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Archive for the ‘Teas’ Category

‘Tis the season to be jolly, though it can be a challenge to bear this in mind when trailing round the shops, delirious from the sensory overload and fluorescent lighting and sore from having your feet run over by stressed out mums with hi-tech, double-decker buggies balancing 10 shopping bags off each handle. Sometimes it’s hard to remember quite what you’re supposed to be doing, or even your own name. I have mostly managed to avoid this particular stressor by making all my presents or buying them on line but still this time of year is inevitably hectic. So it was a wise choice by Brigitte to give this month’s blog party the title of “No Time For Stress.’ Everyone’s submissions will be posted on her blog on the 20th so do make sure you take a few moments to make yourself a cup of relaxing herbal tea and peruse the pearls of wisdom that my fellow herby bloggers will undoubtedly share.

Stress can be defined as the body’s response to the demands life places on us. It can be both positive or negative as any heightened emotional state from euphoria to despair can cause stress to the body and mind. This time of year can include a lot of potential stressors, from the excitement of social gatherings and seeing relatives, to many people’s increased intake of alcohol and sugary or rich foods, to the pressure of buying presents and creating the perfect atmosphere or the increased stress placed on the immune system by cold weather and germs.

I wanted to share a few of the ways that I find plant medicine helpful in calming stress and anxiety, at any time of year, and bringing balance to the over-adrenalised jittery feeling that results when my to-do list begins to extend too far down the page.

Calming Tea Blends:

Danielle has written a list of some lovely relaxing herbs for teas in her post for the blog party which you can read here and, like her, making a nice cuppa is my default response to anything even remotely stressful. I thought I’d share some of my favourite tea blends with you here, some of which I have also made up as little extra presents for people.

Many herbs that help to relax us are considered cooling in nature. This doesn’t necessarily mean they make you feel cold but that they calm and cool body processes rather than exciting them. Still it can be useful to add some more warmth to our teas at this time of year so each of these blend contains at least one warming herb or spice to balance the cooler ones.

Lavender, Vanilla and Oatstraw – This my evening time tea of choice at the moment and my husband is also a big fan. It’s calming, comforting, restorative and helps to pacify the restless mind. I add a teaspoon each of oatstraw and lavender to the pot along with half a vanilla bean, finely chopped.

Chamomile, Rose and Vanilla – This makes a lovely soothing after dinner tea and is delightfully fragrant and aromatic helping to disperse tension and anxiety.

Tilia, Oatsraw, Rose and Cinnamon – A little more spicy, this tea is great at work or during a busy afternoon as the calming herbs are somewhat balanced by the warmth and revitalising action of the cinnamon.

Orange peel, Cardamom and Rose – Another lovely balancing brew, I adore this combination of flavours which is like a big loving hug.

Lemon Balm and Rosemary –  A perfect balance of heart lifting herbs, I have written about this tea before… more than once me thinks!

Chamomile, Tilia and Oatsraw –  A very gentle tea to aid a peaceful nights sleep. More powerful herbs can be useful if insomnia is a problem but generally these would need to be selected with the individual’s constitution in mind.

Footbaths and Massage:

I’ve been meaning to write about the magic that are footbaths since I first started this blog last winter but I thought they’d be worth a mention here for their wonderful ability to calm and ground the nervous system and promote better circulation and a good night’s sleep. Most of us are far too ‘in our heads’ at this time of year and there’s nothing like payng attention to your feet to bring you back down to earth. I particularly like a strong infusion of Tilia, lavender and chamomile in a footbath. Great for children and adults alike, you absorb the healing qualities of the herbs through the soles of the feet and also get to breathe in the wonderful, calming aromas of these volatile oil rich plants. Followed up with a foot massage of lavender or chamomile infused oil you are almost guaranteed to have forgotten your cares and enjoy a deep and restorative night’s sleep.

