Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

So it’s been gloom, gloom, gloom here in Sussex, as in so much of the UK, for most of the summer so far. Whilst I appreciate that Mother Nature’s patterns are greater than I can understand, the continual rain, mist and grey skies have started to feel a bit depressing over the last week or so. Summer is due to arrive in the next couple of days however and I know many of us are looking forward to enjoying a bit of sunshine. In the meantime I’m joining in with Debs and other bloggers over at Herbaholic’s Herbarium for a July Blog Party, the topic of which is ‘herbal sunshine’.


Lots of herbs are at their peak during the summer and even though the weather has been poor, plenty of flowers and aerial parts are ready to harvest in the gaps between showers. Some of the herbs that I associate most strongly with summer are the herbal aromatics, many of which are native to the Mediterranean and somehow seem to carry the very essence of the sun with them, even here in this damp UK summer.

Aromatics are herbs with a strong taste and aroma. The aroma is created by volatile oils within the plant and can serve in numerous ways; to attract pollinators, as part of the plant’s immune system or to taste unpleasant to grazing animals. Many plants contain these volatile oils but only those with strong aromas contain sufficient quantities to really be considered true aromatics.


What all the aromatics have in common is an ability to open up and move the body’s energy. They help to avoid stagnation and disperse anything that is stuck. They are great at drying dampness and moving the congestion that it often causes and they help us to feel brighter, more energised and uplifted as a result. Many people have commented to me that the weather has left them feeling sluggish and tired over the last couple of months and aromatics are just the thing to get everything moving again.

Therefore some could be used to move stuck catarrh in the sinuses, some to dispel gas in the gut and others to promote sweat and let go of trapped heat in the body. Think of how thyme or eucalyptus feel in the lungs, how peppermint feels in the gut or how ginger feels in the circulation; they all have a quality of movement and dispersing energy. The volatile oils in aromatic plants escape easily into the atmosphere when in the presence of warmth or light, that is why we can smell them in the air on a summer’s breeze. This ability of the volatile oils to move upward and outward reflects what we feel in the body when we take them, they move through us and clear the clogged up pathways as they go!

Mint infused honey.

They have a similar effect on a mental/ emotional level, opening and uplifting us when we feel glum and heavy. There is no doubt that a moderate amount of sunshine encourages feelings of joy, openness and relaxation and the aromatics can help fill that gap when the sun is nowhere to be seen. In fact, many of them are effective nervines such as lemon balm, lime blossom, chamomile, lavender or rosemary.

Many aromatics are warming and therefore useful for people who tend to feel the cold. Some however such as peppermint, rose and lemon balm are more cooling and therefore suitable for calming people who are hot.

Aromatics tend to have a positive effect on the digestion and the warming ones will stoke the digestive fires and improve metabolism. The more cooling ones often help to dispel gas and calm spasms and digestive cramps. One thing that is fantastic about these herbs is that they give their aromatic constituents up easily to a variety of different mediums and therefore make excellent infused oils, honeys, vinegars, teas and tinctures.

Lemon balm

Many of our favourite and best known herbal teas are made with aromatic herbs. Think mint, chamomile, fennel, lemon balm, cinnamon and ginger as examples. Most aromatics have quite a bit of cross over in their actions but some will have a certain resonance with a particular effect or area of the body such as thyme with the lungs, fennel with the digestion and rosemary with the circulation.

Teas that are particularly uplifting when the weather is poor include lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, rose and cardamom as all these have a gently uplifting and cheering quality.

Adding generous amounts of  fresh oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, basil or rosemary to our food also gives us this wonderful aromatic effect.

Infusing honey or vinegar with aromatic herbs and adding to foods is another lovely way to integrate them into our daily lives. Also, infusing them in oil and massaging them over the body can be delightfully restorative, or use a few drops of an appropriate essential oil mixed with a base oil to enjoy the beautiful aromas another way.

In this way we can go to the sun… even if the sun won’t come to us!


