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Archive for the ‘Seasons’ Category

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From top left clockwise: Nettle, hawthorn blossom, cleavers, ground elder, ground ivy, garlic mustard/jack by the hedge, dandelion flowers, hawthorn leaves, dandelion leaves.

One of the things I love most about spring is that it is probably the time when picking plentiful quantities of wild food is the easiest, at least in temperate northern zones such as the area in which I live. There are many edible wild spring greens in the hedgerows, woods and waysides and in no time at all you can have an abundant harvest for creating delicious and healthful meals and teas.

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A mix of wild and cultivated salad leaves decorated with primrose, three cornered leek and heartsease flowers.

Eating even small quantities of wild foods regularly is one of the best things you can do for your health as they are so nutritionally dense, vibrant, seasonal and fresh. So many of the best wild foods are those we consider weeds, but when we look at the qualities of these plants, how tenacious and insuppressible they are, we can see that their strength and vitality surely makes for a more fortifying meal than those cultivated plants that have been shipped half way round the world and sat on supermarket shelves for days. I think weed is a derogatory term, the four letter word of the plant world, which I will henceforth refer to as w**d. I do however reserve the right to use it, along with other four letter words, in the presence of my arch-nemesis ground elder.

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Young lime/ linden leaves

At this time of year we have a lovely mix of mild tasting moistening greens, like the young lime/linden and violet leaves, and more drying or pungent herbs like nettles, young yarrow leaves, jack-by-the hedge and the dead nettles. This makes for a perfect balance of nourishing and toning qualities to help build us up and get us into shape after winter.

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My little forager picking lime leaves.

The three cornered leek or wild onion is one of the most delicious additions to spring salads, tasting something like a spring onion, and the flowers make beautiful decorative additions to any meal and are also edible. They are more common in the south west than the south east and I don’t find many growing near me but luckily it has spread all over my parent’s garden so I got to pick lots when visiting recently.

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Three cornered leek

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From a distance it looks a little like white bluebells or even snowdrops but can be easily differentiated close up by the shape of the flowers and the distinctive triangular stem, hence the common name of three cornered leek. Also the smell of onion is a give away. Do be sure of your identification as both snowdrop and bluebell bulbs are poisonous.

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Wavy bittercress is a very common spring salad green which has delicious leaves and flowers and tastes much like normal cress.

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Wavy bittercress

Lady’s smock, also known as cuckoo flower, is another edible mustard family plant with deliciously peppery leaves and flowers.

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Lady’s smock

Jack by the hedge or garlic mustard is also in the mustard family or Brassicaceae. This family used to be known as the Cruciferae so if you have an older plant identification book you will find this name instead.

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Jack by the hedge

Nettles are found in abundance at this time of year and are a true superfood for the blood. You can read more about them in a previous post here.

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Nettles in the spring sunshine

Pick cleavers by the handful for use in cold infusions and juices, instructions for which can be found here.

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A tangle of cleavers

Wild garlic is one of the true delicacies of the season. If, like me, you love the fiery garlic taste then make it into a pesto by itself but if it is a bit too intense for your palette you can tone it down with nettles or shop bought herbs like basil. More about wild garlic can be found here.

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Wild garlic pesto – pungent and powerful!

Do remember when picking wild greens to be absolutely 100% sure of your identification as some edibles have poisonous lookalikes. Also avoid the sides of paths where dogs are commonly walked and always, always pick with respect to the environment and don’t over harvest. Finally avoid the edges of fields unless you know the land to be organically managed.

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At the back; cleavers cold infusion and hawthorn blossom tea. Centre; nettle pesto with jack by the hedge and ground elder. Front; wild green salad of hawthorn leaves, jack by the hedge, dandelion leaves, violet leaves and white dead nettle with nettle pesto and dandelion flowers on toast, nettle and ground elder soup.

Spring greens and flowers also make for wonderful teas.

Ground ivy has a pleasant but musky flavour which is nice in teas when mixed with something lighter like a little mint from the garden. It is great for stuffy sinuses that can go along with spring allergies.

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Ground ivy

And the most wonderful spring tea of all in my opinion is hawthorn blossom, the very Queen of May herself. Read more about hawthorn blossom here.

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Hawthorn blossom

I have also written a post on harvesting spring greens in this issue of the Mother magazine.

Wishing you all a joyous Beltane and a marvellous May Day!

 

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Beauty is a Doorway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of my first attempts at botanical illustration – Viola odorata

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Summer Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring has arrived at last and with it some of the bright sunny days that we have felt so starved of recently. It seems like the garden has awoken almost overnight, with the herbs growing taller by the day, especially the angelica which I am starting to suspect is actually a magic beanstalk in disguise.

