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Archive for the ‘Wildcrafting’ Category

This post is my offering for the April Blog Party, hosted by Leslie at Comfrey Cottages on the topic of Spring Foraging, Wildcrafting and Gardening. Check her blog on the 20th to see the links to the other posts.

Invasive they may be, but many of the plants that take over the hedgerows and waste ground, not to mention our gardens, at this time of year are also exceptionally useful, full of health giving properties and, in some cases, also delicious.

At the moment I’m particularly enjoying liberally lacing my salads with the lovely Jack-By-The-Hedge, Alliaria petiolata, also known as garlic mustard because of it’s distinctive taste of, yes you guessed it, garlic and mustard.

According to ‘wildman’ Steve Brill, “This despised invasive plant is actually one of the best and most nutritious common wild foods.”

Mrs Grieve writes “The leaves used to be taken internally as a sudorific and deobstruent, and externally were applied antiseptically in gangrenes and ulcers. The juice of the leaves taken alone or boiled into a syrup with honey is found serviceable in dropsy. Country people at one time used the plant in sauces, with bread and butter, salted meat and with lettuce in salads, hence it acquired also the name of Sauce Alone. The herb, when eaten as a salad, warms the stomach and strengthens the digestive faculties.”

Most pungent herbs have an affinity for the digestive system as they are heating, thus stoking the digestive fires and promoting flow of digestive juices. They also help to thin mucus which is important in many spring ailments such as hay fever and sinus congestion.

The photos above were taken a week ago but now all the plants except those in deepest shade have begun to bloom. The flowers are also edible and look lovely sprinkled on salads, soups or other dishes.

Apart from sliced finely in salads and grain dishes like quinoa or millet, I have used garlic mustard to make an infused vinegar and as part of my Spring tonic formula, see below. Steve Brill also uses the root which he says has a horseradish flavour, though this is something I have yet to try.

Garlic Mustard infused vinegar and Spring tonic.

The idea for this Spring tonic came from my friend Therri who is full of inventive herbal inspirations. She makes hers from nettles, ramsons and ground ivy, all found growing together and then tinctured together to make a base formulas for people suffering from spring allergies and the like.

Just by my house is a little copse where cleavers, nettles, ground ivy and garlic mustard all grow up together so I decided these four would make the base for my own Spring tonic blend. I don’t usually tincture things together, preferring to do them separately then blend where appropriate. In this case however part of the magic is in the togetherness, using a community of spring plants that grow close by where you live or practice will be particuarly beneficial for people of that area.

A community of Spring tonics; nettles, cleavers, ground ivy and garlic mustard.

Another plant that I have been eating this spring is ground elder, though possibly with something more akin to grim determination than actual enjoyment. I must confess I don’t find it as delicious as some of the other wild greens around at this time of year but, in small quantities, it can be quite palatable, especially blended in soups. It’s also good as a cooked green and theres a nice recipe on Eat Weeds for stir fried ground elder and tempeh which you can read here. I also came across a ground elder and vanilla muffin recipe here, will wonders never cease?!

The reason I am persevering with this particular wild edible is simple, my garden is riddled with it.

When my Dad, a gardener by trade, came to visit soon after we moved in last year, he took one look at it and proclaimed, “you’re going to have to use Round-up on that.” “No!” I cried, “surely I can manage it organically.” He laughed.

So you see, at stake here is not only the organic status of my garden but also my pride.

Ground elder was originally introduced to the UK by the Romans, and much like its benefactors, it proceeded to take over and has proved even harder to be rid of. They used it as a salad crop and it was said to help gout and arthritis too. Though I have been assured that its not really strong enough to be of much use medicinally, I can imagine that regular eating of the plant would work as a preventative, only because it’s pungent taste is not dissimilar to a strong parsley or celery seed, both of which have been used to treat similar conditions. Perhaps I will try a little bit of tincture just to experiment and I am sure it would make a nice infused vinegar.

It seems to me that there are very few invasive weeds that do not have some use or other, many in fact being the most useful plants we have. And you know what they say… if you can beat ’em, eat ’em.

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Lesser Celandine or pilewort, as it more commonly known, grows freely in woodlands and other moist, shaded places and brightens the way whenever you pass it by. It’s Latin name, Ranunculus ficaria, refers to the resemblance of its tubers to figs and an old common name for it was figwort (not to be confused with the plant more commonly  known as Figwort, Scrophularia nodosa). Piles, or haemorrhoids, for which the plants got its modern common name, also used to be known as figs, so this usage for our pretty spring friend is nothing new.

In Mrs Grieve’s classic, A Modern Herbal, she tells us, “Wordsworth, whose favourite flower this was (in recognition of which the blossoms are carved on his tomb), fancifully suggests that the painter who first tried to picture the rising sun, must have taken the idea of the spreading pointed rays from the Celandine’s ‘glittering countenance.’ ”

It is true that this little flower arrives early in the spring, appearing almost like a symbol of hope for the warmer days to come.