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Despite the incessant rain, I have been lucky enough to get good harvests of two of my very favourite plants recently; vervain from my garden and avena, or milky oat seed, from a local organic farm along with my friend Therri (known to some as the herbal muse!). Friends that I studied with used to tease me for giving these two herbs to nearly everyone that came into our clinic but they are so useful, healing and restorative that there seemed few cases where they were not indicated! Now that the vervain is about ready for pressing I thought I would share with you a few of the many reasons why I so love this wonderful plant ally. Common Name : Vervain. Also Wizard’s Herb, Herb of Enchantment, Simpler’s Joy, Holy Herb.
Latin: Verbena officinalis
Family: Verbenaceae
Botanical Features: A perennial herb native to Europe and parts of Asia. It has toothed, opposite leaves on spindly, branched square stems with spikes of tiny fairy-like flowers, whitish- mauve in colour.
Key constituents: Iridoides including verbenin and verbenalin, flavonoids, volatile oils, phenylpropanoids, triterpenes, mucilage, tannins and saponins.
Actions: Nervine, anti-spasmodic, sedative, diaphoretic, hepatic, alterative, galactogogue, aphrodisiac, emmenagogue, thymoleptic, vulnerary, hypotensive, anti-bacterial.
Energetics: Cooling and drying. This is a different but related species to the American native, Verbena hastata, or blue vervain, which is used in a comparable way. I have never worked with, or even tasted, this variety so I can’t make any comparison myself. It is also important to distinguish it from lemon verbena which is confusingly sometimes also called vervain. Whilst both plants belong to the wider Verbenaceae family, lemon verbena, Aloysia citrodora, (formerly Lippia ctrodora) is of a different genus. Though often described with words like, ‘straggly’, ‘meagre’ or ‘weedy’, for those who appreciate the small and the subtle, vervain is one of the most beautiful plants in the garden. It used to grow freely in the wild but is not so common these days. In fact I think I have seen it growing abundantly in the wild only twice, usually I just see a few plants here and there, so it is a plant best cultivated if you wish to ensure a harvest. The ethereal grace of vervain is hard to capture in words or images but when you sit with this plant it appears as if illuminated by the softest of radiances. To me it seems the very embodiment of the fey here in this physical world. Along with Meadowsweet, which I wrote about last week, Vervain was another of the Druid’s most sacred plants and it is often referred to as the ‘Druid’s herb’ or ‘wizard’s herb’. Interestingly it was also revered by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and was used as an altar herb in all these cultures. In folklore vervain was the plant used to staunch the bleeding from Christ’s wounds after he was bought down from the cross. As is so common with herbs that were popular in pre-Christian Europe they are associated both with witches, enchantment and devilment (due to their popularity in pagan times) and with holiness and therefore protection from those same forces (due to the usurping of powerful symbols by the new ideology.) From the sunny Mediterranean to the damp shores of the UK, vervain was once considered something of a cure all and was a favourite of Hippocrates himself. Tales of vervain as a universal panacea became somewhat overblown as it was considered to do such diverse things as grant love, heal any wound, treat the plague and even bestow immortality. Gerard scorns this over enthusiasm in his herbal of 1597 saying, “instead of a good and sure remedy they minister no remedy at all; for it is reported that the Divell did reveal it as a secret and divine medicine.” The truth, as is so often the case, lies somewhere in the shifting sands between. Of course it cannot bestow immortality but it does have the ability to assist in an impressive range of health conditions. These days vervain is used primarily as a relaxing nervine with a particular affinity for the digestion and the liver/ gallbladder and this is certainly the main way that I use it. Culpepper describes it as being useful for people who are ‘frantic’ a particularly apt description I think as it calms and centers the stressed out, workaholics of this world. However it is also a fine nervous system restorative so it’s ideal for those that have been frantic and are now exhausted as a consequence or for those who are deficient due to prolonged stresses and strains. It is wonderful for sensitive souls who feel easily overwhelmed and tend to nervousness and restlessness which often manifest as constriction, cramps and poor digestion. It is a helpful herb in convalescence for this very reason and Bartram recommends it in cases of ME and post viral fatigue. It has a very calming effect so it is helpful when we feel scattered and fearful or anxious. Due to it’s affinity with the liver it is also helpful when we are irritable or angry, making it a prime tonic herb for PMS. It’s antispasmodic and calming actions help to soothe menstrual cramps and its cleansing effect on the liver helps to flush out hormones whilst increased bile flow from the gallbladder aids in bowel function and elimination. It is often used in cases of hormonal headaches due to these same effects. It helps to open and move congestion which is often an underlying factor in menstrual complaints. As vervain is slightly stimulating to the reproductive system it is best avoided in pregnancy. It has however been used to assist with labour.