Herbal Tinctures:

Tinctures are really best formulated on an individual basis as different herbs will have an affinity with different people. However I do like to make a very general Autumn/Winter Tonic with seasonal plants from my local area. This year it includes elderberry, hawthorn berry, rose hips and nettle seeds, all collected within a few meters of my garden gate. This medicine helps guard against winter stresses by nourishing my immune system, adrenals and cardiovascular system, all of which come under pressure at this time of year. The formula is also packed with antioxidants from the berries which help to protect every cell of the body. It also connects me to the land in which I live, bringing with it the subtle medicine of inter-dependence and belonging.

Flower Remedies;

Flower remedies can be wonderful allies in helping us to regain our sense of centre. Again they are best chosen with an individual in mind  but the following remedies from the Bach system are particularly useful in times of stress.
White Chestnut – When there is excessive mental chatter or preoccupation with certain worries that get in the way of relaxation.
Aspen – For vague, non-specific fears of unknown origin or anxiety with a sense of apprehension or foreboding.
Cherry Plum – For when you’ve reached the end of your tether and fear mental collapse or loss of control.
Elm – For normally capable people who are overwhelmed with responsibility.
Impatiens – For impatience and stress with irritability.
Mimulus – For fear of ‘known things’ such as flying, spiders (or Christmas!).
Olive – For complete exhaustion and when everything becomes an effort.
Red Chestnut – For excessive concern with the well being of others.
Rock Rose – For states of extreme fear and panic attacks.
If in doubt Rescue Remedy, a blend of 5 remedies which is now widely available, is helpful in a huge range of stress related problems.

Essential Oils:

Lovely in baths or massage oils, there is a wide range of relaxing essential oils which can help with stress such as lavender, chamomile, rose, sandalwood, frankincense, bergamot, neroli, patchouli, benzoin, geranium and mandarin. I particularly like making up a 2% blend of my favourite relaxing oils in a carrier such as sweet almond oil and adding to a 10ml rollette bottle that I carry in my bag and roll onto my temples, collar bone, neck and wrists whenever I start feeling stressed. I make a different one each time but a blend of lavender, chamomile and frankincense is a particular favourite.

Hydrolats and Floral Waters:

I love adding a good swig of lavender, neroli, rose or lemon balm hydrolat to my water and sipping throughout the day to calm and centre my nervous system. Neroli is my absolute favourite though nothing feels as decadent as rose. I have been known to have them in a shot glass when the going gets really tough.

Nourishing Infusions:

Susun Weed style nourishing infusions are great at this time of year for adding extra vitamins and minerals to our diets and supporting our nervous systems. We use up many more nutrients in times of stress so it’s important that we replenish them regularly. I love oatstraw best for its affinity with the nerves. Look here for Susun’s instructions on how to make them.

Staying centred in yourself when the pressure is on can be a challenge. Sometimes the hardest thing can be actually taking the time out to have a relaxing foot bath, mix some calming teas or choose a flower remedy. But, as one of my teachers once said, ‘herbal medicine works, you just have to take it.’ Just as stress begets more stress, in ourselves and others, a moment’s relaxation creates the space for a deeper relaxation to occur.

Luckily for me I have a shining example in my three cats, who have made relaxation and comfort into an art form. Take a leaf out of their book and make sure you take time out this Christmas to chill!

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Rosemary is one of the first herbs I grew to love as a child as well as one of the first herbs I grew as a plant as an adult. My parents had a magnificent rosemary bush outside their bedroom window and though at that time I only knew it as a culinary herb, I always admired its vitality and endurance, qualities which this beautiful plant lends us in abundance when we start to work with her regularly. Despite being native to the Mediterranean it grows well here, given a sunny, freely draining soil and it particularly enjoys coastal areas, the first word of its botanical, Rosmarinus officinalis, means dew of the sea.

Beautiful Rosemary

In my mind rosemary is primarily a rejuvenating herb. It is famous for stimulating memory and concentration, it promotes hair growth when used internally or externally, it contains powerful antioxidants which protect the whole body from ageing, it strengthens capillaries, improves digestion and is thought to ignite the passions. According to Bankes, ‘Even to smell the scent of the leaves keeps one youngly.’

