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Archive for the ‘Spring’ Category

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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Spring is the perfect time for getting up close and personal with nature. Unlike later in the year when gardens and hedgerows are adorned with blossoms, bright flowers and expanses of green, in early spring you have to really look to spot all the small beginnings of beauty, all the tiny possibilities emerging from seemingly dried out twigs and all the unfurlings of potential and change.

First forget-me-not opening

It’s the perfect time for going exploring with a magnifying glass and gaining a more intimate view of all the wonders of spring. I have two that I recommend, the first is an average magnifier, bought from an art shop for about £1.50 and useful for getting an overview of leaves, buds and insects. The second is called a loupe and is used by jewellers for closely examining gem stones. You have to get really close when using a loupe but it’s great for examining little details of a plant like veins, hairs on stems or stamens.

Magnifying glass and loupe.

On a pleasantly warm spring day you can pass hours like this and the rewards are as innumerable as the marvels themselves. It’s a wonderful activity to involve children in and such an inspiring way of appreciating a whole new dimension of the natural world. You can start to connect with things as if a much smaller creature and your imagination is fed by this new way of looking. Each tiny hair on the gooseberry leaves becomes defined…

Gooseberry leaves unfolding

Each bud so vibrant and alive in its becoming. Someone else was also appreciating this one.

New buds on the fig

Each new leaf displays its uniqueness. Veins, ridges, hairs, colour variations all become dramatic parts of a landscape when viewed so intensely.

Bright spring growth of Wood Betony

Tiny seedlings become like little trees.

And there is enough to wonder at in a single bud to keep you busy all morning.

Downy buds on the blueberry

Looking closely at a leaf displays its many forms and colours. What first appears to be just red and green also has shades of yellows and purples, browns and blues.

Young rose leaf

Like the Frech soldier and writer Xavier de Maistre, who, in 1794, wrote the quirkily charming Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage around my bedroom) in which he explored the confines of his own room then wrote about it as if it were a great travel epic, we too can become strangers in a familiar land.

You can engage in this voyage even if you don’t have a garden of your own, as simply looking at a few houseplants or a window box can become a great adventure of discovery. Failing even that you can plot adventures through the un-explored territory of your fridge’s vegetable compartment. How marvellous is this cabbage? How worthy of wonder and gratitude.

When we start to look closer, appreciate the small and the overlooked, then we can never be bored, never uninspired and never ungrateful again.

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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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This spring the hills around my home have been literally carpeted with delightful and cheery cowslips. Usually I am very restrained in my cowslip harvest, gathering just a few flowers here and there for adding to tea blends, because this beautiful wild flower is not as abundant as once it was and needs protecting. If you had been out walking on this part of the South Downs recently however, you might be forgiven for thinking cowslips were as common as nettles.

Also known as Heaven’s Keys or Fairy Cup, Primula officinalis/ veris, is a wonderful soothing nervine herb with sedative and anti-spasmodic properties. The flowers contain flavonoids which are anti-inlammatory and for the best medicinal action should be collected without any of the green parts. I usually dry the whole head though as I am only really after a nice soothing addition to my teas.

Cowslip makes a lovely tea with chamomile for soothing anxiety and irritation and is ideal drunk before bed for it’s sedative and sleep enhancing properties. I wrote another post about the benefits of cowslip this time last year which you can read here.

The roots contain saponins which make them useful as a stimulating expectorant in coughs and bronchitis though care must be taken as large doses could cause vomiting. I have never worked with the roots before so would be interested to hear from anyone who has. I would caution against collecting cowslip roots from the wild however in order to preserve the plants as much as possible.

The main way I use cowslip  flowers personally is in tea blends. It combines nicely with chamomile, oatstraw and other relaxing herbs. We have been enjoying an infusion of cowslip, rose and lemon verbena before bed which is both delicious and relaxing.

I also really like cowslip infused in oil for cosmetic use. This one was infused on a sunny windowsill for 10 days, plenty of time for delicate flowers like these. I strained it this evening and will be whipping it up into a batch of face cream along with cowslip infusion later in the week.