_________________________________________________________________________________________ It is a helpful ally throughout the menopause as well and helps to reduce hot flushes, dispel headaches and irritability and improve sleep. It has a hypotensive effect and can assist with palpitations. It should be teamed with more moistening herbs if dryness is a factor however. One of the reasons it helps with hot flushes is because it is a gentle diaphoretic when taken as a hot tea. This means it helps to open the periphery and release excess heat. For this reason it was often used in cold and flu blends. I don’t really use it in this way as there are other diaphoretic herbs that taste more pleasant in tea form such as elderflower, lime blossom and peppermint, but if I was in a pinch then I would certainly turn to vervain. Like many diaphoretics, when taken as a cold tea the action is more diuretic so it can be useful for promoting kidney function and has even been used for kidney stones in the past, probably due to it’s mix of anti-spasmodic, pain relieving, diuretic and tonifying actions. Vervain is certainly a key herb for promoting digestive function as it increases digestive juices, improves absorption and assimilation and promotes bile flow and emulsification of fats. It helps to stimulate the appetite and also relaxes the stomach when tension is held there, both of which are key for promoting digestion. When we are stressed out, our digestion shuts down as it is seen as non essential when we are dealing with a serious threat and the ability to breath deeply, run away or fight is prioritised. Chronic stress results in chronic digestive tension meaning that the digestive juices don’t flow well, we feel less hungry and our energy is sourced from our adrenal glands. This in turn places stress on the liver and we can become prone to cramps and spasms as the nervous system goes into overdrive. It combines very nicely with chamomile and gentle digestive spices where this is the case and is an important herb to consider in cases of IBS because of it’s affinity with both the nerves and the digestion. It’s gentle astringency made it popular as a wound herb in the past and also as a mouthwash for sore, bleeding or inflamed gums. This ability to tone mucus membranes along with the antispasmodic action means it was once used to treat coughs and asthma. Juliette de Baïracli Levy recommends it, ‘for pulmonary ailments, including asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis, whooping cough.”

Vervain is pretty hardy, this plant grows out of the concrete on my front path.

Vervain is bitter-bitter, of this there is no denying, but it also has a kind of softness that other bitters often lack, making it both grounding and uplifting all at once. It is considered a thymoleptic, that is a substance that favourably modifies the mood and is therefore useful in cases of mild depression, especially when it’s accompanied by anxiety. Like many diaphoretic herbs it has a gently opening quality which makes you feel more present and connected, less closed in and contracted. It is a very balancing herb and it is perhaps because of this that I find it to be suitable for most people’s constitutions. Though some might disagree, due to it’s cooling and somewhat drying nature, it seems beneficial to almost everyone, especially when used with other herbs that are specific to an individual’s constitution. When working with someone with nervous and digestive complaints – which so often go hand in hand – it would always be high on my list of considerations. For the Vata person who can tend to be anxious and ungrounded it is ideal as a nerve restorative and anti-spasmodic. For them I like to team it with something deeply nourishing like avena and a gently warming digestive spice like cardamom. For the Kapha person who can be heavy, damp and sluggish it is great to clear obstructions, and promote the flow of bile from the gallbladder. I would want to add something more heating and drying such as dry ginger and rosemary for this individual. For the Pitta person it’s qualities are ideal to drain excess heat, calm stress and hypertension and release irritability. For these folk it is nice with skullcap and melissa or peppermint. For the most part I use vervain in tincture form as it is a bit bitter to make a pleasant tea. You can also make capsules from the dried and finely ground herb if you prefer however. There is no doubt that this is one of the most useful and precious herbs in my dispensary as well as one of the most beautiful in my gaden. When I read of how people in India venerate the sacred herb Tulsi, also known as the ‘Incomparable One’, I always think of vervain as the European equivalent. Though we may not treat it with such respect in this day and age, it’s importance is no less diminished and it’s offerings no less profound as a consequence.

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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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June Is For Roses

June is almost behind us now but I couldn’t let it disappear completely without paying homage to the rose – for June is all about elderflowers and roses!

As anyone who has been following this blog for a while knows, I (like many others) am a sucker for roses. There is so much you can do with them at this time of year, for the kitchen, the bathroom or the medicine cabinet, and all will bring that gentle honeyed sweetness into your life, uplifting the spirit and gladdening the heart. In this post I wanted to share some pictures of a few of the roses currently in bloom along with some ideas about how you might want to use them.