Best known as a warming circulatory stimulant, rosemary’s diffusive nature is lovely for getting the blood moving to the peripheries and hence is great for those with cold hands and feet like myself. It can be used internally as tincture or tea for this purpose or externally as an infused oil, bath or footbath herb or an essential oil rub. It can also be of benefit for those suffering from headaches where the cause is constriction in the muscles or the blood vessels supplying the head. Its ability to stimulate blood flow make it first rate in the treatment and prevention of chilblains, I especially like it combined with black pepper for this purpose.

It is helpful for the digestion in several ways. Being aromatic it helps to stimulate the appetite and its warming nature helps stoke the digestive fires, known as the ‘Agni’ in Ayurveda, helping people who suffer with poor assimilation, bloating, gas and undigested food in their stools. Being slightly bitter it’s also beneficial for the liver, a property more closely associated with cooling rather than warming herbs, however rosemary’s warmth helps move stuck energy, particularly in patterns where there is ‘heat’ in the liver but within a cold constitution and where there is also poor digestion.

Rosemary is also useful as a wash for minor wounds as it contains antimicrobial volatile oils and tannins, which help check bleeding.  According to Anne McIntyre, nurses used to brew rosemary tea as an antiseptic to sterilise instruments, clean the delivery room and protect both mother and child from infections.

Most will be able to tolerate it well as a tea in the winter months but care must be taken in summer or in tincture form for those with a hot constitution. It is lovely for those floaty, ungrounded, thin, cold and anxious types but a little care must also be taken where these qualities manifest in a person who also suffers from dryness (dry skin, dry cough, constipation etc) as rosemary is both warming and drying in its action. In these cases I would usually teem it with something more moistening. It is equally fabulous for people who are cold, damp, stodgy and overweight and who need a bit of a kick to get moving. It benefits many cold, damp conditions like a phlegmy cough, catarrh and blocked sinuses too.

For those hotter people it combines beautifully with lemon balm, especially where depression or low moods are a factor. Being a stimulating, solar herb rosemary can lift the spirits and encourage motivation and joie de vivre and being strengthening and grounding it helps dispel stress and anxiety.

Rosemary helps us fully embody who we are, lends us strength and endurance, both emotionally and physically, and helps us attain a clarity of mind and lightness of heart which many could benefit from in these stressful times.

A quick sketch and some dried rosemary from the garden.

I love rosemary in teas, my favourite being the rosemary and lemon balm combination which I drink regularly at this time of year and in early spring before the days have started warming and when my spirits need a lift. In the coldest months of winter I like my rosemary with orange peel and ginger and at the end of a long day I enjoy it with either chamomile or lemon verbena which makes a beautiful relaxing yet clarifying blend.

Rosemary infused oil is one of my favourites for tired aching muscles or joints. I make a lovely massage oil of rosemary, chamomile and St. John’s wort infused oils for back aches.

I love rosemary essential  oil too and use it in my aches and pains balm and in the bath with other suitable oils. I’m making some lovely bath oils for christmas presents this year which contain rosemary essential oil among other things. Pop back in a few days when I’ll be sharing the recipe in another post on herbal christmas presents for the November blog party hosted by Brigitte.

References:
The Complete Floral Healer – Anne McIntyre
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism – Matthew Wood
Medical Herbalism – David Hoffman

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I’m not sure if the rose hips are particularly lovely this year, or if it’s just that we now live in an area so full of wild roses that I’m spoiled for choice, but I seem to find myself exclaiming over their beauty every time I leave the house.

Rose hips are sweetest after the first frost but I usually pick some as soon as they are bright red, with no orangey colour left, and continue picking in small batches until they are finished.

 

Beautiful Rose hips

 

I don’t do a huge amount with rose hips I must say. I’ve added them to my hawthorn vinegar and a tincture and made a couple of batches of syrup so far and I love to add a few to decoctions and nettle nourishing infusions. A nourishing infusion is like a really strong tea of a particularly nourishing herb which is full of vitamins and minerals. The inimitable Susan Weed has written a lot about them and you can see how she does it over at her website here. I just add a few rose hips to the nettle at this time of year as the high vitamin C content helps with absorption of the iron that nettle is so rich in.

