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Archive for the ‘Plant Ramblings’ Category

I went for a lovely walk on the Downs yesterday afternoon with Sarah, aiming to harvest some Yarrow and see what was about. It was a beautiful sunny day and there was such an abundance of wonderful healing plants everywhere we looked. Sarah is a great herbalist and teacher so I always learn lots from my time with her.

We saw lots of Lady’s Bedstraw, Gallium verum, a lovely cleansing herb which can help the kidneys, liver and lymphatic system and aid in skin disorders, much like it’s close relative Cleavers, Gallium aparine. It has a delightful odour and was used as a strewing herb and to stuff mattresses (hence its name).

Lady's Bedstraw

The Agrimony, though slightly passed its best, was still looking so beautiful. Seeing this herb on a walk is always a pleasure. As an astringent it’s useful for stomach upsets and sores and can help tone oily skins when used as a face wash.

Agrimony

We also saw Wild Lettuce, a useful sedative, growing next to flowering Mugwort.

Wild Lettuce

Mugwort

I was very excited to see the haws starting to form on the beloved Hawthorn.

Swelling Haws

There was lots of mallow, a traditional wound herb, and some wonderful wild marjoram which I’m going to write a fuller post on in a couple of days.

Mallow

Wonderful Wild Marjoram

I was so happy to see some eyebright which I hadn’t encountered in the wild before.

Eyebright

And last, but by no means least, we managed to collect the thing we came for, some lovely blooming Yarrow. What a great afternoon!

Yarrow

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This month, I decided to join in the Herbwifery forum’s monthly blog party, hosted by Shamana Flora, the topic of which is ‘Adventures in Herbalism: or What wouldn’t we do for herbs.’

The idea is to write about any interesting, entertaining or downright outrageous stories from our work with the herbs and wild plants of our craft. We were invited to “share… a story of an adventure you’ve had collecting/wildcrafting herbs…i.e. collecting hops naked in the rain? hanging off a mountainside for elderberry collecting? eluding curious bystanders? etc etc.”

I thought this sounded like a great idea for a blog party but, when I came to consider it, I couldn’t really think of anything that adventurous I’ve done while collecting my plants. Of course there’s the inevitable trespassing, sneaking round under cover of darkness, wading through nettles in shorts, hanging over rivers and crawling around the undergrowth that is part of any wild herbalist’s work, but nothing that would really make a particularly enthralling story.

As I mulled it over however, it occurred to me that my whole interaction with plants and nature is an adventure, one that has transformed my world, my thinking, my feeling and my understanding. I’ve come to think that the true adventures in herbalism are inner adventures, the ones that alter our perceptions so radically that we come out of them utterly changed. Altered and awed.

I can remember very clearly the lightbulb moment when I realised that struggling and straining to learn how to communicate subtly with my plant companions was ridiculous. We are so conditioned into believing that we need to learn new skills through a process of practice and great effort that it never occurred to me that these kinds of interactions are part of our very being, easy as laughing, easy as breathing. Generally, when we think about breathing it becomes a complicated process, but in openness and letting go, the body’s own wisdom knows exactly what to do. The same is true with learning to share experiential understandings with plants. Just as animals interact so easily with their environments, we too are designed to fit into and be a part of a natural world which, in our culture, we are so used to separating ourselves from.

What do you think this one's saying?!

When we spend time in nature, observing with an open mind and heart, subtle shifts begin to creep up on us, everything seems brighter, more shining, more special. We can no longer pass by unaware and unseeing as we start to delight in every little thing around us. Even in the city I find myself stopping, enthralled by a tiny plant growing out of a wall, gazing at the trees in wonder and in gratitude. Something sleepy and wild begins to stir in the blood and we realise that we’ll never be quite ‘normal’ again.

So my greatest adventure in herbalism is the quiet, simple, day to day adventure of appreciation for all the gifts that plants give us, from shelter, food and medicine, to subtle understandings, realisations and the ability to extend our love beyond the the limited boundaries of friends and family, to begin to embrace the whole world, in all its myriad expressions.

