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Autumnal Hues


Even though the year flows continuously through its seasonal changes, it is spring and autumn that I think of as the months of transition. Everything seems to shift and the feeling of settling and drawing inwards that autumn brings is as pronounced as the bright uprising and awakening that we sense in spring.

Who could fail to love the fierce brightness of autumn leaves?

Yet as autumn progresses and the branches become increasingly bare, it is the softness of the landscape that captivates me. The fields smudged in pastel hues, the full, soft blues and greys of the skies and the warm low light that all at once dampens the glare of the world, yet infuses that on which it falls with a subtle kind of vibrancy.

As autumn progresses to winter and nature appears to be sleeping, there is still flashes of life,  young leaves enjoying a brief flush before their frozen slumber begins.

Nettles can be seen in all their life stages. Many have died already, others are grown tall, sparse and straggly and yet where they have been cut back, there is plenty of new growth to be seen, a last little reminder of what we can look forward to when the Earth wakes again.

Poets and artists often depict autumn and winter as a time of death, but to me they are merely times of passage, when the old is let go and the new remains contained for a time in its gestation.

When we learn to look closely, the sweet song of life is always humming underneath.

Time spent on one’s meditation cushion is time well spent, whether or not you feel the benefits immediately or not.

Many people claim that they can’t meditate. Their mind will not become still and they are invaded with constant, relentless thoughts, not the feelings of peace and serenity they have been promised.

The point they are missing however is that meditation is about being with what is, not about being calm or blissful, though these may indeed be the end products of sustained practice. There is no goal as such, but were there one it would be just to be aware. This is, that is, mind is busy, mind is calm.

When the state of awareness is recognised as the state in which all things arise then the calm we originally sought is a natural result of this realisation. It isn’t something we can chase or make happen however, accustomed as we are to active pursuit of all that we seek.

This is something cats know well and much of our time is spent in simple mindfulness of the breath, our meditation cushion, or the sensation of a sunbeam.

Just for this moment allow whatever is present to be present, even if it is something you wish were not. Just allow things to be as they are.

Even to say ‘just be’ creates the illusion that you must do something. You are, that is enough. For this moment it is enough. Then perhaps for the next one it will be too.

Herbal Cough Syrup

Several people I know have had a nasty cough this autumn that they are finding difficult to shift. As it seems like there is something going around, I thought I would share this herbal cough syrup recipe incase any of you are struggling with the same thing.

A syrup such as this one is lovely if your cough has both dry, tickly phases as well as wetter, more productive ones, as there are herbs here that wll address both states. As a syrup is slippery and sweet in nature though I would avoid it if your cough is very wet and you tend to be an all round damp sort of person. In this case tinctures and teas would probably suit you better.

As I have said before, don’t be put off if you don’t have all these herbs. A classic cough syrup recipe contains just liquorice and thyme herbs so you could try this if you wanted to make it more simple.

I don’t normally use a lot of sugar in the recipes I make but it does work best for this syrup unless you plan to use it all up within a couple of months and store it in the fridge, in which case honey should be fine as an alternative, sticking to equal parts raw honey to herbal liquid.

Herbal Cough Syrup:

25g Thyme leaf
25g Mullein leaf
25g Marshmallow root
25g Licorice root
25g Aniseed
25g Echinacea root
2 sticks Cinnamon

Water 1 litre
Sugar (organic soft dark brown is nicest) 750 g – 1 kg (depending on amount of liquid left after preparation.)
Peppermint EO – 8 drops (be sure you have 100% pure, preferably organic, essential oil, not fragrance oils which can be cut with all kinds of chemicals. Buy from a reputable supplier like Neal’s Yard or Materia Aromatica.)

Method:

Place the roots in a pan along with the aniseed and cinnamon sticks and cover with 1 litre of water. Bring to the boil and then turn down immediately to a gentle simmer, putting the lid on the pan to prevent too much evaporation. Simmer for 20 mins then turn off the heat and add the thyme and mullein allowing to infuse for a further 15 mins. When cooled enough to handle, strain the herbs out and measure how much liquid you have. You should be left with between 750ml and 1 litre.