I don’t tend to make jellies and such,  just because the high sugar levels don’t particularly agree with me, but I make my rosehip syrup with raw honey using much the same method that I used for my elderberry syrup which I described here. This basically involves simmering the roughly chopped hips in enough water to cover for about half an hour, then straining through a jelly bag to get rid of all the pesky and irritating hairs. You can return the hips to the pan with fresh water once or twice more and get a lot more juice from them so don’t throw them away after the first go. When the liquid is cool I mix in about half the quantity of raw honey. You can add more, up to equal amounts to make it last longer but this can over power the delightful sweet and sour taste of the rose hips.

 

Plump and ripe

 

Another syrup I made this year used dates and a couple of fresh chillis from a plant on my windowsill to make a lovely warming, earthy and sweet treat that hasn’t lasted long at all in our house! I made it by simmering and straining the rose hips with the chillis as above, then making a paste from several fresh dates and a little of the rose hip juice over a low heat adding a little more juice at a time until it is all well mixed. At the end I added a little brandy to help preserve it as it wouldn’t keep long otherwise. This has definitely been my favourite rose hip recipe of the season!

 

Rose hips in late afternoon autumn sun

 

Rose hips are rich in Vitamin C and other antioxidants including flavonoids which have been shown in some studies to have anti-inflammatory properties. The flower of the rose is also known for its cooling and soothing properties when dealing with inflammatory conditions. These properties and other constituents like plant sterols also make rose hips beneficial for protecting the cardiovascular system.

All the more reason to enjoy some lovely rose hip syrup in our tea or any other way that takes your fancy.

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Brambles are one of those plants that display perfectly how the abundance and resilience of a particular species can make it beloved by some and loathed by others. Blackberries, the fruit of the bramble or Rubus fruticosus, must be by far the most popular and well known of wild foods, growing in practically every hedgerow and irresistible to all who pass by. Yet the bramble is also the gardener’s bane, invasive, fast growing and difficult to eradicate, this woody weed is a far from popular addition to most gardens. Here at our new house we have quite a bit of it growing through the area we hope will become our veg patch and, whilst I’m not exactly thrilled to see it there, it’s humbling to remember all the gifts of food and medicine that brambles give to us each year and seek to find ways to manage it naturally, principally by using it freely.

Bramble

As we follow brambles through the year we can find something of use at all times except darkest winter. In early spring the leaves and young shoots can be used as a pleasant tasting, cleansing and tonifying tea. The leaves can be harvested throughout the summer and are a valuable astringent due to their tannin content. Traditionally they were used to treat diarrhoea, sore throats and dysentery. The root bark is a stronger astringent, indeed it may be too strong for people with very sensitive stomachs, and is also useful in cases of diarrhoea as well as spasmodic coughs. I don’t have any experience with using the root bark myself though I have made the leaves into teas and an infused oil which is helpful for bumps, bruises and minor injuries. The oil or tincture also make a valuable addition to creams or salves for treating haemorrhoids and varicosities, due once again to their astringency. The leaves have been recommended for treating bleeding gums for this same reason, as well as for their vulnerary properties. An infusion of the leaves or root can also be used as a compress or formentation for sores, burns, varicosities and minor wounds. The inner part of the spring shoots can also be eaten as a tasty, crunchy vegetable, either raw in salads or lightly steamed or stir fried. Just peel the outer portion of the stems back to reveal the yumminess within.

Later, as the flowers begin to form in summer, a lovely flower remedy can be made which I have found useful for people who are good natured and generous at heart, but can tend to be over-dominating. The American FES remedies make a blackberry essence which they claim “helps the person who cannot make a viable connection with the will. The soul has many lofty visions and desires but is unable to translate these into concrete manifestations.” I suppose both these things relate to the ability of the blackberry to make its mark on the world, but in an appropriate way! It would be interesting to hear anyone else’s experience of blackberry flower remedy and what they have found it useful for.

Now, on to the berries themselves! Though they are probably most delicious straight from the bush and still warm from the late summer sun, there are numerous things that can be done with a blackberry. Cakes, crumbles, biscuits, smoothies and many other puddings benefit from their flavour but they are also useful in promoting health as they are full of vitamins and antioxidants. They are high in vitamins C and K, folic acid and manganese and rich in the antioxidant polyphenols which are thought to be beneficial in preventing a host of diseases.