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Valerian

Rose

Rose

Angelica

Angelica

Oregano

Oregano

Catmint

Catmint

Wormwood

Wormwood

In the fields, woods and hedgerows everything is bursting into life. Down the lane from our house, the blackthorn has only just begun flowering, the latest I have ever known it. Blackthorn is famous for the fact that its blossom comes out before its leaves (which makes it easy to differentiate from hawthorn which has leaves before flowers). It was interesting to note that, being so late blooming this year, the leaves were coming out simultaneously in many places.

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Ash is another tree that flowers before it’s leaves come out. At this time of year its characteristic black buds start to open, become greener and burst into somewhat inconspicuous, yet beautiful, flowers.

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Newly opened bramble leaves have an almost autumnal hue, standing out in the sunlight against the verdant spring greens.

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Daffodils, dandelions, ground ivy and comfrey are all in flower in the banks and hedgerows.

Ground Ivy

Ground Ivy

Comfrey

Comfrey

New life has begun for us in other ways too. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will probably have noticed that my posts have been a little more intermittent of late and this is mostly due to our own new arrival, a bonny baby boy, born last month and filling much of my time and my thoughts. So if I am sometimes slow to respond to comments or a little sporadic with my posting I hope you will be patient with me. I will be back in a couple of days however to share some tips on teas for supporting breastfeeding.

Until then I hope you are all enjoying the seasons as they find you in your part of the world.

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Betwixt and Between

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There is still a part of me, trained by children’s nature books and the weight of expectation, that believes the seasons will progress in a fairly linear fashion, from winter to spring, onto summer and autumn.

I’m not sure why this would be, as every year seems to follow it’s own rhythm which has little to do with our imaginings of glorious sunshine in summer, sparkling snow in winter and the soft sun and showers of spring.

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Spring nettles and snow

This year has been no exception as we have lurched from snow and frozen winds to bright sun, and back again, within the space of a few short weeks. Somewhere between the chills of winter and the energising opening up of Spring we find ourselves out foraging one day and snuggled up by the fire the next.

Though the trees are mostly still bare-branched and winter sleepy, you can almost feel the sap rising when you place your hand or face to their rough bark. The lack of leaves at this time of year enables the light to fall undisturbed to the woodland floor and here begins the spring growth, working it’s way from the earth skywards as buds and new leaves begin slowly to appear.

No matter what the weather is doing, this time of year always feels so full of magic and potential, as somewhere betwixt and between the holding of winter and the full thrum of spring, we sway, waiting for new life to begin.

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Clematis – or Old Man’s Beard

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Sun drenched crocus

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When the gorse is in flower, kissing is in season.

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Young shoots of wild garlic made for a delicious pesto with hazelnuts and walnuts.

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Beautiful Eder, bursting into leaf.

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Nettle glow

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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After a very wet summer and autumn and a similar start to this year, everything is feeling decidedly damp. Our snow melted after a couple of days and it seemed that was the only taste of real winter we have had. Now everything has returned to the general dampness that has characterised most of the last year, a perpetual grey autumn leading on to a somewhat murky spring. The path from our house hasn’t dried out in months, the few bright days we have had not being enough to combat the effect of months of wet!

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Whilst it may sound like an obvious point to make, the environment and weather patterns outside our door play a vital role in the patterns of health and disharmony that we experience at any given time. So it’s little wonder than this year has been especially prolific in damp, phlegmy colds, chesty coughs and stuffy noses. The milder temperatures also allow bacteria to thrive and the general feeling of stagnation that comes from a water logged environment contributes to stagnation in our own bodies. So many people I have spoken to this winter have had colds and coughs that have hung on stubbornly for longer than usual and, even after they are feeling much better, there has still been some lingering phlegmy-ness!

While mucus is a natural and important part of our bodies, lining and protecting delicate membranes, phlegm is essentially the mucus of the respiratory passages gone bad! Whilst a balanced amount of mucus is essential to health, phlegm is often thicker, stickier and more related to states of disease or disharmony. Often when there is infection, the body will produce more mucus to help cleanse out the membranes but this can become congested or stuck leaving us with blocked passages along with a general sense of tiredness and malaise.