I mentioned in my post last year that Culpepper wrote of cowslips affiliation for the complexion saying ‘Our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds to beauty or at least restores it when lost.’ Mrs Grieve also shares this wonderful quote by Turner in her Modern Herbal, ‘Some weomen we find, sprinkle ye floures of cowslip wt whyte wine and after still it and wash their faces wt that water to drive wrinkles away and to make them fayre in the eyes of the worlde rather than in the eyes of God, Whom they are not afrayd to offend.’

Cowslip wine is a country favourite which Maria Treben recommends for strengthening the heart and nervous system. This lovely image of making cowslip wine is from Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes by Beatrix Potter and is available here.

In my recent post on spring flowers I quoted Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and this time I shall leave you with these lovely lines from A Midsummer Night’ Dream, the words of a young fairy in conversation with that mischievous rogue Puck.

And I serve the Fairy Queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their coats spots you’ll see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours.
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

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The Spring blooms are looking utterly resplendent this year, aglow in the bright sunshine and adorning every woodland and waste ground with their wild beauty.

Daises and dandelions make a happy trio.

Many things like the woodland bluebells have arrived earlier than usual with the warm weather.

They look particularly beautiful with the white blooms of stitchwort.

The sweet violets have all gone now but dog violets can still be seen. Unlike the sweet violet these have no taste so are not as valuable for medicine but are still deeply healing for their mucilaginous and clearing properties and for their faery like beauty.

Another flower long associated with the faery folk is cowslip, in fact they are thought to lead the way to the fairy realm. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel tells us  “Where the bee sucks there suck I, In the cowslip’s bell I lie, There I crouch when owls do cry, On the bat’s back I do fly.”

Cowslip is a useful anti-spasmodic and helpful for nervous tension though be careful if you decide to harvest it from the wild as it is becoming endangered.

Lungwort and speedwell are another welcome sight. There are many different species of speedwell, below are the common field speedwell and the tiny but perfectly formed ivy leaved speedwell.

Lungwort – Pulmonaria officinalis

Field speedwell.

Ivy leaved speedwell.

Forget-me-nots are one of my favourite sights at this time of year and the similarly flowered green alkanet which, though very invasive, is still lovely to see in great stands by the side of the road.

Forget-me-not. How could we?

Green Alkanet 

Finally all the dead nettles, or archangels as thy are attractively known, are out and looking lovely as ever. The only one I know that is used medicinally is the white dead nettle though Culpepper says all three have a beneficial action as astringents in staunching bleeding. I will report more on this after I’ve done a bit of research!

White Archangel.

Yellow Archangel.

Red (sometimes called purple) Archangel.

I hope the Spring flowers are brightening your day too.

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In spite, or perhaps because of, it’s ubiquity at this time of year, Ground Ivy is a herb that has fallen out of fashion in these modern times when the more exotic a herb is, the greater its value is esteemed to be. Many of the older herbals speak highly of it however and it certainly earned its place in folk medicine for the treatment of a variety of ailments. Glechoma hederacea, as is its official title, was also known as ale-hoof due to its uses in brewing ale, or gill-go-by-the-ground, from the French, guiller, to ferment.

Gerard, writing in the late sixteenth century, described it thus, “Ground Ivy is a low or base herb; it creeps and spreads along the ground hither and thither, all about, with many stalks of uncertain length, slender, and like those of the Vine, something cornered and something reddish.” He classed it as hot and dry and recommended its use primarily for tinnitus, eye problems and as a cleansing agent. He gives us this lovely description of a remedy for the eyes, “Ground Ivy, Celandine and Daisies, of each a like quantity, stamped and strained, and a little sugar and Rose water put thereto, and dropped with a feather into the eyes, takes away all manner of inflammation, spots, webs, itch, smarting, or any grief whatsoever in the eyes.”

Here in the South Downs, as in much of the UK, it certainly grows ‘hither and thither’ and is looking beautiful at this time of year with its classic mint family hooded flowers adorning every roadside and path. April/ May is the best time to harvest the areal parts whilst it is in full flower and highly aromatic. The taste is very pungent, hence why it is generally considered heating and drying, though other herbalists have called it cooling, primarily due to its bitter and cleansing properties. Hilda Leyel informs us that it was once so popular and so widely on offer as a blood tonic “that it was one of the London street cries.” She also recommends it for tinnitus as well as for coughs and colds.

