plants.  Myth tells us it was given to Achilles by the centaur Chiron so he could use it on the battlefield and its Latin name, Achillea millefollium, still reflects this tale. Its common names too included Soldier’s herb, herba militaris, Knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s grass and nosebleed. Yarrow is one of the most useful wound herbs we have as it staunches bleeding and is antimicrobial and pain relieving too.

Yarrow for Colds and Fevers:
It’s next greatest claim to fame is it’s ability to make us sweat. When fever is building, drinking hot teas of yarrow can help it to break by relaxing the circulation and the pores of the skin, allowing us to sweat freely and ridding the body of infection. Dr Christopher once wrote, “Yarrow, when administered hot and copiously, will raise the heat of the body, equalise the circulation and produce perspiration.” It may seem inadvisable to raise the body heat in cases of fever but by using yarrow we are supporting the body in responding to infection naturally. The classic formula for colds and flus is yarrow, peppermint and elderflower which should be drunk as a hot tea as soon as possible. The the patient should then wrap up warmly, keeping a hot water bottle at their feet and wait to sweat. When there is a high body temperature but no sweating, this formula is especially useful to help release the heat via the skin. Now is the time to get these herbs in stock before the cold and flu season strikes.

Yarrow for the Circulation:
Yarrow’s affinity for the blood and circulation can be seen internally as well as externally. It tones the blood vessels at the same time as dilating capillaries and moving the blood, thus giving it a wide range of applications. It has been used to treat high blood pressure, often in combination with Hawthorn and Lime blossom and it has a reputation for being able to prevent blood clots. It’s tonifying action makes it particularly useful for treating varicose veins and haemorrhoids. Yarrow really is a great equaliser, it moves where necessary and tones where needed. This dual action is what has given it is reputation for being able to both cure and cause nosebleeds!

Yarrow for the Digestion:
Being bitter, pungent and aromatic means that yarrow is particularly useful for stimulating the digestion and getting the bile and pancreatic juices flowing. Because of it’s affinity to the circulation as well it can help move congested blood in the portal vein which, in turn, helps the liver. Matthew Wood talks about using it for colitis and diverticulitis because of it’s ability to tone and heal the mucus membranes of the digestive tract. It was also an old traditional remedy for bloody diarrhoea and dysentery.

Yarrow for the Reproductive and Urinary Systems:
Maria Treben considers yarrow “first and foremost… a herb for women” and quotes Abbe Kneipp in saying “women could be spared many troubles if they just took yarrow tea from time to time.” It is such a wonderful herb for the reproductive systems because it can both staunch heavy bleeding and stimulate scanty bleeding. It is also wonderful when there is congestion resulting in dark clotted blood and period pains. It is useful for vaginal infections or irregular discharge as well as spotting between periods.

Yarrow is a good urinary anti-septic and, when drunk as a warm or cool (rather than hot) infusion, the diuretic properties are emphasised making it a useful remedy for cystitis and urinary tract infections. It has also been praised for helping cases of urinary incontinence. Culpepper informs us that it “helps such as cannot hold their water.”

If we think about some of the ways in which yarrow might work we can start to draw together all these different facets of it’s healing ability. When you taste yarrow it is pungent and aromatic with quite a bitter aftertaste. The volatile oils which make it so aromatic and warming are dispersive in nature and therefore are one of the things that gives yarrow this wonderful ability to move congestion and stagnation, equalise the circulation and open up the skin. Volatile oils are also often anti-microbial. The bitterness balances it’s warmth with more cooling qualities and also stimulates the digestion. Though the bitter gets our juices flowing and the aromatic qualities get things moving, you can also tell yarrow is an astringent which is what makes it so helpful for toning blood vessels. It may seem like a plant of contradictions but yarrow is just another example of how wonderfully complex our herbs can be. They demand that we know them, rather than just a list of their actions, and that we let go of linear thinking and delve into the realms of experiential understanding instead.

Preparations are usually made from the areal parts including leaf, flower and some stem, though I usually leave out the toughest bits. They can then be used in a variety of ways:

Tea – Take hot for colds and flus and warm or cool for cystitis. Or use as a wash for grazes or rashes.

Tincture – For chronic congestion in the reproductive system and high blood pressure (teas could also be used here).

Baths – For skin irritations.

Sitz baths – For cystitis, vaginal infections, bleeding fibroids, haemorrhoids, post-partum healing, heavy periods etc.

Footbaths – For chilblains.

Infused Oil – For first aid healing ointments or soothing creams for irritated skins.

Poultice or Compress – Spit poultices for wounds and first aid situations, compresses for larger areas of grazed skin.

Wound powder – Finely powdered dried herb can be sprinkled on minor wounds.

Spray – The tincture or herb infused in witch hazel can be sprayed on to varicose veins to tone and move stagnant blood.

Flower Essence – Said to be protective for those who are overly sensitive to their environments and the emotions of others.

Essential Oil – A wonderful anti-inflammatory for skin conditions.

Please note, yarrow is best avoided during pregnancy.

Yarrow was also considered a sacred herb by many cultures of the world and has lots of interesting folklore attached to it. I’ll save that for another post though!

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