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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.