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Fog bank rolling over the escarpment

In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) conditions of ‘phlegm’ often arise from excess ‘damp’, but whereas damp is thin and watery, phlegm will be thick, sticky and cause obstructions. There will usually be a more obvious thick coating on the tongue along with other signs of congestion. Phlegm can also cause a whole host of other symptoms from dizziness and swellings to palpitations and a feeling of detachment. Dietary measures are often recommended to combat excess damp or phlegm including reducing or eliminating damp causing foods like dairy, bananas, pork, wheat products, beer and sugary foods. Foods to add in often involve root vegetables, garlic and onion, warming spices and teas of orange or lemon peel.

In Ayurvedic medicine phlegm would be seen as a disorder of kapha and treated with warming, drying herbs and lifestyle advice, as it would in Western energetics where the appropriate term, ‘phlegmatic’ sums up the constitution that is prone to an excess of the humour ‘phlegm’.

Depending on the nature of the client and their disharmony, there would be a few herbal categories that we would want to consider when treating people with excessive phlegm including mucus membrane tonics, immune tonics, expectorants, anti-catarrhals and possibly diaphoretics.

Firstly, if possible we would want to think about eliminating causes. This is relatively easy if they are dietary but much harder if they are environmental (a nice long holiday perhaps?). Then we would generally think about treating symptoms with a mix of herbs. Bearing in mind that everyone is different and each person’s unique symptoms and constitution must be considered, here is a list of a few herbal helpers that you may find useful when phlegmy-ness strikes.

Warming spices and aromatics: For many problems involving phlegm, these will be our first herbs of choice. Most warming spices will also have a slightly drying quality and many of the best ones can already be found in your kitchen cupboard such as ginger, cayenne, cinnamon and cardamom. Regular doses of these as tea or tincture will help to warm your whole body which will thin mucus and enable it to be expelled more easily. You can also add them to foods- think of how your nose runs after a spicy curry!

Aromatics will open up the channels and move stagnation and some are still harvestable over the winter months, even though they may not be at their peak in terms of taste or constituents. In particular I have been using rosemary and thyme from the garden this winter to add to foods or to make simple teas that warm body and mind and disperse congestion. Among the most useful of the aromatic herbs for phlegmy coughs is elecampane, Inula helenium, which has a wonderful combination of warming stimulating essential oils and soothing relaxing mucilage.

Mucus membrane tonics: In this category, goldenseal reigns supreme for treating the sinuses, however it is not a native herb and is highly endangered in the wild. Luckily there are some who are trying to grow it in this country. If you do use goldenseal, make sure you always buy from reputable suppliers who are making efforts to protect this valuable herbal ally. Elecampane is once again a very valuable asset for the lungs, as is hyssop, another wonderful aromatic with expectorant, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.

Anti-catarrhals: These include elecampane, aniseed and goldenseal as well as goldenrod, eyebright and elderflower. Elecampane and aniseed are wonderful where phlegm has settled in the lungs whilst the others are more helpful for upper respiratory congestion and sinusitis.

Immune stimulants and anti-microbials: These herbs can help stop infection from occurring and turning a stuffy nose into a full blown sinus infection. Echinacea root is wonderfully useful as an immune stimulant in general but I find it particularly useful where problems of the upper respiratory tract are involved – you can often feel a good extract tingling all through your sinuses. Once again goldenseal is especially helpful being highly anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant. Garlic and onion are also very valuable allies, lots of chopped, raw garlic sprinkled on food is wonderfully anti-microbial and very warming.

As always if you are unsure of anything or have pre-existing health concerns it is wise to consult a local herbalist. Bearing that in  mind, I hope this has given you a few ideas for how to help yourself feel bright and well during these dark, damp days.

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When The Snow Came

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Snow came to our corner of the world on Friday, bringing with it that childlike sense of wonder and awe that never seems to diminish with the passing years.

There is nothing like a covering of snow to make us see the world afresh, as if, for those few brief days, it really was the blank slate it appeared to be and and we could create anything we dreamed of when the ice melted away.

The sight of snow-dusted seed heads of monarda, motherwort and lovage made me glad I have been lazy with tidying up the garden this winter.

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The mild winter so far has meant plenty of new growth appearing too, seen here on rose and ivy and the young nettles out in the lane.

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The colours of tree branches make for beautiful contrasts with the powdery snow, the blackness of ash buds and vibrant green lichen on the willow.

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My favourite tree on snowy days is the oak however. It’s sinewy branches trace dark, dancing patterns across the sky as it stands, like a great guardian, in a white washed world.

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One of my favourite oaks stands in the field in front of our house. This is how it looked on Friday as the first snow began to fall:

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And only two days previously, last Wednesday, bathed in low winter sun:

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I hope that if you too are in a part of the world with snow, you are keeping safe and warm.

I’ll be back soon with a post on using herbs to help banish winter phlegmy-ness!

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