Return this liquid to the pan along with an equal quantity in grams of soft dark brown sugar. So if you have 800ml liquid you will need to add 800g sugar and so on. Return to a simmer, stirring continually then remove from the heat and stir as it cools and thickens. Add in the drops of peppermint essential oil and stir well to ensure it is properly mixed in. Bottle in sterilised bottles.

You can take a tablespoon of this syrup as needed up to 8 times a day. For children younger than 12 make this a teaspoon and those between 2 and 6 a half teaspoon.

It makes a delicious mix so is a most pleasurable way to banish the season’s ailments.

Wishing you all good health!

Stretch marks are something that many many women are keen to avoid in pregnancy and there are a number of ways we can support the integrity of the skin to minimise their presence. Stretch marks in themselves are not harmful to us and could be seen as a beautiful testament to our journey to motherhood but, for better or for worse, we live in a culture where the archetype of the ‘maiden’ is held up as the ideal of beauty and most of us are not keen to loose it too quickly. Leaving aside such philosophical debate, in this post I hope to share some information with you about what stretch marks are and how we can help to prevent them, as well as sharing some nice recipes for bump balms and oil blends that you can make up at home.

Stretch marks, or striae, occur in somewhere between 50 and 80% of women during pregnancy, depending on which sources you believe, and result from a tearing of the dermis. This is the middle layer of the skin which is made up of connective tissue and contains collagen and elastin fibers which help the skin to stretch and heal. The tears leave scars which appear purple or red to begin with but usually fade to silvery white. Our skin is designed to be able to stretch and if there is adequate support in the dermis then marks will not occur.

Despite youth being on their side, stretch marks are most likely to appear in teenage mums, possibly because of the hormonal changes that are already going on in their bodies. Steroid hormones called glucocorticoids limit the production of collagen and elastin leaving skin more likely to tear as it becomes less elastic. This is why stretch marks can also occur as a side effect of prolonged use of steroid creams.

Many books and websites claim that whether or not you get stretch marks is entirely genetic and no amount of applying creams or oils will make any difference. This is not completely accurate as, though genetics do play an important role, the few studies done have shown that topical application does help to prevent stretch marks occurring. A German study found that one third of women using a specially formulated cream developed stretch marks as opposed to two thirds in the control group and in one review, two studies were compared and both showed beneficial results. The conclusion was, “stretch marks may be prevented in some women by daily massage but it is unclear if any particular ingredients bring special benefits.” You can read the full review here if you so wish.

Luckily there are foods, herbs, base oils and essential oils which all help to prevent stretch marks and aid in keeping skin supple and supported.

Two of the most important herbs used to prevent stretch marks are calendula (Calendula officinalis) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica). These can both be used in massage as herbal infused oils. Antioxidant rich herbs such as hawthorn, elderberry and bilberry are useful in preventing the breakdown of collagen and these can be taken in teas whilst other deeply coloured berries can be enjoyed as part of the diet. Vitamin C is an important co-factor in collagen production and is found in peppers, tomatoes, dark green leafy veg, berries and many other fruits. Anyone pregnant at this time of year is in luck as rosehips are abundant in Vitamin C as well as abundant in the hedgerows right now. Adequate protein intake is also very important.

Calendula

Bump Rub Recipes and Ingredients:

Here are two simple recipes that you can make up with a variety of different ingredients to suit yourself. First I’ll give the basic outline of the recipe and then a list of possible options below. In the past many people have asked me if they can substitute some of the ingredients in a recipe for others so hopefully this will show you some of the many possibilities. Of course there are many more base oils that you could use but these are the ones I have found to be most useful.

Mama’s Bump Rub Massage Oil:

Massaging your abdomen is such a beautiful way to connect with your own body and your growing baby and is the perfect opportunity to send love to you both.

