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Chickenpox seems to be doing the rounds at the moment, being generally most prevalent in the late winter and spring, so I thought it would be an ideal time to share some tips on how to treat the symptoms at home with easily available herbs and simple home remedies.

Chickenpox is a very common disease of early childhood, about 90% of people will have had it by the time they reach adolescence, and it is generally considered a mild ailment with few cases experiencing complications. The majority of complications occur in adults, as the disease tends to be more severe, and it can be a threat to pregnant women and newborns as well as those with impaired immunity. In these cases it is wise to seek advice from your healthcare provider. In the vast majority of healthy children however it is a self-limiting disease and easing the symptoms is all we need to do.

Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and is highly infectious, spreading by contact or droplet infection such as sneezing, coughing or laughing. The incubation period varies between 2 to 3 weeks and the first indication is usually mild flu like symptoms with the characteristic rash appearing within a couple of days. Some children will only experience the rash without other accompanying symptoms but others will feel quite poorly. There is often a fever, which is usually low grade, and possible nausea, headache and loss of appetite. The rash is, for most children, the worst part of the disease as it can be very itchy and uncomfortable. It begins with red spots that blister and eventually scab over and heal after a few days The spots may cover just a small area or extend to most of the body and are particularly common on the face, scalp, chest and belly though they can even spread to the mucus membranes of the mouth. The child will be infectious from a couple of days before the rash starts until it has completely scabbed over and begun to heal. Be aware that new spots may occur and be infectious even after others have scabbed over however.

There is much we can do at home to help our children through the uncomfortable symptoms of chickenpox. Rather than looking to ‘fight’ the virus, herbal treatment will focus on supporting the innate healing powers of the body by easing fevers, soothing the itch, supporting the immune system and promoting healing.

It is wise to seek professional advice though if your child seems lethargic or unresponsive, has difficulty breathing, has blisters which become infected or has a high fever which persists longer than three days or one which exceeds 40 C.

Working with Fever:

Herbal treatment aims to support the body in the work that it is trying to do rather than to suppress the fever by bringing the child’s temperature down.

Fever plays an important role in stimulating the immune system and killing invading pathogens, yet as parents it is natural for us to feel anxious as we watch our children’s temperatures soar. Anti-pyretic drugs are best saved for emergencies and in the majority of cases simple, supportive measures will aid the fever in its work and help make the child more comfortable.

The use of gentle diaphoretics- herbs that encourage blood flow to the periphery and increase sweating- will help a fever to break and a healing sweat to flush toxins out of the system. Diaphoretic herbs are best given as hot teas and a little honey can be added to make them more palatable once the child is over 18 months. These herbs include elderflower, lime blossom, catmint, meadowsweet and yarrow and they can be given singly or in combination depending on what you have to hand. The most famous diaphoretic tea formula is the Gypsy Cold Cure tea which includes elderflower, yarrow and peppermint herbs and makes a refreshing beverage which most children will not object to. Give a small cup of hot tea up to five times daily, reducing to twice daily for a few days after the fever has broken. To make the tea add a heaped teaspoon of your chosen herb or combination of herbs to a cup of water, cover with a tea cosy and leave to steep for 10 minutes, then strain and add honey if desired.

If the child has a high temperature but cold extremities then try adding some fresh ginger root to the tea which will help move the heat out and make them more comfortable. Just add a few slices to the rest of the tea ingredients.

Soothing Itchy Skin:

 The intense itch is usually considered to be the worst part of chickenpox and can make children feel pretty miserable. Itchy skin can be maddeningly frustrating and it is hard for a child not to scratch themselves. Scratching is the major cause of infected spots, one of the most common complications of the disease, so it must be discouraged where possible and the best way to do this is to keep the skin soothed with calming and anti-inflammatory herbs.

General advice for keeping the skin cool includes avoiding man-made fibers which can stop the skin breathing and sticking to light, comfortable and cool clothing. Make the bath water luke warm rather than hot as this can increase itching and try to avoid vigorous exercise when the child is feeling better until such time as all the spots have healed over.

Most herbal treatment will be external; via baths, sprays and creams or lotions. Applied throughout the day these should keep the worst of the itchiness at bay and help the skin to heal more quickly and without scarring.