Old favourite Margaret Merril has the most perfect blooms and a deliciously delicate scent.

Alex’s Red has suffered a bit with blackspot this year but the blooms are beautifully formed with a gorgeous deep burgundy hue. I have heard that you can treat blackspot with a spray made of a 50/50 mixture of milk and water but I haven’t tried it yet to confirm.

Below is a new addition, Cariad, which I bought last year as a bare root almost purely for the name which means ‘love’ in Welsh. It actually looks quite different from the photo I saw but I like it anyway and it looks lovely with red campion and vervain planted infront.

Scepter’d Isle is an even softer, warmer pink which is very relaxing to look upon. She can go a bit brown in heavy rains but now the weather is a clearer she is in finest of forms.

Warm Welcome is a miniature climber that was bred by my uncle. Both he and my great grandfather were rose breeders so I guess some degree of obsession must be in the blood! Both have also written books on the subject. A tipi support of hazel twigs lends this rose a fairytale charm.

Jude the Obscure is one of the most beautifully fragranced of all the roses. At this time of year I can hardly walk down the garden path without stopping to bury my nose in the blooms whilst my husband attempts to hurry me along calling ‘go, go, we’re going to miss the train!’

Goldfinch is a lovely small rambler that I bought to grow over the unsightly oil tank situated by our garden gate. The flowers are a soft apricot hue that fades to cream as they age.

The rose is the plant that is perhaps most closely associated with the heart and this summer I noticed an interesting connection between the two. The petals of the rose open in a spiral looking not dissimilar to the heart muscle itself which recent research has proven is actually one muscular band that pumps and suctions blood by opening in a spiral. You can see a video of this here, be sure to watch right to the end when you see how the heart actually pumps, it is quite amazing to behold and something of a revolution in the study of anatomy. Comparing the two put me in mind of the the doctrine of signatures, the idea that something in a plants aspect gives us clues as to what it can be used for.

Along with the Apothecaries Rose and the local wild roses, Gertrude Jekyll is the rose I use most for medicine making. I wrote this post last year about using it in tinctures but it also makes the most fantastic infused vinegars, honeys and elixirs. It has a particularly high yield of essential oil so it imparts a beautifully sweet rose flavour to whatever menstruum it is infused in.

To make a rose infused vinegar or honey, all you need do is lightly pack a jar with any highly scented, unsprayed rose petals and cover with your liquid of choice. As the petals are so delicate they give up their flavour easily. If you leave the petals in the honey it can be used almost immediately but if you prefer to strain it then let it infuse for a couple of weeks first. A week is enough time for the vinegar. Remember to cap your vinegars with a plastic rather than metal lid to avoid corrosion.

To make a rose elixir you follow the exact same process but fill the jar a third full of honey and two thirds of brandy or vodka to cover the petals. This is a nice mix of the deliciousness of a honey infusion with a stronger alcohol extraction which will result in a more potent medicinal effect. This can be strained after only a day or two as the volatile oils in the plant are easily extracted into the alcohol and the medicine will become more bitter and astringent as time progresses, something that may not be desirable if you want to maximise the flavour of the end product. Rose petals are also delicious in a salad and look beautiful with other edible flowers. Danielle at The Teacup Chronicles recently posted a recipe for a strawberry and rose petal salad which looked delectable.

At this time there are so many roses in bloom that I can’t resist picking a few for the kitchen windowsill. Gazing at them and smelling their sweet scent on the air helps to make doing the washing up a far more pleasurable task!

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Right now the elderflower reigns supreme as Queen of the hedgerow as she decorates the land in clouds of white blooms. Elder truly lives up to its name ‘the people’s medicine chest’ as each part has some use or other for humans or animals alike.

Juliette de Bairacli Levy calls elder ‘one of the greatest of all herbs’ and I could not agree more. She goes on to inform us, ‘it is sacred to the gypsies who will not burn it as wood in their fires: they declare that a tree which can help all the ailments of mankind and can restore sight to the blind, is too precious to burn.’

Elderflower is famous as a wild food but it is not only delicious in cordials, champagne and fritters but is also a fantastic medicine, being especially useful for any condition where there is congestion in the sinuses such as in hay fever, colds or sinusitis. It is diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory and anti-catarrhal and can be prepared as tea, tincture or a cold infusion like this one below.