We always assume it is pain and suffering that will break us, if we let them. So we avoid pain and with it we avoid much of our true experience, as shutting down will inevitably close us to all our sensations and potential for feeling. If we are lucky and some blessing or miracle happens upon us, then we come to see that it’s not pain that will be our undoing but wonder, and what an undoing it is. Imagine it, imagine a breaking that doesn’t reduce you but rather offers you the whole universe, yielding and divine. That is what the natural world offers us, the possibility of wonder, of surrender, of bewilderment and bliss.

In some ways the plants have already asked a lot of of me, but they have given so much more in return. So in answer to the alternative title for this blog party “what wouldn’t we do for herbs?” I must reply, ‘there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them.’ My teachers, my guardians, my friends.

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Seeds of Being

I went home recently to visit my parents. During our regular garden tour, as we were busy admiring all the beautiful things my Dad has planted, he pointed to a patch of bluebells and asked, “do you remember those?”

I had to confess I didn’t and and he explained that I’d planted a few bulbs there when I was a small child. Now, over two decades later, there’s a wonderful patch of bluebells.

This for me was a great analogy for the way our minds work. Mostly we’re not even aware of the seeds we’re planting in our consciousness, or what will ripen as a result but, sooner or later, something is bound to grow.

In the fifth century the Buddhist Master Vasubandhu wrote;

Mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown…
In us are infinite variety of seeds,
Seeds of samsara, nirvana, delusion and enlightenment,
Seeds of suffering and happiness,
Seeds of perceptions, names and words.

If we have the opportunity to develop a spiritual practice (be it meditation, prayer or gardening),  listen to teachings or read inspiring words, it’s like filling our minds with positive seeds that will eventually multiply and create more positive mental states. The same is true of compassion, love and peacefulness. We may not feel them now but by holding intentions and planting positive seeds we are laying the foundations for the future. This is an incredible opportunity for transformation.

Every day we have the opportunity to choose what we plant in our minds. Who knows when the seeds will eventually ripen or how far they will spread. Much of our popular culture and the way the news is reported sows seeds of fear, greed, aggression, ego-centrism and paranoia.

As the Buddha said, “With our thoughts we make the world”. This is echoed once more by Vasubandhu when he writes;

The quality of our life
depends on the quality
of the seeds
that lie deep in our consciousness.

What kind of world do you want to plant?

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I can’t believe a month has gone by since we wrote about aches and pains in our April blog party, but the time is upon us once more and this month our kind hostess is Debs over at Herbaholic’s Herbarium. She will provide links to everyone’s posts on the 20th.

The topic she has chosen is ‘Local Wild Herbs, New Herbal Treasures’ and she has challenged us to cast our eyes a little further than our favourite, well used and loved, wild herbs and discover something we haven’t worked with before. She says, ‘The only rules are the herb has to come from the wild and has to be something you’re not familiar with using herbally.”

Though very common around these parts, a new and exciting medicinal discovery for me this spring is Speedwell. I have long loved her pretty mauve flowers but, until recently, I didn’t know that this herb could be used medicinally or that there were many different types.

At first I had some difficulty differentiating between the various species as my wild flower books seemed to carry slightly conflicting information. After a bit of cross referencing I’m fairly convinced that the species I see growing abundantly are Common Field Speedwell (Veronica persica), Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and Slender Speedwell (Veronica filiformis). There’s also an Ivy-Leaved Speedwell (Veronica Hederifolia), Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) and Heath Speedwell (Veronica Officinalis), the later being the variety most commonly used in medicine, among many others.

Germander Speedwell

Slender Speedwell

My next challenge was to discover some information on the medicinal properties, which unfortunately is a little thin on the ground, as Speedwell has fallen out of fashion in current herbal practice. The only references I found were in Maria Treben’s Health Through God’s Pharmacy, Gabrielle Hatfield’s Hatfield’s Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. Most of the information online seems to be about how to eradicate Speedwell from one’s perfectly manicured lawn (grr) but there are some great articles and photos on Heath Speedwell over at Henriette’s Herbal. Treben tells us that it was once a highly esteemed herb and that the Romans would compliment each other by saying a person has as many good qualities as the Speedwell. The name too seems to indicate a speedy return to good health.