There are several ways of adding herbs to the bath. A strong tea of dried herbs can be made by infusing a handful of plant material in a tea pot or cafetiere of just boiled water, leaving to steep for half an hour, straining and adding to a shallow bath. The child can then relax for 20 minutes or so in the soothing water which is also used to gently wash the skin – never scrub as it can burst the blisters. Herbs that are great used in the bath for soothing itchy skin and healing chickenpox include calendula, chickweed, chamomile, plantain, peppermint and heartsease. I recommend a mix of equal parts chamomile, chickweed and peppermint. The chamomile is anti-inflammatory and healing, the chickweed is soothing and anti-itch and the peppermint cools and gently numbs the intense irritation.

One of the most effective baths for chickenpox is the traditional oat bath which is particularly lovely when mixed with some dried herbs. It involves placing a handful of rolled or porridge oats in a square of unbleached muslin with a small handful of chamomile or calendula. Bring up the corners of the muslin and tie with some cotton or a hair band. Run the bath water hot and place the bundle into the water, then leave it to steep until the water is luke warm and ready for the child to get in. The bag can then be repeatedly squeezed to release the soothing oat milk which is gently washed over the body. The bag can be very gently rubbed over the body and there is no need to rinse off the milk before drying. When time is short or I have had no muslin to hand, I have also just whizzed up oats with water or herb tea in the blender and added this to the bath.

During the day, regular application of a liquid preparation can help to stop itching and cool the skin. A blend of 50% witch hazel with either calendula tea or rosewater can be dabbed onto spots to help tone and sooth.

A cream or lotion can also be gently rubbed on to itchy areas. You can buy pre-made calendula lotion or chickweed cream from herbal stockists such as Neal’s Yard or Baldwins or use a base cream to which you add tinctures such as licorice or calendula up to about 10%. Aloe vera base gel can also be mixed with herbal tincture and used in the same way. I would avoid the use of an oily salve or balm on the spots as they can trap in heat and create more of a barrier. Generally lighter preparations are better in these circumstances.

A teaspoonful of calendula tincture can be added to a small glass of water and used as a mouthwash if symptoms have spread to the mucus membranes of the mouth.

Supporting the Immune System:

Supporting the immune system will generally include giving a light healthy diet of homemade vegetable soups and lots of fluids. It is very important to ensure dehydration does not occur so plenty of water and herbal teas are vital. If the child is still breastfeeding then this will also be wonderful support to their immune system.

Vitamins C, D, and Zinc are useful for immune function and vitamin A helps to protect the skin therefore a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral could prove helpful at times of illness and recovery.

Herbal teas also have a role to play. Elderberry and elderflower both help to protect the immune system and have an anti-viral effect. Nettle has antihistamine properties which might help to soothe the itchiness and Calendula is a good immune and lymphatic support. Once the fever has past it would be a good idea to move from the diaphoretic tea blends mentioned above to a general support mix such as equal parts calendula, nettle and elderflower.

Calming and Soothing Restlessness and Tension:

 Fortunately, several of the herbs we can use to treat the symptoms of chickenpox have the added bonus of being soothing to the nervous system and helpful for the irritation and restlessness that can accompany itchy conditions. Lime flower, catmint and chamomile in teas or added to the bath will help to sooth irritability and promote a restful nights sleep.

Promoting Healing and Recovery:

 After the symptoms have past and the child is feeling better it can still be useful to support the body to slough of the last of the disease, strengthen the immune system and promote full healing of the skin. A tea of cleavers, violet or calendula will support the lymphatic system to clear itself out. Cleavers is readily available at this time of year and can be harvested fresh from the garden to be juiced or infused. Burdock root is also useful as it supports all the organs of elimination and it can be given as a tea with a little honey to make it more palatable for children.

After the spots have scabbed over and started to heal and fall off you can massage the skin with a nourishing oil such as a combination of hemp, rosehip and either calendula or comfrey infused oil. This will help to prevent scarring and encourage growth of new healthy skin cells.

Adequate rest is also so important, don’t be tempted to rush back into normal routines before there is a full recovery. Convalescence is an often overlooked aspect of the healing process but one that was prized before our pace of life became so frantic.