To make a cold infusion of elderflower all you need to do is place a few heads of the flowers into a jug of fresh water, leave to infuse for a couple of hours and drink the heavenly yet delicately flavoured water throughout the day.

Elderflower is lovely in teas combined with nettle and rose for allergies, linden blossom for a relaxing floral brew or chamomile for a gentle anti-inflammatory effect. The classic cold and flu blend includes elderflower, peppermint and yarrow, all useful diaphoretic herbs.

When gathering elderflower for tea be sure to shake off any little black bugs as you do not want to wash the blossoms- they will loose all their pollen and delicious flavour. Also be sure to remove the flowers from the green stems which are emetic (i.e. can make you vomit) and taste unpleasant as a friend of mine recently discovered when making tea with the stalks still attached! If you are making the cold infusion you don’t need to worry about the stems as the cool temperature will not extract their properties or flavour.

Much like the berry, elderflower has also been shown to have a good anti-viral effect so can help treat colds and flus, not just by countering mucus or by provoking a sweat but by a direct effect on immune function as well. Culpepper was recommending elderflower to treat colds and flus back in the seventeenth century and its use as a folk medicine no doubt goes back many hundreds of years before his time.

Finally it is also wonderful in skin care recipes. Culpepper states ‘the distilled water of the flowers is of much use to clean the skin from sun-burning, freckles, morphew the like.’ Morphew is apparently a scurfy skin eruption. Juliette writes ‘Elder lotion is an old-fashioned but excellent treatment for the complexion and hair.’ You can read about some of the ways I use elderflowers in skin care in this post here from a couple of years ago.

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The May, Whitethorn, Quickthorn, all are country names for this most remarkable of trees that blooms so prolifically throughout much of the month. I believe I have written about hawthorn more than any other plant, yet every season and every year affords me fresh insights into her great worth.

The blossoming of the May is one of the highlights of my herbal year. Though many dislike the smell, which is deep, musky and often compared to rotting meat  (I don’t see the resemblance myself!) I find it nothing short of delightful – earthy, sensual and rich.  It ties me to a sense of time and place and fills the countryside with wonder for the few short weeks it is in flower.

If you live in this corner of the world, the South of England, now is the time to harvest hawthorn flowering tops for teas, tinctures, elixirs and anything else you fancy. It is usual to pick a little bunch of the blossom, either just before or just after opening, with the first few leaves attached, as both blossom and leaf have important medicinal constituents. The photo below shows the amount that I usually pick for drying or tincture making.

Do remember when harvesting not to over pick from a single tree and to just take a little from each one as the blossoms will become berries in the autumn which are an important source of food for the birds and other creatures, as well as being food and medicine for us. Hawthorns are pollinated by a variety of insects including solitary bees and, due to dwindling insect populations, there are said to have been declining numbers of berries in recent years. They are still abundant in most parts and we humans, without the benefit of flight, tend to pick from lower branches whilst the birds feast on higher ones but it’s always good to bear in mind how many other creatures rely on exactly the same species that are so beneficial for us.

Hawthorn flowers are often acknowledged for their benefit in treating heart conditions and are typically included in preparations alongside the berries for a range of cadiovascular and circulatory disorders ranging from angina to chilblains. This is in part due to their antioxidant content found in the form of phenolic compounds which are actually even higher in the leaves and blossoms than they are in the berries. We tend to think of antioxidants occurring mainly in highly coloured foods like berries but you can see that the colour of the tea made from the flowering tops is also rich and deeply hued after being left to infuse for fifteen minutes or so.

Though truly enjoyable when drunk as a simple, hawthorn blossom also combines with a variety of other herbs to make any number of delicious teas. Here are some of my favourites:

Spicy – Combine 2-3 flowering tops with a couple of slices of ginger and an inch of cinnamon stick to wake the circulation and protect the heart.

Floral – Hawthorn blossom is both deeply calming and nurturing when combined with rose petals and linden blossom in a beautifully heart opening brew.

Seasonally Sleepy – A few cowslips flowers along with hawthorn blossom make a great bedtime tea as mentioned in my last post.

Sensual – Hawthorn tops, rose petals and half a vanilla bean thinly sliced make for a sweet, earthy and fragrant tea.

