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Archive for the ‘Wildflowers’ Category

Wildflowers and Waterways

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It’s been a little while since I have shared a post here as the summer has been a busy one.

I am really excited to be running a wild plant craft workshop over the Autumn Equinox weekend with Anna Richardson who is an amazingly knowledgeable wild food and bushcraft teacher and beautiful plantswoman! We will be doing a foraging walk on the Saturday morning for those who wish to come but not commit to the full weekend.

It’s been a wonderfully sunny summer with abundant herbs and wildflowers in the garden, waysides and hedgerows and I wanted to share some photos with you before autumn takes too firm a grip.

We recently moved house and there is plenty of self heal, a particular favourite of mine, in the lawn of our new garden. A herb with many uses, both internal and external Culpepper described it thus, ‘whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself.’

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Calendula is another firm favourite that is wonderful medicine both internally and externally, you can read more about it here.

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Yet another herb for inside and out is the beautiful heartsease, just looking at it does what it says on the box!

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Mullein is an excellent  tonic for the respiratory system among many other useful properties, too many to list here. It surely deserves a post of its own sometime soon.

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Californian poppy is famed for its soothing properties and makes a lovely children’s herb also.

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Bees and humans both enjoy red clover.

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I love to see great swathes of meadowsweet growing in wild and abandoned places. I have written about some of its medicinal virtues here.

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Queen of the Prairie is Meadowsweet’s American cousin and makes a beautiful garden addition.

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Soldier beetle on Tansy.

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Lovely Evening Primrose.

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Madame Mugwort, a fabulous aromatic and bitter herb which grows plentifully throughout most of the UK.

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Yarrow, the many benefits of which are touched on here.

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Agrimony is not only a useful herb but also one of the most beautiful wildflowers.

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St John’s Wort, much loved by most herbalists and another very useful plant for both internal and external ailments.

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Black Horehound, Ballota nigra, is most often noted for its smell which many find disagreeable. I think it smells like the smokey bacon flavour crisps I remember from childhood! It is useful for quelling nausea and sickness, though if the smell and taste repulse you, it might not have the desired effect!

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Nettle seeds, wonderful medicine and walker’s snack.

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An abundance of wild flowers.

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And finally the beautiful passion flower. A plant that always seems quite out of this world to me.

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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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Please forgive me for clogging your inboxes with two photographic posts in as many days but I thought some people might find it interesting to have a closer look at the wild flowers we have growing here on the Downs at present. There is a spectacular array, many of them quite common but some rarer and more specific to the chalk grassland habitat.

Wildflower heaven

Common Knapweed

Red Clover

Self Heal

Round Headed Rampion

Devil’s Bit Scabious

Small Scabious

Field Scabious

Scabious in bud

Yellow Wort

Common Ragwort

Hawkbit

Bird’s Foot Trefoil

Ladies Bedstraw

Common Fleabane

Scarlet Pimpernel

Agrimony

Eyebright

Burnet Saxifrage

Yarrow

White Bryony

Mugwort

Small Tortoiseshell on Creeping Thistle

Hawkbit, burnet saxifrage and knapweed predominate in this picture

And finally one I am not sure of so if anyone knows I would be delighted to hear from you! I believe it may be Red Bartsia but as it doesn’t quite fit the description I remain slightly in doubt.

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I love the month of August. There are wildflowers carpeting the Downs, the first berries in the hedgerows, nettle seeds for harvesting and a variety of herbs blooming in the garden. The roses are in their second flush, there are birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate, friends to visit and an exquisite sense of fullness and completion that hangs ripe and heavy in the air, just on the tipping point of receding into the altogether different beauty of autumn.

Here are some of my highlights.

Wild flowers carpet the Downs

The last of this years strawberries.

The subtle beauty of chicory

Monarda fistulosa

Harvest of Monardas

Skullcap harvest

Teasel

Blooming echinacea

Calendula

Californian poppies

Plantain in flower

The very hungry caterpillars – I think cabbage whites

Sweet peas to scent the house

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Last week I had the pleasure of harvesting meadowsweet on one of the few sunny days so far this summer so I thought it would be an opportune moment to share some information and thoughts on this most useful of herbs.

Common name: Meadowsweet. Also Queen of the Meadow, Brideswort, Meadwort.
Latin: Filipendula ulmaria.
Family: Rosaceae – Rose family.
Botanical features: A perennial herb that enjoys damp conditions and grows abundantly throughout most of the UK in meadows, ditches, road or stream-sides. It has reddish brown stems growing up to 1.5 metres high and deep green pinnate leaves that are paler on the underside. It bears creamy puffs of tiny, fragrant flowers that bloom between May and August, though I personally have never seen them before mid June.
Key Constituents: Volatile oils, methylsalicylate, tannins, mucilage, flavonoids, phenolic glycosides.
Actions: Anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antacid, stomachic, astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, carminative, anti-emetic.
Energetics: Cooling and drying.