(This article first appeared in The Mother magazine.)

 

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Spring is shifting into summer here and everywhere is abundant with life.

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Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica/ arvensis) are little used in modern herbal medicine but were once popular as an astringent for treating eye complaints and respiratory ailments. According to Mrs Grieve they have a particular affinity for the left lower lung. I have never worked with them herbally but I love the sight of great swathes of them carpeting the garden with a ethereal glow.

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Herb robert (Geranium robertianum) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) poke up between them. Both widely considered to be weeds they are in fact wonderful healing remedies with a wide variety of uses. You can read more about dandelion here and I will endeavour to write a profile of herb robert soon.

Honesty (Lunaria annua) and greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) add more splashes of colour to the garden.

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Yarrow leaves can be added to salad when very young but wait for them to flower later in the summer for the full range of medicinal actions which you can read about here.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) is one of my most used herbs of spring. We mainly have it in juices and cold infusions to boost lymphatic function and clear out the stagnation of winter. This year I have been enjoying studying it in closer detail through spending time with it, painting and drawing.

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Coltsfoot ( Tussilago farfara) flowers usually appear in March, sometimes as early as February, and are famous for appearing before the leaves leading to the common name, ‘sons before fathers’. Both the flower and the leaf are used medicinally and were recommended for soothing coughs from the time of the ancient Greeks. They are considered one of the best pulmonary tonics in herbal medicine but have fallen from favour in later years due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (also present in forget-me-nots) which can cause liver disease when consumed in large quantities or over a long period of time. Most herbalists consider coltsfoot to be safe when taken for a limited time, as to treat a cough, and the only case of toxicity reported involved consumption of a tea that was likely adulterated with another herb. Still it’s wise to avoid if pregnant, breastfeeding or where liver disease is already a factor.

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Daisies (Bellis perennis) are a wonderful wild food and medicine that can be found in almost any garden at this time of year. The flowers make a delightful addition to salads and are also used as an excellent remedy for bruising when applied as a poultice or a salve, lending them the common name of ‘poor man’s arnica’. Just pick a few handfuls of the flowers and infuse into oil before adding wax to make a salve. There are detailed intructions on how to do this in the ‘How to Make’ page of this blog.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris) flowers are lovely in teas and spring salads. You can read more about them here.

Nettles are another favourite food and medicine at this time of year but look out for leaves such as the one above left which contain feeding larvae. Nettles support over 40 species of insects which in turn makes them vital for birds and insect eating mammals. Nettle is considered one of the most important wildlife plants we have as well as being highly nutritious and valuable medicinally.

At this time of year it is so lovely to be out in nature picking leaves and flowers for our food and healing. The sights, smells, sounds, tastes and tactile experience of gathering the herbs are all medicine in themselves.

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Here folks are gathered in the woods on our spring wildcrafting day at Wowo campsite. We have a medicinal summer flower day coming up at the end of June which you can find out more about here.

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It’s been a strange winter this year. Mild and wet for the most part with a with a few bright, crisp, days in-between the drear.

Sitting by the fire has kept us feeling warm and nourished and I have become convinced that gazing at a wood fire is one of the best ways to avoid seasonal depression or the winter blues.

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Bringing evergreens into the house can have a similarly uplifting effect and is a midwinter tradition that stretches back into our deep pre-Christian past and is common to nearly all Northern European cultures.

Conifers, Mistletoe, Holly and Ivy have been considered symbols of eternal life and immortality due to the fact that they stay green and lush amidst the barren winter landscape. In folklore it was believed that they offered a place for the faeries to dwell when it was too cold to be out of doors. They certainly offer shelter to birds outside of the house during the winter months as well as a valuable source of food. The berries of holly, ivy and mistletoe are toxic to humans and should be avoided but the leaves have been used medicinally for many centuries.

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The fresh young leaves of ivy were harvested and used to treat congested lungs, catarrh and coughs. Modern research has validated these traditional uses showing the ivy is anti-spasmodic and rich in saponins, soap like constituents which help to thin and remove stuck mucus in the body. They also help to reduce swelling in the respiratory tract. Some people are allergic to ivy so care must be taken, though reactions are rare.