Hildegard von Bingen believed that it removed bad humours from the head which closely relates to its most common use today. Colds, catarrh, sinusitis and bronchial congestion are all conditions currently still treated with Ground Ivy. It is a mild expectorant with anti-catarrhal and anti-inflammatory qualities making it useful in some cases of hay fever. It contains many of the constituents common in other Lamiaceae, or mint family, plants such volatile oils and triterpenes which are thought to be anti-inflammatory. Its astringent and anti-inflammatory properties might also help to explain why it was found to be useful for eye problems and its anti-catarrahal nature could explain why it helped certain cases of tinnitus, probably those where congestion was a factor.

Ground Ivy also has a good reputation as a valuable tonic for the kidneys and bladder. Bartram says it is supportive to primary treatment in kidney disease and has been used with success for cancer of the bladder, though he gives no more information than this. It certainly has diuretic properties and has been used in the past to treat cystitis. Mrs Grieves writes, “As a medicine useful in pulmonary complaints, where a tonic for the kidneys is required, it would appear to possess peculiar suitability, and is well adapted to all kidney complaints.” This is particularly interesting as in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Iridology there can be an important link between these organs. In TCM the Lungs are said to direct Qi  from the breath down to the Kidneys which then hold the Qi.  If the Kidneys are compromised and unable to fulfil this function properly it will result in chest congestion and trouble breathing.  Ground Ivy therefore sounds like an ideal herb in such a case.

Finally, many herbalists have recommended its use as an astringent and anti-inflammatory for the G.I. tract where it tones and soothes in cases of gastritis, haemorrhoids, IBS and diarrhoea.

A tincture can easily be made via the folk method which involves filling a jar with freshly picked and chopped plants- leaves and flowers- then covering in vodka and leaving to steep for a fortnight before straining out the plant material.

References:
John Gerard – Gerard’s Herbal
Mrs C.F. Leyel – Herbal Delights
Mrs Grieve – A Modern Herbal
Thomas Bartram – Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
Gabrielle Hatfeild – Hatfield’s Herbal
Tobyn, Denham and Whitelegg – The Western Herbal Tradition

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This post is my offering for the April Blog Party, hosted by Leslie at Comfrey Cottages on the topic of Spring Foraging, Wildcrafting and Gardening. Check her blog on the 20th to see the links to the other posts.

Invasive they may be, but many of the plants that take over the hedgerows and waste ground, not to mention our gardens, at this time of year are also exceptionally useful, full of health giving properties and, in some cases, also delicious.

At the moment I’m particularly enjoying liberally lacing my salads with the lovely Jack-By-The-Hedge, Alliaria petiolata, also known as garlic mustard because of it’s distinctive taste of, yes you guessed it, garlic and mustard.

According to ‘wildman’ Steve Brill, “This despised invasive plant is actually one of the best and most nutritious common wild foods.”

Mrs Grieve writes “The leaves used to be taken internally as a sudorific and deobstruent, and externally were applied antiseptically in gangrenes and ulcers. The juice of the leaves taken alone or boiled into a syrup with honey is found serviceable in dropsy. Country people at one time used the plant in sauces, with bread and butter, salted meat and with lettuce in salads, hence it acquired also the name of Sauce Alone. The herb, when eaten as a salad, warms the stomach and strengthens the digestive faculties.”

Most pungent herbs have an affinity for the digestive system as they are heating, thus stoking the digestive fires and promoting flow of digestive juices. They also help to thin mucus which is important in many spring ailments such as hay fever and sinus congestion.

The photos above were taken a week ago but now all the plants except those in deepest shade have begun to bloom. The flowers are also edible and look lovely sprinkled on salads, soups or other dishes.

Apart from sliced finely in salads and grain dishes like quinoa or millet, I have used garlic mustard to make an infused vinegar and as part of my Spring tonic formula, see below. Steve Brill also uses the root which he says has a horseradish flavour, though this is something I have yet to try.