Despite being placed firmly in the category of a ‘heart herb’ in Western herbal medicine, hawthorn has a multifaceted personality, just like so many of our herbal allies. I consider the blossoms in particular to be a primary nervine tonic as they are deeply relaxing and calming to states of anxiety and over stimulation. I like to use them alongside other nervine herbs, like avena, for people who are sensitive to everything; loud noises, strong colours, smells and sensations and need to be calmed and comforted. In 19th century France an infusion of the blossoms was used to treat insomnia and herbalist Maurice Messegue writes “I myself make use of the hawthorn for nervous spasms, arteriosclerosis, angina and obesity and it is one of my favourite tranquiliser herbs.” It therefore makes an exceptional choice in problems where the circulatory and nervous systems are both affected such as nervous palpitations, restlessness and arrhythmia.

The powerful combination of antioxidants makes hawthorn blossoms and berries good food for the immune system as well and modern research suggests they have an inhibitory effect on the breakdown of collagen, therefore aiding healing and having an all round rejuvenating effect. Hawthorn is a very safe medicine that is tolerated by almost everyone though it is of course wise to consult with a herbalist before taking it alongside medications. It has been traditionally eaten as food, the young leaves in spring salads and the berries in jams and preserves later in the year so it can be incorporated in our lives in any way that suits us best.

The blossoming of Hawthorn has long been associated with reawakening life; with spring, with fertility and with love and it leaves you with a kind of lightness of spirit that dusts away the very last of the wintery drear. These two holly blue butterflies flew along the hedgerow beside me for a time, flirting in and out of the branches and rejoicing in the return of the sunshine. And I rejoiced along with them, for the return of this most cherished of herbal medicines and dearest of friends.

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Dandelion Medicine

Common name: Dandelion
Latin: Taraxacum officinale
Family: Asteraceae/ Compositeae – daisy family.
Botanical features: Herbaceous perennial  with single yellow flower heads each made up of numerous florets on unbranched, hollow stems. Leaves are toothed or deeply lobed and form a basal rosette growing from a mostly unbranched taproot. The fruits are borne on silky pappi forming a globe which is easily blown apart by wind or by wish-makers alike.

Dandelion flowers are surely one of the most joyful sights at this time of year, carpeting roadsides and fields with their merry abandon. They have long been considered heralds of the return of the sun, blooming in spring, opening with the day and closing at night. True to form, this last week they have remained stubbornly closed in the incessant grey-skied drizzle.

Dandelion is another of those plants that blurs the line between food and medicine as all parts can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes. It is not without irony that plants commonly viewed as weeds like nettle and dandelion are some of the most nutritious foods and helpful medicines we have available to us. The sorry result of living in a time and place of seeming plenty is that we forget to give value to that which is most worthy of it. Dandelions should always be encouraged in our gardens, not just for our own wellbeing but because they also support a variety of butterflies, moths and other insects.

Look closely to see how each flower is actually a flower head comprising many individual florets. This is a feature common to members of the asteraceae family.

The actions of dandelion are many and varied but include; hepatic, cholagogue, diuretic, alterative, anti-rheumatic, aperient, tonic, nutritive and digestive.

Dandelion flowers are the part least used in medicine but they do have some of both the cleansing and nutritive properties of the leaf and root. They are good infused in apple cider vinegar, either alone or with the whole plant, left for a month to six weeks and then strained to make a useful addition to salads, stir fries, soups and veggies.

They also make a lovely infused oil but be careful to pick them on a dry, sunny day when all the dew has dried as the high moisture content can easily spoil your oil. This is commonly used as a rub for fatigued and aching muscles after infusing for a week on a sunny windowsill and then straining. I like to combine dandelion, St. John’s wort and rosemary infused oils to make a warming and healing massage oil for everyday back aches and pains. Susun Weed also recommends it as a breast massage oil which is interesting because the greens were used in the past as a poultice for swollen breasts and breast cancers.

Dandelion flower fritters are a wild food staple and Danielle has a lovely recipe for them here. You can also learn to make dandelion flower wine with Rosalie here, something I have yet to try!

Do take a little care when picking though as the milky latex contained in the stem can cause contact dermatitis in some sensitive individuals.