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Holly was also used for coughs as well as for colds and flus. A few leaves were drunk in hot water as a general seasonal tonic and it was also considered cleansing, being used for arthritis and fluid retention as a diuretic. It’s astringent properties help to tone the mucus membranes and balance mucus production.

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The magical mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen that roots into its host tree and derives nourishment from it, enabling it to grow high up in the branches and without any access to soil. It is famous for being revered by the Druids. According to the Roman writer Pliny The Elder it was gathered with great ceremony including the sacrifice of two white bulls “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.”

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Aside from its important purpose in facilitating kisses, it is also a valuable herbal medicine for treating a number of conditions. The leaves and twigs are the parts used and are most commonly made into a tea or tincture. The berries are fairly toxic but have been used externally in treating frostbite.

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It used to be used as a specific for epilepsy but today it is most popular for treating high blood pressure. It is useful for balancing menstrual flow and can be an important remedy during the menopause for anxiety, heart palpitations and flooding. Some people can find it quite heating though so beware if you are already a hot person and it is also one to avoid in pregnancy.
Mistletoe is also popular as a complementary cancer treatment, especially in Germany and Switzerland.

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These honey mushrooms, Armillaria mellea, are past their best now but in their prime they are both edible and medicinal. They have a history of use to treat neurological conditions such as vertigo and neurasthenia. Modern research has shown them to have anti-convulsive effects. Like all medicinal mushrooms they are also rich in polysaccharides and help to support proper functioning of the immune system.

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Similarly named but visually very different is the honey waxcap mushroom, above. The waxcaps have the most beautiful gills, as seen below with the equally beautiful butter waxcap.

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Winter beauty for me is all about the underlying forms and patterns of things. Whether that is branches stark against the sky, leaf veins illuminated by the low sun or the juxtaposition of hard edged rock and velvet moss.

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Next weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch so don’t forget to stock up your feeders and spend an hour jotting down any feathered visitors you spot.

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Cold weather usually results in dry skin so I have been making this lovely whipped body butter recipe recently. As I wanted to give it away to some pregnant friends I have kept the recipe simple and free from essential oils but if you get a good quality cacao butter then the chocolatey aroma is just perfect by itself.

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Whipped body butters are popular at the moment with good reason. Beating in the air makes them lighter and easier to absorb than a regular balm but without the fuss of adding water to make a cream so the end product is both simple to achieve and lovely to use. During winter I seem to think a lot about food so it’s no surprise that this recipe ended up being nutty, chocolatey and scrumptious smelling.

Nutty Chocolate Whipped Body Butter:
Makes 8 60g jars or 4 120g jars. Half the recipe if just for personal use.

Ingredients:
120g Cacao butter
120g Coconut oil
120g Shea Butter
60ml Macadamia nut oil
60ml Hazelnut oil
5ml Vitamin E

Melt all the ingredients except the vitamin E in a bain marie or double boiler making sure the pan underneath doesn’t run out of water. Stir regularly to ensure they are well mixed.

Once all the butters are melted, remove the bowl from the heat, allow to cool a little, add the vitamin E and stir well, then place in the fridge for about an hour giving it a stir every now and then. It is good to keep an eye on it as different fridges will have slightly different temperatures so yours may be ready after 40 mins. You will know it is good to go as they butters will still be semi-liquid but will have gone completely opaque. If they are too solid you won’t be able to whisk them so do keep checking.

When ready remove from fridge and start whisking. This will be a lot easier if you have an electric whisk, if not be prepared for aching arms! Soon it will start to look like thick buttercream icing. From here you can either spoon it into jars or pipe it in using a small plastic bag with the corner cut off.

Enjoy!

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Lime Blossom Interview

I was recently interviewed for the herbal podcast Listen on the many benefits of lime blossom.
If you are interested in finding out more you can listen to it here.

I hope you enjoy it!

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Today marks the Celtic festival of Samhain, or Halloween as it has been rebranded for the modern age. It marks the end of the harvests and the beginning of the long night of winter.