The name meadowsweet  is said to come, not from the fact that it grows in meadows as one would expect, but from its early use to flavour mead, evolving from Middle English Medewurte, as it appears in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. 

This is a herb that has had its place through all the ages of European history. Evidence of meadowsweet has been found in several Bronze Age burial sites suggesting the value placed on it even many centuries BCE. The Druids are said to have considered it one of their most sacred herbs for use in ritual and medicine and it was a favourite of medieval herbalists too, being regularly used by folk healers and monastic communities alike. It was prized at this time as a strewing herb, one that was used to cover floors in medieval homes and churches to disguise unpleasant smells, reduce fleas and lice and help counter infections.

In Irish mythology, Cú Chulainn, the warlike hero of the Ulster Cycle, is said to have used meadowsweet baths to calm his rages and fevers and in Wales, the beauteous but adulterous Blodeuwedd, was made by two magicians from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet.

It is perhaps most famous for its role in the development of aspirin however, a drug named after its previous Latin name, Spiraea ulmaria. In the mid nineteenth century salicylic acid was isolated from meadowsweet which lead to the later creation of aspirin.

Within the herbal world meadowsweet is very much considered a specific for the digestive system but it had many other uses in traditional medicine that have now mostly fallen by the wayside. Just like Cú Chulainn, people commonly used it as a treatment for fevers where it works through a gentle diaphoresis as well through the effects of salicylic acid in reducing inflammation and heat. It was used to treat hot conditions in other ways too; cooling sunburn, as a wash for inflamed eyes, as a compress for swollen, arthritic joints, to give relief from headaches and for calming an irritated cough. It is interesting that even before the discovery of salicylic acid many people used meadowsweet for conditions that they may take aspirin for today.

The smell is very distinctive and I have heard it compared to everything from deep heat to marzipan to pickled cucumber! To me it smells sweetly fragrant with an edge of the disinfectant TCP that I remember from childhood. Interestingly I recently found out that TCP contains salicylates so perhaps there is method in my madness after all!

In fact, meadowsweet is sometimes referred to as ‘herbal aspirin,’ a name which I find both inaccurate and vaguely insulting to this multi-talented meadow queen! It is noted, at least in the herbal community, that meadowsweet is a fine example of how nature so often buffers chemicals that can do damage with others that soothe and heal. So where as aspirin can increase the chances of indigestion, GI bleeds and ulcers, meadowsweet can be used to heal these exact same conditions.

Despite its cooling and drying nature, meadowsweet can be considered a normaliser for the digestion in the majority of people as it can help to balance both high and low stomach acid. This is interesting as it is increasingly acknowledged that symptoms of heartburn and indigestion can be caused by both hyper and hypo acidity in the stomach. As an astringent it helps to tone the stomach and the mucus membranes and it also increases their rate of cell renewal allowing irritated areas to heal quicker.

Due to its volatile oil content it has a carminative action and it also has some bitterness which can help stimulate digestion, increase bile flow and therefore relieve congestion in the liver. The astringency is balanced somewhat by this ability to stimulate and move so that it can still be effective for those with under active digestions. One herbal friend of mine uses it for everyone with gut problems and just moderates the actions with other herbs specific for the individual.

This effect on the mucus membranes can also be seen in the urinary system where it has been employed to treat cystitis through it’s healing, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It is also considered mildly immunomodulating and a useful diuretic.

You can use it as a tea, preferably taken hot for fevers to help stimulate the diaphoretic action and slightly cooler for digestive discomforts. It is gentle enough for use with children in whom it has been found effective in treating diarrhoea. Tincture is the way I most commonly use it and it is particularly nice made from fresh flowers in 25% alcohol.

A compress made from a flannel soaked in hot meadowsweet tea is an old fashioned remedy for arthritis and gout.

The general wisdom is to avoid this herb with people who are sensitive to salicylates or if they are taking warfarin as there is the potential of an additive effect.

“How lovely she is, queen of the springs and of the running brooks, standing there in the damp shady places with her big clouds of flowers; little white flowers that make up big feathery tufts and give off a strong sweet perfume.”

Maurice Messegue

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It has been so wonderful to enjoy a few rays of sunshine this weekend after the continuous downpours of previous weeks. Whilst I deeply appreciate the rain, there is something so vital and enlivening about the sunshine at this time of year, plus our vey real need to top up our vitamin D stores after winter.