Garlic Mustard infused vinegar and Spring tonic.

The idea for this Spring tonic came from my friend Therri who is full of inventive herbal inspirations. She makes hers from nettles, ramsons and ground ivy, all found growing together and then tinctured together to make a base formulas for people suffering from spring allergies and the like.

Just by my house is a little copse where cleavers, nettles, ground ivy and garlic mustard all grow up together so I decided these four would make the base for my own Spring tonic blend. I don’t usually tincture things together, preferring to do them separately then blend where appropriate. In this case however part of the magic is in the togetherness, using a community of spring plants that grow close by where you live or practice will be particuarly beneficial for people of that area.

A community of Spring tonics; nettles, cleavers, ground ivy and garlic mustard.

Another plant that I have been eating this spring is ground elder, though possibly with something more akin to grim determination than actual enjoyment. I must confess I don’t find it as delicious as some of the other wild greens around at this time of year but, in small quantities, it can be quite palatable, especially blended in soups. It’s also good as a cooked green and theres a nice recipe on Eat Weeds for stir fried ground elder and tempeh which you can read here. I also came across a ground elder and vanilla muffin recipe here, will wonders never cease?!

The reason I am persevering with this particular wild edible is simple, my garden is riddled with it.

When my Dad, a gardener by trade, came to visit soon after we moved in last year, he took one look at it and proclaimed, “you’re going to have to use Round-up on that.” “No!” I cried, “surely I can manage it organically.” He laughed.

So you see, at stake here is not only the organic status of my garden but also my pride.

Ground elder was originally introduced to the UK by the Romans, and much like its benefactors, it proceeded to take over and has proved even harder to be rid of. They used it as a salad crop and it was said to help gout and arthritis too. Though I have been assured that its not really strong enough to be of much use medicinally, I can imagine that regular eating of the plant would work as a preventative, only because it’s pungent taste is not dissimilar to a strong parsley or celery seed, both of which have been used to treat similar conditions. Perhaps I will try a little bit of tincture just to experiment and I am sure it would make a nice infused vinegar.

It seems to me that there are very few invasive weeds that do not have some use or other, many in fact being the most useful plants we have. And you know what they say… if you can beat ‘em, eat ‘em.

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Lesser Celandine or pilewort, as it more commonly known, grows freely in woodlands and other moist, shaded places and brightens the way whenever you pass it by. It’s Latin name, Ranunculus ficaria, refers to the resemblance of its tubers to figs and an old common name for it was figwort (not to be confused with the plant more commonly  known as Figwort, Scrophularia nodosa). Piles, or haemorrhoids, for which the plants got its modern common name, also used to be known as figs, so this usage for our pretty spring friend is nothing new.

In Mrs Grieve’s classic, A Modern Herbal, she tells us, “Wordsworth, whose favourite flower this was (in recognition of which the blossoms are carved on his tomb), fancifully suggests that the painter who first tried to picture the rising sun, must have taken the idea of the spreading pointed rays from the Celandine’s ‘glittering countenance.’ “

It is true that this little flower arrives early in the spring, appearing almost like a symbol of hope for the warmer days to come.

Used mainly to treat non-bleeding haemorrhoids and a sore or itchy anal area, it is oft quoted that  the main indication for this plant came about from the doctrine of signatures as its bulbous tubers are not dissimilar to the appearance of piles. Many years of use however, as well as a modern understanding of its constituents, back up this traditional insight. Pilewort contains tannins and saponins and is both astringent and demulcent, so toning and soothing to inflamed or irritated membranes.

In the past an infusion of pilewort was commonly taken internally as well the the ointment applied topically but these days it is mostly the ointment that is favoured.

Bartram recommends making an ointment by macerating one part whole fresh plant whilst in bloom to three parts of benzoinated lard. I stuck to making an infused vegetable oil via the heat method.