Blackberries

One way I enjoy my blackberries later into the season is by infusing them in apple cider vinegar for use as a deliciously fruity salad dressing. This could also be taken with a little warm water and raw honey as a remedy for gout and joint stiffness. In fact, blackberry was used by the ancient Greeks as a cure for gout.

I made my blackberry vinegar with the addition of a cinnamon stick this year to make it extra warming and delicious for this time of year. Just lightly fill a jar with blackberries and one cinnamon stick broken into pieces, then cover with apple cider vinegar and leave to infuse for a month, swirling the mixture daily for the first week. Be sure to cap with a plastic lid as the vinegar will erode metal.

Blackberry and Cinnamon Vinegar

The bramble is a plant surrounded by folklore and superstition. A sacred plant of the Druids, it was said to protect the faery realm and was also connected to the Goddess. Mrs Grieves tells us that they “were in olden days supposed to give protection against all evil runes, if gathered at the right time of the moon.”  Walking or crawling under the arch of a bramble shoot was thought to cure a variety of diseases from whooping cough to warts, though I’m inclined to believe all the scratches just took your mind of any other problems you were experiencing! Even today it is thought unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmas, on the 29th September, as they have been claimed by the devil. This is actually quite sensible as Michaelmas is usually around the time of the first frost after which the blackberries can begin to decay and mould… so let the devil keep ‘em.

I’ve just realised that leaves us only six more days to gather as many as possible… so I’m off!

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Wondering reverence amongst the Pines

Trees have captured our imaginations since people first walked amongst them. Possibly even before. There has never been a time when our lives did not depend on the majesty of these great beings, whether for food, shelter, fuel or medicine. As the daughter of a forester I suppose it was inevitable that my chosen path would in some way come full circle and include a special place for trees. I am so grateful for the healing provided by them, there always seems an extra special something in a blend of herbs when it contains some tree medicine!

I think trees function as nervines simply by their virtue of being. In my experience, nothing is a greater tonic to the nerves than a walk in nature, wandering through aged boughs and young saplings and feeling your gaze flooded with a thousand shades of green. The nervous system, down to the neurones themselves, bears a striking resemblance to trees, with their myriad branches and roots stretching out and connecting, sending messages and forming an incredible network, the like of which we have barely begun to understand.

A Neuron

Having said that, within herbal medicine, not many trees are considered nervines. The blossoms of Hawthorn have been described as such, Peach and Rose make great cooling remedies for the nervous system and then there’s the lovely Linden, one of my favourite trees that is also one of my favourite nervines. Linden, also known as Lime Tree (though no relation to the fruit!) is one of the herbalists greatest allies for soothing stress, tension and nervous excitation. The name comes from an Anglo Saxon root, though ‘Linden’ was originally an adjective, meaning ‘made of Lime wood’. In German, the verb ‘lindern’ means to alleviate, ease or soothe.

In various European cultures it has been associated with the divine feminine, being sacred to Freya and Frigga, Goddesses of love, fertility, domesticity and divination.

Limes are an ancient species, there is a small leaved lime in Westonbirt Arboretum that is at least 2,000 years old. Limes and elms were once the commonest trees in Britain, flourishing around 6,000 years ago, during the warm Atlantic period. These would have been our native species, Tilia cordata, or small leaved lime, and Tilia platyphyllos, the broad leaved lime. Both of these are now fairly rare, especially the broad leaved, and the lime trees common in parks and lining avenues are the common limes Tilia x europaea or Tilia x vulgaris.

A Common Lime - just before flowering.

I was hoping the Limes would be in flower by now but everything is a bit late this year. I’m waiting on them blooming any day though! I was planning to share a few more of my recipes but I’ll do an update with some ideas for using the blossoms as soon as they are ready for picking. I’ll be doing some tincture, infused oil, a flower remedy (weather permitting!) and an elixir so do check back in a week or two for some medicine making ideas. Linden is one of the last trees to flower and the blooms are only fresh for about a week so everything has to be dropped as soon as the blossoms open and the bees start buzzing. Bees are the best guides to finding a Linden in flower as they can be heard making merry with the pollen, one of their favourites, from quite some distance. There is an altogether musical quality about this tree and it’s wood was a common choice for making instruments such as guitars and recorders due to its fine acoustics.