Finally, all the reasons why May is one of my favourite months were apparent; the garden, growing up so lush and vibrant and about to burst into bloom, the cowslips carpeting the Downs and, very best of all, the musky sweet scent of hawthorn blossom on the air.

As I set off harvesting yesterday I stopped down the garden path to admire these beautiful chive buds. Look closely and you will see the little beads of moisture on the inside. Exquisite no? Like the flowers are gently breathing their way open.

Valerian and roses are all set to flower too. I love the pattern formed by the valerian buds and the spiral of the rose sepals unfurling. This was a new rose for me last autumn, bought for half price from the garden centre. It is called Wild Edric and is supposed to be especially hardy for organic growers as well as beautifully fragrant. Well you know roses are my one weakness….

 

Already in flower and pretty as the day is long are the heartsease. To my mind this is one plant that certainly lives up to its name as it lifts my spirits and enlivens my heart every time I see it.

And gone to seed are the dandelion heads. Much as I love my dandys, I snip most off and just leave a few to populate the garden with their offspring. These downy globes of tiny seeded parachutes are both beautiful and very well adapted for survival.

Then out of the garden and onto the hills, where the wild things grow and the sea winds blow.

This sweet little flower is black meddick which enjoys coastal areas and lime rich soils.

Growing next to it was this chickweed, busting into tiny flower-stars and adorned with tufts of enthusiastic dandelion.

Red campion brings splashes of bright colour to the spring hued greens and yellows of the hedges.

 

And speedwell, one of my favourite of all wildflowers, grows rampant at the field edges.

The blossoms of wayfaring tree, Viburnum lantana, bridge the time gap between the flowerings of blackthorn and hawthorn,  continuing the thread of hedgerow beauty that passes to the elder as the hawthorn blossom begins to fade.

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Buds of Elder

Cowslips are all over the escarpment, enabling me to harvest just enough for tea and a small quantity of infused oil. Remember cowslips are endangered in many parts, though they grow freely here, so cultivate them in your garden for a sustainable harvest unless you have a very prolific source nearby.

One of the things I love best about this time of year is the ability to pick herbs so freely for fresh teas. I am enjoying again my old favourite of lemon balm and rosemary from the garden and there is nothing like a tea of cowslip and hawthorn tops for relaxing in the evening and ensuring a good night’s rest.

My oils are left out in the day, infusing in the full sun, then bought into the warm at night. Like this they should be ready in only about three days. This would not be sufficient time for tougher plants but these fresh flowering tops will give up their constituents quickly in the bright warm sunlight and may risk rancidity or losing their vitality if left out too long.

I have bombarded you with enough pictures for one post but I’ll be sharing thoughts and images from the first hawthorn blossom harvest sometime next week.

What are your favourite things in May?

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It’s been a while since I posted about the beautiful Hawthorns that I have been observing as part of the Tree of the Year project. They sit atop the Downs, relentlessly battered by wind and rain, and as a result they differ from many of the other Hawthorns in this area. With everything being early this year, most of the trees already had bright red berries at the beginning of August, not quite ready for harvest, but not far off. On these trees however, the berries were still small and green, reflecting how the harshness of their environment affects their development.

Nearly a month on they are reddening up nicely and the trees from a distance have that exquisite blush which tells you autumn is around the corner.

There is no doubt that the constant high winds we have had all summer have taken their toll. The trees look less healthy than this time last year with many of the leaves browning and some branches swept almost bare. Like people whose lives have been filled with hardship, they are weathered and worn.

It’s interesting to observe how bare of berries the side of the trees that faces the wind is compared to the relatively more sheltered branches.

I feel these trees teach me a lot about resilience, tenacity and strength and about adaptability in the face of hardship. They speak of the beauty of form and motion and of holding fast to this living edge of surrender. Perhaps most importantly they show that, in spite of difficulties, it is still possible to give generously.

Elsewhere on the Downs other Hawthorns tell their stories, each as unique as snowflakes.

I loved this one, entangled with the wild rose like lovers.

And everywhere the berries are fat and red and perfect. I’ll be out next week to get the first harvest in. Who wants pills when your medicine can look like this?

The Downs themselves are carpeted with wild flowers at present.

The yellows and whites of bedstraw, yarrow, burnet saxifrage and cat’s-ears mix with the mauves and purples of two of my favourite wild flowers;

Small Scabious

and Round-headed Rampion.

Whilst lone stalks of agrimony wave in the breeze.

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