The leaves are tasty in salads when used sparingly. They are bitter so I tend to just use a few amongst the spicier tastes of mustards or wild garlic and the sweeter taste of lettuce but if you want the full medicinal effect then you can make a salad consisting entirely of dandelion leaves. I recently came across this wonderful video from 94 year old Clara about how she makes her dandelion leaf salads, definitely worth checking out! Culpepper recommended it as a pot herb, made into broth with a few Alexanders. Alexanders are growing freely right now so it’s a good time to give this a try.

The leaves are one of, if not the, primary diuretic used in modern herbal medicine. They affect the water balance in our bodies by encouraging excretion of excess fluids but they also strengthen the entire urinary system. They are well known for their country name Pissabed, or the French pissenlit, but interestingly they were also used in the past to treat bed wetting and incontinence, as well as causing it. They are a useful addition to a constitutional formula where there is oedema due to heart failure or high blood pressure as they will not aggravate the cause whilst treating the symptoms as pharmaceutical diuretics have been shown to. This is because, rather than depleting it, they restore the body’s natural balance of potassium as the areal parts of the herb can contain as much as 4% of this vital mineral. Dandelion greens also contain iron, calcium and a host of vitamins including A, B’s and C.

As well as being eaten in foods they can be dried and added to teas or made into tincture.

They can vary in size and colour depending on where they grow as this page from my journal attempts to capture. The larger, leafier ones are nicer in salads in my opinion as the smaller, darker leaves can be a little tough.

The root of dandelion is the part that is commonly used to support the liver and gallbladder though the whole herb has enough bitterness to get the bile flowing and tone digestion. All tap roots have a nourishing quality to them as they act as a storehouse for vital nutrients and dandelion’s roots go deep into the earth to access minerals held in the subsoil. It is a helpful medicine anywhere that there is heat or stagnation in the liver as it demonstrates, in Cupepper’s words, an ‘opening and cleansing quality.’ It both stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder and the production of more in the liver so it can help in our ability to digest fats and can also work as a mild laxative or aperient by toning the whole digestive system. Moving liver congestion can help our bodies to work more efficiently on many levels and assist in conditions from headaches to skin conditions to foggy headedness and inability to concentrate. The liver also processes hormones so dandelion root can be very helpful in PMS and other hormonal complaints.

Dandelion root is an excellent tonic for the pancreas as it works on both the exocrine and endocrine functions of this important organ. By stimulating the release of gastric juices it aids the digestive capacity and by increasing insulin secretions it helps to balance blood sugar levels.

Roots are commonly harvested in autumn or spring. In autumn the long tap root is busy storing nutrients and polysaccharides away for the winter and the resulting medicine will be sweeter and richer in inulin so more appropriate for people who need building and nourishing, general digestive support or help balancing blood sugar levels. In spring the roots will be nice and bitter and great for people who have symptoms that indicate more heat and inflammation in the liver. Having said that most people can benefit from a more stimulating bitter in spring and a more nourishing bitter as the cold months come around so there is something to be said for making batches of both to use at the appropriate time as well as just looking at the energetics of the individual.

The energetics of dandelion are interesting. It is considered cooling due to it’s bitterness, and drying, primarily for its diuretic properties. Therefore it is often used for people who are hot, red faced, liverish and irritable, swollen, stressed and with high blood pressure. For the most part the leaf does tend more towards the cooling, drying and cleansing end of the spectrum but the root I find to be more complex. I currently have three dandelion tinctures sat on my shelf and each one is completely different from the next. This is partly due to the time of year they were harvested as explained above but also due to other environmental factors. One of the tinctures is so thick, sweet and nutritious that I would almost classify it as moist rather than dry and would always think to use it for people who were depleted, weak or fatigued. This is one reason why it’s so important to taste your herbs and get to know them rather than assuming all dandelion tinctures will be the same. I happily use dandelion root for a variety of people who need some liver support, though I would balance it with other herbs as appropriate to the individual.

Dandelion has often been associated with joy and I like to think it encourages happiness both actively, through the unfettered cheeriness of its flowers, and passively, by releasing anger and emotions held in the liver and allowing the happiness that is naturally our nature to shine through.

Everyone enjoys a few dandelion leaves in our house!

 I will finish with a quote from Culpepper which I found most amusing. Always one to call it as he saw it you can understand why he was so unpopular with the medical establishment of his day. I wonder how much has changed in the intervening years. “You see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the Spring; and now if you look a little farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people.”

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