To make 100ml:
40 mls light oil such as jojoba (or substitute any of the light oils listed below)
30 mls macerated oil such as calendula
20 mls rich oil such as rosehip and/ or avocado (or substitute any of the rich oils listed below)
7 ml GLA rich oil – borage or evening primrose
2.5 mls vitamin E Oil
0.5 ml Essential oil – optional. (Usually this works out to be about 15 drops per 100ml though this depends on the size of the dropper in the bottle. It is always wise to measure essential oils in a pipette until you get to know how much your droppers dispense.)

Mix all ingredients together and bottle. Massage onto abdomen hips and breasts once or twice a day.

Mama’s Belly Butter:

22ml light oil such as jojoba (or substitute any of the light oils listed below)
20 ml herbal macerated oil such as calendula
20 ml rich oil such as rosehip and/ or hemp seed (or substitute any of the rich oils listed below)
30 g Shea Butter (or any of the butters listed below)
5 g beeswax or candellia wax
2.5 ml vitamin E oil
0.5 ml Essential oil – optional

This makes for a rich balm so only a small amount is needed but it’s very nourishing and one I really enjoy using.

Melt the butters in a bain marie then add the liquid oils in a slow drizzle until fully incorporated. Let cool a little but not enough to begin setting then add the vitamin E oil and essential oils. Mix well, pour into jars and allow to set fully before using.

Variations:

One tip when choosing base oils is to check for the smell as some high quality oils will have a strong smell of nuts or seeds. If so make sure to mix small quantities with other oils that don’t smell so strongly otherwise you will mask the aroma of the essential oils as they are in a low dilution. Be aware that no oil should ever smell off or rancid however.

Rich Oils: These oils are particularly nourishing and high in nutrients that can literally work to feed the skin. They have a thick texture however which is why I always recommend mixing them with lighter oils. Rich oils that would be particularly nice in a bump rub include avocado, rosehip, macadamia nut, hemp seed and wheatgerm.

GLA rich oils: Evening primrose or borage both contain high levels of GLAs and are a useful addition to a bump rub in small quantities. Make sure you buy these oils very fresh as they have a shelf life of only six months. It is always wise to store them in the fridge before use.

Light Oils: Jojoba, apricot, almond, hazelnut or grapeseed (refined) would all work well as lighter oils to make your finished product easier to apply. They also contain many nutrients of their own.

Macerated Oils: herbal infused oils such as calendula or gotu kola are the obvious ones to go for but chamomile, lavender or rose would also be lovely choices here.

Butters: Coconut, cacao, shea or mango butter are all lovely on the skin. Choose coconut or mango if you want something lighter, cacao for a firmer texture and shea for a creamy feel.

Essential Oils: Many essential oils are best avoided during pregnancy until the birth itself when they can play an important role. However there are several that are very safe and fine to use from your second trimester on in low percentages like in this recipe. For these rubs I would stick to one or a combination of the following oils; mandarin, neroli, tangerine, lavender and ylang ylang. If you want something refreshing I would use mandarin and tangerine or something more relaxing for the evening could perhaps contain lavender and neroli. Ylang ylang gives a beautiful floral and exotic smell. Neroli is a very expensive essential oil but it is prized for it’s regenerative abilities so is ideal in preventing stretch marks.

Do leave a comment below if you have any queries or anything I have said is unclear.

Happy bump massaging!

Bestiarum Vocabulum

I recently spent a couple of days at a British wildlife sanctuary and got to see a host of wonderful creatures, from those I know well, to those like the stoat that I have never seen before, to those which have practically disappeared from our shores like the beautiful red squirrel.

I often think that if we had never seen a fox or a badger before, we would think it every bit as fantastical as the unicorn or the dragon, it is only that we forget so easily to appreciate that which is common and, therefore, no longer novel.

Foxes, as with many intelligent predators, have long been persecuted in this country and there is still the threat of a badger cull hanging over us, though the vast majority of evidence shows it will do no good at all in halting bovine TB. If this is a topic close to your heart you can find out more about the coalition to stop the cull and sign a petition here.

In the meantime I wanted to pay homage to the beauty of British wildlife by sharing some of my photos from the two days. In the animal world, just as with plants, there is no end to the variety and creativity of Mother Nature.