If the elder is a venerable and wise old grandmother then the linden is a kind and gentle young lady, softly singing her child to sleep. You always feel cared for with a cup of linden tea in your hand. Due to it’s gentle nature and sweet honey like taste, Linden makes a lovely children’s remedy taken as a tea, with a little honey if required. It can soothe irritability in children and adults alike and makes a lovely footbath to aid a restful night’s sleep. In Peter Conway’s interesting book “Tree Medicine’, he writes. ‘If you are stressed, tense or overworked, you need limeflowers.’ Well thats most of us then! It is highly beneficial to constitutionally nervous types whose anxiety goes to their digestion, a pattern which I can definitely relate to, being what is known in iridology as an ‘anxiety gastric’ type.

It’s list of actions include antidepressant, antispasmodic, demulcent, diaphoretic, expectorant, hypotensive, nervine, sedative and stomachic and as such, it’s is good for more then just stress.

Linden branch - note the heart shaped leaves.

It’s been traditionally used as a heart tonic, helping to reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure, especially if the cause is anxiety driven. It does this in part by relaxing the circulation. If you try clenching your fists hard you’ll notice the skin in your palm going white where the blood has been unable to flow before turning red as the blood rushes back in. Now imagine being in a constant state of anxiety, it creates constriction which results in shallow breathing, reduced circulation and eventually dryness where the blood has been unable to adequately nourish the skin. Linden effectively treats all these conditions, by relaxing the nervous system and the circulation and soothing dryness and inflammation with its high mucilage content. In this way we can see its energy as being expansive in opening up the channels of the body to allow relaxation and flow.

It’s also a valuable medicine for the immune system being regularly drunk as a hot tea in France for colds, flus and fevers. As a diaphoretic it helps the body produce sweat which can lower a high temperature and rid the body of infection. Its anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties make it useful in respiratory conditions where it helps remove phlegm, soothe irritated passages and boost the immune system.

Interestingly, some describe it as energetically cooling and others as warming and we can see both of these qualities if we consider its ability to stimulate and move (qualities traditionally thought of as warming) as well as it’s use in cooling the body by encouraging sweating and calming anxiety.

The bracts and almost opening blossom, both of which are used medicinally.

There are also a variety of external uses for lime blossom, as the high mucilage content helps to soothe irritation and inflammation when used an an infusion for compresses or baths or as an infused oil. It is also a valuable herb for beauty as it is high in antioxidants, helps to regenerate the skin and and is thought to help clear acne when used in facial washes. This year I plan to make a nourishing and softening blend of linden and elderflower infused oils to make into face creams. Lovely.

Linden shines as a tea, having such a palatable taste that there are few who will dislike it. I included my ‘Hug in a Mug’ recipe in my recent post on rose which contains linden blossom, rose and avena, but often I just make a simple linden blossom tea and float a few rose buds on top which gives it a beautiful flavour as well as aesthetic appeal. To enhance the diaphoretic effect it is lovely taken with elderflower at the onset of a cold or flu and can be combined with hawthorn to emphasise it’s ability to lower blood pressure and protect the heart. In very large doses it can cause nausea and may be damaging so stick to 3 or 4 cups a day long term or take larger doses for a short period only.

Linden and Rose Bud Tea

The Linden is truly a gift of healing and wonder. It is strong and ancient yet also elegant and and it teaches us lightness, grace and a subtle kind of merriment. I’m excited for the first blooms which should appear very soon and will be reporting on the harvest and the medicine making as and when it happens.

A Lullaby of Linden:
I would like to sit with you
In a silence
Punctuated only by song,
Strange and sweet
And whispering of stars that fell an age ago.
Stillness and lullaby are my gifts to you.
My honied words, a subtle kindness
That tells you, ‘Dear one, stop,
You are held, you are loved.’
I’ve seen your life in a blink of my own
But to me you are unique in whichever form you appear today.
My song is your medicine.
Stillness and lullaby are my gifts to you.