After harvesting the whole plant – roots, leaves and flowers – I washed them thoroughly to get rid of the tenacious clay soil that stuck between each nodule and then spread them out to dry off in the dehydrator for a couple of hours. If you don’t have a dehydrator then just blot them dry as best you can and leave to wilt slightly overnight. This reduces the water content of your herb and helps prevent rancidity. I then infused the herbs in sunflower oil in a bain marie for several hours on a low heat. You can read my detailed instructions on how to make an infused oil here.

Many people combine the infused oil with horse chestnut oil or tincture to make a nice astringent ointment but, as I have none at present, I came up with this alternative.

Fig Ointment:

40ml pilewort infused oil
20ml plantain infused oil (just use extra pilewort if you have no plantain oil).
20 ml calendula infused oil
10g beeswax
5ml self heal tincture
5ml witch hazel
10 drops lavender essential oil
10 drops geranium essential oil

Melt the beeswax in a bain marie and add the infused oils, stirring until fully mixed. Add in the tinctures and witch hazel and whisk or blend with a hand blender until fully incorporated. Stir in essential oils and leave to set.

Apply liberally several times a day to affected area.

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Spring is getting into full swing here in the South East and the time for indulging in copious bowls of nettle soup is upon us once more. Each year I end up with a new favourite variation on this time honoured classic of wild food cuisine and this year I’ve managed the impossible. I’ve come up with a recipe that my husband not only tolerates, but actually enjoys too.

Creamy Nettle and Broccoli Soup with Wild Garlic Oil:

Ingredients-
1 colander full of freshly picked and washed nettle tops
1 head broccoli
1 tin of cannellini beans
1 large onion or 3 shallots
3 cloves of garlic
Tablespoon olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice
stock and seasoning to taste
Wild garlic oil (and leaves if available) to garnish

This is such a quick and simple soup but the texture and flavours make it feel both nourishing and fulfilling. Begin by lightly frying the onion and garlic in the olive oil until softened but not brown. Add the stock, cannellini beans (pre-cooked) and broccoli to the pan and cook until broccoli is tender. Add the nettle tops and a squeeze of lemon and cook for a few minutes until the nettles are wilted and soft. Add seasoning to taste and blend to a thick and creamy consistency. Garnish with a drizzle of wild garlic oil and, if available, some freshly chopped wild garlic leaves and violet flowers.

To make the wild garlic oil you simply lightly pack your blender with freshly picked wild garlic leaves and add somewhere in the region of 250ml virgin olive oil. Blend until you have an almost smooth vibrant green oil. This will last a couple of weeks in the fridge and can be added to soups, salad dressings or smeared on crackers. I always add it at the end though as wild garlic looses much of its flavour when cooked.

You can read my last year’s nettle soup recipes here and my recipe for wild garlic pesto here.

I hope  those of you in the Northern hemisphere are enjoying your spring bounties too.

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There is a small area of woodland near my house which is filled with violets at this time of year. If you stumble on them unawares they will quite take your breath away. Sometimes the smell is barely detectable but when the sun is shining and the breezes blow, it is utterly divine. I have harvested twice from this patch over the last couple of weeks in order to make an infused honey, an infused oil and a flower remedy. Coming home with a harvest of violet flowers is like carrying a bag of precious jewels, truly a privilege. Unless they continue to bloom so prolifically, I will seek another patch to harvest for a tincture as it’s so important to remember not to over harvest one area.

The sweet violet flowers we know and love are what is known in botany as chasmogamous flowers, those that display their stamens and style for  insect pollination, but many species of viola also produce tiny self pollinating flowers later in the year which are known as cleistogamous. This means that we can be a bit freer with our harvest than we might otherwise be but we should still remember that insects need the flowers for an early source of nectar and therefore not take too many. Also, a beautiful patch of wild violets is enjoyed by many passers by and its not fair to strip it bare.

As a herbal remedy Violet is used most often for it’s soothing, demulcent properties found in the leaf and flower. Being cool and moist they are particularly good for conditions where there is heat such as inflammation and irritated coughs. Culpepper wrote, “A drachm weight of the dried leaves or flowers of Violets, but the leaves more strongly, doth purge the body of choleric humours and assuageth the heat if taken in a draught of wine or other drink.”

