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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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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

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Autumn Foraging Workshops

Autumn bounty

Autumn bounty

We had a wonderful time at the Wild Plant Craft workshop over the Autumn Equinox weekend, meeting like minded people and spending time connecting with nature and gathering food and medicine from Mother Earth’s autumn bounty. Here are some of the highlights!

Anna and I will be doing another day of foraging and making at Wowo campsite in East Sussex on Sunday 26th October focusing on acorns, roots and medicinal mushrooms.

Meeting hazel

Meeting Hazel.

Collecting Himalayan Balsam seeds

Collecting Himalayan Balsam seeds.

Foraging fun

Foraging fun.

Clover blossom

Clover blossom.

Digging for roots whilst the smallest member of the company has a nap.

Digging for roots whilst the smallest member of the company has a nap.

Talking about Hawthorn, one of my favourite trees.

Talking about Hawthorn, one of my favourite trees.

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Singing Anna’s beautiful Hawthorn song.

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Fruits of our labour.

Foragers of all ages.

Foragers of all ages.

Taking time to meet the plants.

Taking time to meet the plants.

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Anna talks about chickweed.

Anna talks about chickweed.

Busy with preparations.

Busy with preparations.

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Berries simmering over the fire with hazelnuts roasting in a shallow pit beneath.

Berries simmering over the fire with hazelnuts roasting in a shallow pit beneath.

Ingredients for iron tonic.

Ingredients for iron tonic.

Food and medicine from the Earth.

Food and medicine from the Earth.

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Wildflowers and Waterways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bees and humans both enjoy red clover.

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

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

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Soldier beetle on Tansy.

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Lovely Evening Primrose.

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

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

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

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

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

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Nettle seeds, wonderful medicine and walker’s snack.

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An abundance of wild flowers.

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

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