The only two species that are discussed in the above books are Heath and Germander, the former being the favourite of official medicine and the latter of folk healers, being the most abundant species in the UK. According to Mrs Grieve, both have been used primarily for coughs and skin complaints, reminding me of that other pretty, mauve spring flower, Viola. Both varieties also thought to be useful diuretics, as well as vulnerary and alterative, but Heath Speedwell is also diaphoretic, tonic and expectorant. Treben also recommends it for nervousness caused by mental exhaustion. There don’t seem to be any modern studies available but Hatfield claims it contains the glycoside, scutellarin, named after our calming friend, Skullcap.

According to references cited in Mrs Grieve, the constituents are well extracted in water so my first experiment was a nice cup of Speedwell tea. I followed this up by making an infused oil, to see if the skin healing properties could work in this medium as well as as a simple wash. I haven’t strained the oil yet so can’t report back until I do, but its certainly looking promising and has taken on a lovely light green shade.

Speedwell Infused in Sweet Almond

I very much enjoyed my tea, finding the smell soothing, earthy and fresh. The first sip had an immediate mental clearing effect and I felt soothed but not sedated, the effect being both relaxing and clarifying. I became very aware of the area around my head and I felt my meditative abilities heighten and my third eye and crown chakras open. My breathing deepened and I felt both more grounded and more connected. The taste is green, fresh and ever so slightly bitter without being unpleasant. To me it has an almost celery like quality too. The key things that came through for me were mental clarity and sense of peacefulness. It felt like a subtle medicine, working on the mind and emotions as well as the physical body, which prompted me to make a flower remedy using the Slender Speedwell which grows abundantly in one of my favourite walking spots.

I waited for a suitably sunny morning, then dashed out this weekend to grab the opportunity when it finally arose. Even so I only managed two hours of sun infusion before the clouds came a’rolling in but such is life for a flower essence maker in this variable UK climate!

Speedwell Flower Essence

One thing that strikes me about this little flower is her wonderful contradictions, she’s pale, delicate, frail looking, innocent and flimsy but, like all weeds, she’s also tenacious, clever, wilful and a true survivalist. She reminds me to never judge a book by it’s cover! I think it’s probably these contradictions which give the tea and essence this wonderful sense of being grounding yet also spiritually and emotionally uplifting. Compared to the other flowers around, mainly dandelions and daisies, that have these strong upright stems, that of Speedwell is fine and flexible, sometimes standing up, sometimes laying almost flat and creeping.

Both the colour of the flower and the signature of the central white and gold eye, seem to confirm my original feeling that this was a remedy which resonates with the third eye and crown chakras. I’ve only been taking the remedy a few days now but my initial feelings are that this is a flower to help us in seeing deeply, being conscious and aware and deepening our meditation.

Completed Essence and Sketch

I plan to try incorporating Speedwell into some of my tea blends, perhaps taking it with Plantain and Thyme for chest complaints or with Oatstraw and Rose for bringing out it’s peaceful properties. Treben recommends combining it with Nettle for treating eczema. When the oil is done, I’ll keep half to experiment with as a simple and add the other half into my favourite skin soothing Viola and Chickweed cream. As soon as I locate some Heath Speedwell I’ll be making a tincture too. It’s said to grow well in coastal areas so I should find some around if I continue looking.

I’d love to hear if anyone has any experience, or knows of any good references for using Speedwell so please share your weedy wisdom in the comments.

I’ll leave you with this lovely little verse written by James Rigg in 1810. It nice to see that not everyone sees this beautiful plant as something to be poisoned or purged from their lawns!