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It is said that for our Celtic ancestors, all things began in darkness, with a time of dreaming and gestation, and as such, Samhain marked the beginning of the New Year, just as dusk heralded the start of a new day.

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In this time and place we see death as a finality that comes at the end of life. A nothing, a void, an inevitable stopping. But what if we were to shift our vantage point a little, step to the side and see as our ancestors saw, that death is also that which precedes life. It just depends at what point on the wheel you want to hop on.

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Sitting in nature at the time of year it is easy to see this time of darkness and dying as the start of something new and quietly wonderful. Plants and trees shed their seed to be blanketed by fallen leaves, a soft slow beginning. So much has happened unnoticed, long before the first shoots of spring.

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Observing the natural world we see how life and death each contain the seed of the other.

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Samhain is also the time to honour the ancestors. Those who traveled their journey whilst we were still snug in the Earth, sleeping, sending down our strong roots and dreaming of warmer days to come.

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The Downs are beautiful at any time of year, even in deepest winter when grey skies and bitter winds make them seem grim and inhospitable. I’m not sure it ever gets better than August though, when wildflowers carpet the steep slopes and everything is climaxing in one last great show before the Autumn days draw in. The buzzing, whirring and fluttering of hoverflies, bees and butterflies is intense as they load up on pollen and nectar and the smells so rich you can end up feeling as euphoric as the insects appear to be.

The peacock butterfly is always a favourite of mine, let’s face it, there’s not many creatures so flamboyant on our humble Isle. And the Blues so soft and ethereal, it almost brings a tear to my eye to watch them.

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Peacock butterfly on Ragwort

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Small White on Common Knapweed

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Common Blue (underside) on Ragwort

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Common Blue on Ragwort

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Gatekeeper Butterfly

How gorgeous are these emerald hued beetles? They appeared to be in heaven, caressing each other and the thistle flower with their spindly legs. The rose chafer or Cetonia aurata, is not a rare beetle but it still takes the breath away.

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Rose Chafer on Creeping Thistle

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Creeping thistle is very common and has the most wonderful earthy honied scent. A small handful of the flower heads in hot water make a delicious tea. When they finish flowering the seeds are equally beautiful, catching in the wind with their silken threads.

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Creeping Thistle Seed Heads

Hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) is another common wildflower, though somewhat confusingly it is no relation to either hemp or agrimony. It is little used today but in the past it was an important medicinal herb used for treating fevers and cleansing the blood. It has been found to contain potentially toxic alkaloids so would not be appropriate for ongoing treatment or in large doses which, in any case, may cause vomiting. It is a wonderful plant for butterflies, bees, moths and other insects.

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Hemp Agrimony. (Notice the hawthorn berries ripening in the background… not long now!)

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Hemp Agrimony with Canadian Goldenrod

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Hemp agrimony, Canadian Goldenrod, Rosebay Willowherb, Hawthorn and Wild Clematis.

This goldenrod is not the native variety (Solidago virguarea) but the Canadian (Solidago canadensis) which was originally grown in gardens but is now not uncommon as a wildflower here in the South. It is very striking with a delicious heady fragrance which results in it being surrounded by clouds of happy insects.

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Canadian Goldenrod in full sun!

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Harvesting the wonderful mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) was one of the reasons for this morning’s walk. Mugwort is a fantastic medicinal herb that deserves much more than a quick summary but (among its many other uses) it is well loved for its affinity for the female reproductive system and its use as a digestive tonic. It is also steeped in folklore and myth and has long been used to promote lucid dreaming. Considered sacred to the Goddess Artemis, from whom it gets its Latin name, it is associated with the moon and all things magical.

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Our Lady Mugwort

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Yarrow is surely one of the most useful herbs we have, being helpful for a wide array of ailments. You can read more about it in my post here. They are mostly white with the odd pink one scattered in.

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Pink Yarrow

Classic wildflowers of chalky soils like the Downs include the graceful wild mignonette and agrimony. Agrimony (Agrimonia Eupatoria) is such a beautiful and cheerful herb, most commonly used for treating diarrhoea in children due to its gentle astringency. Also used for healing sore throats, toning the bladder and gut and healing wounds, it is member of the Rose family.