References:
Picture of a neuron available at http://www.sullenriot.com/media/images/article-images/neuron.gif
Tree Medicine – Peter Conway
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine – Brigitte Mars
Hedgerow Medicine – Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
The Living Wisdom of Trees – Fred Hageneder
Flora Britannica – Richard Mabey

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Horsetail, Equisetum spp., is truly a wonder from another age. The Equisetum family are known as a ‘living fossils’ as they are the only living examples of the Equisetopsida class which formed the major part of the understory of the great Paleozoic forests. These covered the land for over 100 million years, roughly 542 to 541 million years ago, a time which saw the first large reptiles and an explosion in marine life. Now Equisetum arvense usually grows between 20-40 cm high, but at that time, its relatives grew up to 30 metres tall, giant green skeletons which stroked the heavens with their feathery branches. This era ended with the Permian- Triassic extinction event, or the Great Dying as it has become known, the largest mass extinction in the history of the Earth. It took the Earth 30 million years to recover. Horsetail however endured and, as a result, holds in its dreaming more than we humans, as relatively new species on Earth, can possibly imagine.  Fossil records show that Horsetails made up a large part of the coal forest swamps and are therefore powering much of our current lifestyle.

Horsetail Fossil

Fossil showing stem and leaves

There are a variety of species including Marsh, Water, Great and Wood Horsetails, several of which have been used for medicine, though the most commonly used is Field Horsetail, Equisetum arvense, as the others are thought to be more toxic. Even Field Horsetail can cause problems to livestock if they eat a large amount as it contains an enzyme which depletes thiamin (Vitamin B1) levels. This enzyme is deactivated by heat though so teas or decoctions will be safe long term for humans and animals alike. It’s best avoided in pregnancy however as it contains high levels of selenium. Horsetail is a gymnosperm, or non-flowering plant, which spreads through spores released by fertile stems. These grow up in spring to be replaced later in the season by the distinctive, segmented sterile stalks which are used in medicine. Horsetail thrives in damp soils so its no wonder that it’s made such a happy home here in the UK!

Field Horsetail growing at the edge of uncultivated land.

Uses: Horsetail is a wonderful example of the doctrine of signatures as its skeletal structure and jointed segments indicate one of its primary uses in strengthening and healing joints, bones and connective tissue. Matthew Wood writes, “If you pick the young plant and break the seal between the joints, there is still an elastic material within the joint that holds it together. As you roll the joint between your fingers, you will notice that it flexes much like one would want the knee or any joint to flex when bending. The idea of cartilage is immediately presented to the mind.”  Famed for its high silica content it not only helps the musculoskeletal system but strengthens weak nails and hair when used either externally or internally as well as arteries and veins. This is also reflected in the strong stems which could be seen to relate to the various channels of the body.

It is also commonly used in conditions of the bladder including chronic cystitis, benign prostate enlargement, incontinence and enuresis (bedwetting) as it strengthens the connective tissue of the bladder and has astringent properties. As a kidney tonic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial it is greatly beneficial for the whole urinary system and can be a helpful diuretic, reducing oedema and swelling.

The astringent and healing properties also make it a great wound herb when used externally as a compress or poultice.

Interestingly, Wood also uses Horsetail for any of the indications for which homeopathic Silica is recommended which can include nervousness with fidgeting, hair pulling, nail biting and sensitivity to cold with a lack of vital heat and poor peripheral circulation.

Sterile Stalks of Horsetail

Methods of Preparation:

Tea – A tea from horsetail can be made by infusion (steeping in hot water) or decoction (simmering gently in a pan of water for about 15 mins). The decoction is preferred for its healing properties but an infusion is helpful as a gentle long term remedy for strengthening hair and nails. The silica in horsetail is water soluble so these are ideal preparations to be taken internally or used externally by adding to the bath, using as a compress or a strengthening hair rinse or nail soak. A tea made with Oatstraw is nice for supporting bone health, taken with St John’s Wort it may help in cases of bedwetting and with Yarrow, Couch Grass and Marshmallow it can help sooth cystitis.