The Red Squirrel

Badger antics

Sinuous otter, as at home in the water as on land.

Checking out what’s happening on the bank!

Red Deer

Water Vole

The Tiny Harvest Mouse

The Barn Owl

The Tawny Owl

Last but not least, my very favourite of creatures, the much maligned, wonderfully intelligent, greatly social and all round fantastic Mister Fox.

Elderberry Medicine

Common name: Elderberry
Latin: Sambucus nigra
Family: Adoxaceae
Botanical features: A small deciduous tree or large shrub with leaves in opposite pairs and large corymbs of creamy white flowers in June. The berries turn from green to purplish-black in colour and are held in large drooping clusters.
Key actions of the berries: Antioxidant, anti-rheumatic, anti-viral, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypolipidemic, laxative.

With autumn well underway and the evenings and mornings getting increasingly chilly it’s no wonder that many people are coming down with those mild colds and snuffles that often strike during the change of season.

Possibly the best preventative we have for this time of year is elderberry as unlike many other herbs that are specific for the immune system it seamlessly bridges the gap between food and medicine, making it both easy and enjoyable to include in our everyday diets.

Elderberries are also an important food source for the birds including blackcaps, robins and waxwings.

Green elderberries are never taken internally but were used in the past to make ointments for hemorrhoids.

Undoubtedly using the seasonal gifts of nature in our daily lives can ensure we enjoy our medicine as food and our food as medicine. Country people have always used these edible autumn berries to make preserves, wines, syrups and other delicious preparations that would have helped to keep them well and healthy throughout the winter months.

Elderberry isn’t the most delicious of the berries when eaten raw but a syrup made from elderberry with honey is sure to transport you to a heavenly realm of taste due to its rich, earthy sweetness. Elderberries should not really be eaten raw in any case (though it’s usually fine to sample a few) due to their ability to cause stomach aches, diarrhoea and vomiting. It is always best to cook or tincture them first. You can see some of my elderberry recipes here.

Elderberry is most famous these days for its antiviral and immune tonic effects which are in large part to do with its antioxidant properties. It is also mildly diaphoretic, especially when taken hot as a tea so can help you to sweat out colds and flus. Having a particular affinity for the respiratory system, elderberry will make a lovely tonic for you if colds tend to settle in your chest.

It contains many vitamins and minerals, being especially high in vitamin C and containing appreciable amounts of vitamins A and B6, so it feeds the immune system at the same time as exerting an anti-viral effect. A true ally, elderberry makes you stronger in yourself whilst also fighting at your side. The antioxidants can help stop viruses infecting a cell thus halting the spread of an illness and studies show that taking elderberry shortens the duration of an outbreak of influenza. Laboratory studies show elderberry extracts to be active against numerous strains of influenza but these need to be repeated in human trials before their claims can be substantiated.

Beautiful red stems on the elderberries.

Elderberry has an ORAC value of 14697 which is a measurement of the antioxidant capacity of different foods. This makes it one of the highest ranking of the berries, just after chokecherry but above blueberries. Rosehips however have one of the highest values of all being fantastically rich in vitamin C. Back in the 17th century John Evelyn wrote that elderberry extracts would ‘assist longevity’ and of course now we know that antioxidant containing foods are some of the most potent for protecting against premature aging.

Elderberries are particularly rich in antioxidant anthocyanins which are a type of flavonoid that is often found in red, blue or purple foods.

Antioxidants help to heal all our cells and are particularly useful where there is peripheral degeneration such as is commonly seen in diabetes. This most commonly affects circulation to the toes and eyes but a diet rich in antioxidants can help to heal damaged blood vessels and restore function. Elderberry is also thought to be able to lower blood sugar levels making it even more useful, though of course if you take it in a sugary syrup, jam or cordial it negates the effect somewhat! Best stick to tinctures or teas to maximise this property.