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Wild Mignonette

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Agrimony

Small scabious doesn’t have the most glamourous name but it is so beautiful it can just about get away with it! Perhaps the other flowers named it to prevent it becoming arrogant? I expect there is a story in there somewhere. The seed head alone is a work of art that only Mother Nature would be capable of.

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Small Scabious

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Scabious seedhead – Incredible!

Greater knapweed and rosebay willow herb are also important wildlife species and red bartsia is an attractive wildflower that is semi-parasitic on the roots of grasses.

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Greater Knapweed

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Red Bartsia

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Spires of Rosebay Willowherb

Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot is another beautiful yet common wild flower. The name is said to come from the small red flower that is sometime seen in the centre of the head and relates to a story that Queen Anne, consort to James I, pricked her finger and stained the centre of her lace red with a drop of her blood.

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Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot with visiting Green Lacewing

Another of its common names is ‘birds nest’ after the stunning seed heads that form after it has finished flowering.

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Wild Carrot seed head

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May is truly one of my favourite months of the year. On the tipping point between seasons we have the last of the spring greens along with the first summer flowers and there are always lots of wonderful things to gather.

I enjoyed a harvest of pine pollen with some lovely women folk early in the month and now have delicious infused vinegars and tinctures to sustain us through the year. Pine pollen is a pale yellow powdery substance released from the male catkins each Spring and is a marvellous food and medicine, being rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins and having a whole host of beneficial actions from anti-inflammatory to adaptogenic and androgenic. Humans have used pine as medicine since our origins.

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Hawthorn is the gem of the season and is so abundant that it is usually possible to gather freely for use in teas, tinctures and other preparations. I have written many posts on Hawthorn on this blog but you can read a little more about the medicinal qualities of the flowers here.

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Our garden has been so thoroughly carpeted in dandelions that the flowers have graced our table on more than one occasion. The classic way to eat them of course is as fritters and they certainly make a delicious treat that way. All you need to do is dunk the flowers in a simple batter and fry, then hold on to the stalk and eat the battered flower head, discarding the green parts left. I have written more about the many medicinal benefits of dandelion here.

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Now the flowers have turned to clocks and my son delights in blowing them hither and thither. I expect our dandelion carpet will be even more extensive next year as a result!

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Ribwort plantain also grows in abundance here along with a little broadleaf and hoary plantain to add variety to the mix. I have been busy making infused oils to help heal all the little injuries that are so common for exploratory toddlers. Ribwort plantain is also a wonderful lung herb amongst other qualities and makes a great field plaster. I will dedicate a full post to its many wonders soon.

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Shepherd’s purse is a valuable astringent remedy, particularly for the uterus and gets its name from the little seed capsules which resemble, you guessed it, shepherd’s purses.

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We also have lots of garlic mustard, or Jack-by-the-hedge, growing in the garden. Delicious earlier in the season the leaves become bitter after it has flowered but it is still a good plant for wildlife, especially the orange tip butterfly, so I leave it be.

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Speaking of wildlife we have had lots of welcome visitors. A couple of foxes frequent the garden daily and they are such a pleasure to watch.

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Nature at this time of year is full of sensory delights.

From colours:

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Buttercup

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Herb Robert

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Rock rose

To textures:

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Mullein

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Bistort

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Lady’s mantle

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White horehound

To delicious smells:

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Santolina

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Golden Marjoram

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Sage

The garden is also full of the promise of things to come. Elderflowers and St. John’s wort will soon be flowering and ready to pick, gooseberries are nearly ripe and we are looking forward to apples and strawberries later in the year.

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Apple blossom

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St. John’s wort

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Gooseberries

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Strawberries

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Elderflower soon to be in bloom

Lest it all seem too idyllic however, this month has also been fraught with horticultural challenges. First my mini greenhouse blew over in the strong winds and all my seedlings were lost. Then the birds puled up all the yellow rattle plugs I had planted and finally someone, possibly a rat, dug up my newly planted salad trough. As my Dad, who has been gardening for many years, reminds me, gardening is full of ups and downs. I like to thing it is Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that we don’t have as much control as we think we do.

And ultimately, that can only be a good thing!

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Love-in-a-mist