Vinegar – This can be made by steeping Horsetail herb in apple cider vinegar for a month to six weeks, straining, then enjoying added to salads, diluted in water for compresses or added to the bath water – about 1/2 a cup. Vinegar is a particularly useful method for extracting minerals from a wide variety of herbs.

Tincture – Particularly helpful for urinary tract problems as well as general healing, I make mine in Vodka as the higher water content enables more of the minerals to be extracted.

Poultice – Maria Treben recommends lightly steaming the stems before wrapping in linen and lying on the affected part of the body, keeping warm with a hot water bottle and repeating as necessary.

Essence – An essence of horsetail is thought to be beneficial for communication, helping us connect with different levels of our being and with each other.

Dried Horsetail Stalks, Horsetail Vinegar (left) and Tincture (right).

I find Horsetail a fascinating and enchanting plant. It whispers of another age when it was as mighty as the great dinosaurs with which it shared the land and reminds us of the immense history of our home, the inevitability of change and the responsibility we now have as its caretakers.

Now I don’t know about you, but one thing I remain unconvinced of it’s similarity to a horse’s tail. I think it bears a much closer resemblance to a cat’s tail, especially a raggedy, yet beautiful, old tortoiseshell’s tail like this one. What do you think?

A striking resemblance? You decide.

References:

Fossil Photos courtesy of Louisville Fossils and Fossil Mall, all other photos Lucinda Warner 2010
Hedgerow Medicine – Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
The Book of Herbal Wisdom – Matthew Wood
Flora Britannica – Richard Mabey
Health through God’s Pharmacy – Maria Treben
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine – Brigitte Mars

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Cowslips and Primroses are two of the cheeriest and prettiest of our spring wild flowers. They have a rustic charm reminiscent of days gone by when they were used much more commonly in medicine than they are today.

Cowslip, Primula officinalis, and Primrose, Primula vulgaris, contain similar properties, being of use for soothing the nerves, easing insomnia and improving headaches. An infusion of Cowslip with Wood Betony is said to be of particular use in headache and migraine. They are both anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic, making them useful for muscular pains, rheumatism and gout and an infusion of the flowers of either plant can be used in the bath for soothing these conditions. They have also been recommended for pulmonary problems as both have expectorant properties.

Cowslips

Infusions of Primrose or Cowslip flowers have been used to brighten the complexion and reduce wrinkles. Culpepper recommends a Cowslip ointment saying, ‘Our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds to beauty or at least restores it when lost.’

Both flowers are associated with youth in the Victorian language of flowers, Cowslip also being associated with winning grace and primrose carrying the meaning, ‘I can’t live without you.’ Both have also been associated with faeries in folk tradition and magic.

The flowers and young leaves can be used in salads, though they are potentially allergenic so always do an allergy test first by rubbing a little of the juice from a leaf on the inside of the lips and seeing how you react.

Primrose

Both plants used to be very common but are much rarer now due to changing habitat as well as pesticide and agrochemical use. Therefore it’s important to harvest responsibly, and only in areas where they are abundant, if you wish to use them for food or remedies.

Maria Treben rates Cowslip highly as a remedy for insomnia. Here is her recipe for a sleep inducing tea:

50g Cowslip flowers
25g Lavender
10g St John’s Wort
15g Hops
5g Valerian

Pour 1/4 litre boiling water over a heaped teaspoon of the herbal mix, allow to infuse, add honey if desired and drink in sips before bed. She says, ‘This tea should be preferred to all chemical sleep inducing remedies. Sleeping pills destroy the nervous system whereas this tea removes nervous complaints.’

Cowslip was also commonly made into wine. For a modern day approach to this, loosely fill a bottle with fresh cowslip flowers, pour white wine over them, bottle and leave in the sunlight for fourteen days. Take 3 tablespoons a day for nervous system and heart complaints.

Primrose flowers also make a lovely infused vinegar which can be used in cooking or salad dressings.

Enjoy these sweet spring soothers and remember to harvest them with care and gratitude, never taking too much from one area.

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