To The Common Speedwell

Where’er I meet thee, up doth Fancy fly
In thoughts celestial Image of the sky!
About thee shining, starry Daisies sing,
And from their hosts the joyous Lark doth spring;
While Dandelion suns around thee blaze,
And Lady’s-smock, dipped in Aurora’s rays,
Wafts o’er thy petals blue, an odour, sweet
As dawn of love let me thy beauty greet
With my faint song, dear, tender, fragile flow’r
That from the azure vault once drew thy dow’r!
When mine do gaze upon thy laughing eyes,
I have one wish to pluck thee as a prize;
But that I know thine eyes were never made
To mock the sky, save from the dewy glade:
Even as a modest maiden, reared amid
The pieties of Nature, that lie hid
In forms like thine, blooms fairest where she grows,
And of deceitful Art but little knows!
Thou art a jewel on the brow of May,
That, robed in scented garments, wings her way!
Emblem of Friendship rarest gem of blue
From me thou ever hast affection true!

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Comfrey

 

This year I decided to choose a plant to work with closely through the changing seasons in order to get to know it deeply and help me to incorporate some of the concepts of Geothean observation into my work with plants. When finding a new plant ally the idea is to be chosen rather than to choose, to see which plants grab your attention and won’t let go and then honour that choosing, whether you get what you expected or not.

Well I certainly didn’t expect Comfrey, partly because it’s a plant I don’t often work with and partly because I had several other plants around me that I consider close allies and was expecting to be ‘chosen by’.  I’ve been interested in the idea of Goethean observation for some time as it seemed to me a wonderful way of honing our senses, learning about plants and moving beyond ourselves and our limited perceptions to connect to the wider world around us.

Goethe is best known for his literary contributions but, in fact, he was involved in the sciences too for much of his life. His work with plants was so unconventional at the time because he choose to study the species around him in their living environment, rather than dead herbarium specimens, so he could understand how they adapt and change throughout time. This idea of the ‘time-life’ of a phenomenon is a key principle of the Goethean study of plant life, helping us to understand them as changing, adaptive beings rather than something static or objectified. In this way we can be participants, rather than merely observers in their dance of becoming. The idea is to observe the plant as clearly as possible, using all our faculties, blending what Goethe called exact sense perception, or collecting all the available facts, with exact sensorial fantasy, or understanding the growth, metamorphosis and flow of a plant through a more fluid and imaginative process.

As we progress with these practices we move to a space where we can be completely open, allowing the plant to reveal something of its true nature to us through idea and inspiration. The final part of the process is described as being one with the object of perception, allowing a kind of divine meeting that Steiner referred to as “the true communion of mankind.” Drawing is seen as a useful tool in the process because it encourages us to consider all the details before us, exactly as they are experienced, rather than writing on our own perceptions.

My original plan, to draw my comfrey every day throughout the year, has proven a little too time intensive in my ever busy schedule, so I’ve settled for sitting with her every day and drawing when things are a bit less busy. Only a couple of months into the process, it has already been a remarkable one.

A page from my Comfrey notebook.

One of my first, and strongest, inspirations was what I perceived to be a beautiful example of the doctrine of signatures in the leaf of the Comfrey. Comfrey is best known as a cell proliferant, due to its allantoin content, which resulted in its traditional use as a healer for broken bones, strains and skin conditions, among other things. As many of you will know, its folk name was ‘knitbone’ reflecting this ability. However Comfrey is no longer recommended for internal use (though it’s still fine externally on unbroken skin) due to other constituents known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids, some of which may lead to hepatic veno-occlusive liver disease.  In Paul Bergner’s interesting piece on the subject, which you can view here, he explains that, “In HVOD, the cells lining the veins in the liver proliferate and choke off the veins.”

Now it may seem a little simplistic to apply the doctrine of signatures here, but to me, something in the leaves of the comfrey shows us very clearly both how it heals and how it harms, though cell proliferation, despite the fact that these actions are due to completely different chemical constituents in either case. Observe how the markings look just like cells under magnification, stacked one on top of another, growing strong and vital.

Steiner  writes “The human being cannot demand any other kind of knowledge than the one he brings forth himself.” I find this quote so empowering. It can be a challenge to trust our own inspirations and observations when working with plants and it’s so important to learn about their traditional and modern uses to get as wide a background as possible. That done however, we can start to enter into a new and less linear process, one that allows a state of inter-being to arise between ourselves and our green allies and allows whole new levels of understanding to permeate and transform our work and ourselves.

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