A serving of elderberries also contains about 13% of your daily intake of iron which may not seem a massive amount but is helpful when taken with other iron containing foods and herbs, especially as elderberry’s vitamin C content ensures the iron is well assimilated. In fact, Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends elderberry for iron deficiency anaemia as well as for treating coughs, colds, sore throats and tonsillitis.

Elderberry is both diuretic and mildly laxative making it an all round cleansing remedy which was commonly used in the past for rheumatism and arthritis. According to Mrs Greive “It promotes all fluid secretions and natural evacuations.” Another use for it that has fallen by the wayside in modern times was for treating skin infections and it was no doubt due to it’s mixture of cleansing and immune promoting properties.

Current research is also being done into potential anti-tumour properties of elderberry. The combination of high antioxidant activity, gentle cleansing ability and bio-available nutrients mean it is possibly very useful and it has also been suggested to have anti-angeogenic properties.

There are also studies showing the cardioprotective qualities of elderberry due to its hypolipidemic and antioxidant potential. Natural polyphenol compounds can help to minimise LDL oxidation, LDL being the more harmful type of cholesterol.

There are a few potential interactions to consider when taking elderberry in medicinal doses, though these are at present theoretical. It may lower blood sugar therefore altering the effect of diabetic medications. Also by stimulating the immune system it may interfere with immune suppressing drugs and as a mild diuretic it may have an additive effect with diuretic medications.

Generally consumed in food like quantities however it is a gentle and safe remedy for the whole family and one we should all be taking advantage of at this time of year.

September is for Berries

September is such an exciting month because everything is shifting. It feels not quite one thing or another as there are still the vestiges of summer with bright sunny days and roses in the garden, meanwhile autumn is well underway with the hedgerows dripping in berries ready for the harvest.

Every year is different however and this year the elderberries have been sparser than I have ever known them before. I assume this is because it was so wet in June when the flowers were out, meaning many pollinators were not able to access them and fulfil their important task. Many of the trees near me look like this photo below.

Still after ranging further afield than normal I have managed a decent harvest, though I’ll need some more for tincture making before the season is out. How are the elderberries looking around you this year?

There are many other beautiful berries hanging heavy from the branches however and it is always wise to include them in your diet for their wonderful antioxidant properties that help to protect and heal every cell of the body.

The hawthorns are fat and fabulous this year, I suppose as they were pollinated before the heavy downpours came, the wet summer would have helped them grow large, if not necessarily more potent.

The blackberries are also wonderfully abundant, ripe and juicy, though the sloes seem thinner on the ground than usual in the blackthorn trees near my home. I have it on good authority however that they are growing well in other parts.

Blackberries

Sloes

Like sloes, the berries of guelder rose or cramp bark  (Viburnum opulus) and rowan or mountain ash (Sorbus acuparia) are not eaten raw but are good when cooked.

Guelder rose berries

In Saturday’s herb group we picked a good selection of berries to make into a delicious variant on my 5 berry syrup recipe which you can find here.

Berries simmering away

As you well know however, not all the berries in the hedgerow are safe to eat and all these pictured below would be well to avoid if you value the health of your internal organs, and in some cases your life.

Holly berries are toxic, avoid them.

The beautiful berries of the wayfaring tree turn from green to bright red to black throughout the late summer and autumn. Alas they can lead to vomiting and diarrhoea though so ’tis best to leave them be.

The yew berries, and specifically the seeds they contain, are highly poisonous.

The beautiful spindle berries give much pleasure to look upon but not to consume, they are also toxic.

Common or purging buckthorn lives up to it’s name.

Black bryony berries are not ones to make into jam or it may be the last piece of toast you get to enjoy.

Finally, the berries of woody nightshade may look enticing growing next to these blackberries but be sure to leave them out of your syrup. Related to the tomato you can see the resemblance can’t you?

This is in no way an exhaustive list but it covers the majority of species growing in my local area. As with all wild plants, if you are not sure of the identification it is best to leave well alone.

I’ll be back in a few days with a post looking at the medicinal properties of elderberries in more detail. In the meantime You can find some elderberry recipes in this post here from a couple of years ago.

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