Three species are used medicinally, Viola odorata, V. tricolour (the wild pansy) and V. yezoensis (the chinese violet).  The wild dog violet is one of the most common violets found in the UK but it lacks scent, unlike the odorata, though it is still mucilaginous.

Violets are also gently cleansing and decongestant and can be used safely for helping clear the chest and sinuses. Combined with their anti-inflammatory effects and their antioxidant content, this makes them particularly helpful for allergies. You can read Danielle’s fantastic post about treating seasonal allergies here.

They are also specific for a sluggish lymphatic system and make a very valuable spring tonic herb for getting everything moving again after a stagnant winter. This makes them helpful for breast swellings and mastitis and many sources recommend them for cancer treatment. Used as a poultice and taken internally as tea or tincture they were a traditional remedy for breast cancer. I think they resonate with this area of the body particularly as they are, to me, a remedy of the heart. It is with a slight sense of shame that I realise I left them out of my herbal hugs post back in January as they are certainly deeply comforting and loving in their energy. In fact Violets were used by the ancient Greeks in potions for love and fertility.

I also like to use violet as a skin remedy. Both the odorata and the tricolor, better known as heartsease, which flowers a little later, are very valuable in oils or washes for a variety of skin ailments. Their cooling, soothing and protective properties can be used on both dry and weeping eczema as well as acne and irritated, itchy skins. The leaves and flowers contain volatile oils and saponins both of which are extracted well in an infused oil which can then be made in to a lovely cream. I like mine combined with chickweed, speedwell or lavender infused oils depending on the person it is for. For acne treatment I would use it as a wash rather than an oil based preparation.

The flowers and leaves are a very gentle laxative and are often given to children in syrup form to ease their bowels. The root however is a strong laxative and purgative and in high doses will cause vomiting, so be wary.

Also be sure not to use the house plant, African violet, which is poisonous!

The flower remedy is a particularly special preparation which holds many great lessons for us. It is for those who have a very pure vision of the way they feel the world should be. It is a remedy of the imagination, for promoting and holding a clear and positive vision and returning us to a sense of child-like joy and wonder that can heal despondency and the fatigue caused by living in a challenging world.  The sweet violet helps us stay centred in the place where love and imagination has the power to manifest physically and create a better world as a result.

The upper petals are open to give and receive but the perfect gold centre is protected, so the visions held cannot be compromised by the challenges of this world. The fine veins running through the petals are like nerves, indicating the extreme sensitivity of the violet personality. Their heads seem to hang heavy indicating how weighed down these folk can feel by the suffering they see around them. They grow close to the ground indicating how the remedy can help in grounding our dreaming into the here and now and stabilising us when times are tough. The large heart shaped leaves unfurl from the centre enabling us to open our hearts to all life’s experiences whilst remaining equanimous, grounded and free.

A perfect remedy for our troubled times, the violet is one of my favourite flowers.

It was truly a blessing to have such a bright sunny morning for making my flower essence. I’ve spoken to flower remedy makers who do theirs whatever the weather but I find there’s nothing like sunshine to result in a wonderfully energised remedy. You can read my post on how to make your own flower remedies here.

Violet infused honey is such a treat and you can leave the flowers in to add a decorative and delicious touch to your food. It has many of the same properties as the syrup but is simpler and better for those who seek the medicinal benefits of honey rather than using sugar. An added advantage is that you don’t have to heat the flowers or honey at all so none of the antioxidants or vital enzymes will be destroyed. I had thought I wouldn’t bother at all with a syrup this year but Sarah Head posted such an enticing recipe here which involves a magical colour change, so I might have to do a small batch after all!

To make the honey just fill a jar with violet flowers, cover with a reasonably runny raw honey and stir with a chop stick. let infuse for a fortnight or so and then enjoy. The flowers tend to float to the top so just turn the jar or give it a stir now and again to ensure everything is well mixed.

The violets have also been gracing my food regularly over the past couple of weeks and I find nothing more cheering than their beautiful colour mixed here with the leafy greens of my lunch which consisted of quinoa, walnuts. sunflower seeds, cleavers, tender new hawthorn leaves, viola flowers and lemon juice.  It was a delight for all my senses.

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