Used mainly to treat non-bleeding haemorrhoids and a sore or itchy anal area, it is oft quoted that  the main indication for this plant came about from the doctrine of signatures as its bulbous tubers are not dissimilar to the appearance of piles. Many years of use however, as well as a modern understanding of its constituents, back up this traditional insight. Pilewort contains tannins and saponins and is both astringent and demulcent, so toning and soothing to inflamed or irritated membranes.

In the past an infusion of pilewort was commonly taken internally as well the the ointment applied topically but these days it is mostly the ointment that is favoured.

Bartram recommends making an ointment by macerating one part whole fresh plant whilst in bloom to three parts of benzoinated lard. I stuck to making an infused vegetable oil via the heat method.

After harvesting the whole plant – roots, leaves and flowers – I washed them thoroughly to get rid of the tenacious clay soil that stuck between each nodule and then spread them out to dry off in the dehydrator for a couple of hours. If you don’t have a dehydrator then just blot them dry as best you can and leave to wilt slightly overnight. This reduces the water content of your herb and helps prevent rancidity. I then infused the herbs in sunflower oil in a bain marie for several hours on a low heat. You can read my detailed instructions on how to make an infused oil here.

Many people combine the infused oil with horse chestnut oil or tincture to make a nice astringent ointment but, as I have none at present, I came up with this alternative.

Fig Ointment:

40ml pilewort infused oil
20ml plantain infused oil (just use extra pilewort if you have no plantain oil).
20 ml calendula infused oil
10g beeswax
5ml self heal tincture
5ml witch hazel
10 drops lavender essential oil
10 drops geranium essential oil

Melt the beeswax in a bain marie and add the infused oils, stirring until fully mixed. Add in the tinctures and witch hazel and whisk or blend with a hand blender until fully incorporated. Stir in essential oils and leave to set.

Apply liberally several times a day to affected area.

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There is a small area of woodland near my house which is filled with violets at this time of year. If you stumble on them unawares they will quite take your breath away. Sometimes the smell is barely detectable but when the sun is shining and the breezes blow, it is utterly divine. I have harvested twice from this patch over the last couple of weeks in order to make an infused honey, an infused oil and a flower remedy. Coming home with a harvest of violet flowers is like carrying a bag of precious jewels, truly a privilege. Unless they continue to bloom so prolifically, I will seek another patch to harvest for a tincture as it’s so important to remember not to over harvest one area.

The sweet violet flowers we know and love are what is known in botany as chasmogamous flowers, those that display their stamens and style for  insect pollination, but many species of viola also produce tiny self pollinating flowers later in the year which are known as cleistogamous. This means that we can be a bit freer with our harvest than we might otherwise be but we should still remember that insects need the flowers for an early source of nectar and therefore not take too many. Also, a beautiful patch of wild violets is enjoyed by many passers by and its not fair to strip it bare.

As a herbal remedy Violet is used most often for it’s soothing, demulcent properties found in the leaf and flower. Being cool and moist they are particularly good for conditions where there is heat such as inflammation and irritated coughs. Culpepper wrote, “A drachm weight of the dried leaves or flowers of Violets, but the leaves more strongly, doth purge the body of choleric humours and assuageth the heat if taken in a draught of wine or other drink.”

Three species are used medicinally, Viola odorata, V. tricolour (the wild pansy) and V. yezoensis (the chinese violet).  The wild dog violet is one of the most common violets found in the UK but it lacks scent, unlike the odorata, though it is still mucilaginous.

Violets are also gently cleansing and decongestant and can be used safely for helping clear the chest and sinuses. Combined with their anti-inflammatory effects and their antioxidant content, this makes them particularly helpful for allergies. You can read Danielle’s fantastic post about treating seasonal allergies here.

They are also specific for a sluggish lymphatic system and make a very valuable spring tonic herb for getting everything moving again after a stagnant winter. This makes them helpful for breast swellings and mastitis and many sources recommend them for cancer treatment. Used as a poultice and taken internally as tea or tincture they were a traditional remedy for breast cancer. I think they resonate with this area of the body particularly as they are, to me, a remedy of the heart. It is with a slight sense of shame that I realise I left them out of my herbal hugs post back in January as they are certainly deeply comforting and loving in their energy. In fact Violets were used by the ancient Greeks in potions for love and fertility.

I also like to use violet as a skin remedy. Both the odorata and the tricolor, better known as heartsease, which flowers a little later, are very valuable in oils or washes for a variety of skin ailments. Their cooling, soothing and protective properties can be used on both dry and weeping eczema as well as acne and irritated, itchy skins. The leaves and flowers contain volatile oils and saponins both of which are extracted well in an infused oil which can then be made in to a lovely cream. I like mine combined with chickweed, speedwell or lavender infused oils depending on the person it is for. For acne treatment I would use it as a wash rather than an oil based preparation.

The flowers and leaves are a very gentle laxative and are often given to children in syrup form to ease their bowels. The root however is a strong laxative and purgative and in high doses will cause vomiting, so be wary.

Also be sure not to use the house plant, African violet, which is poisonous!

The flower remedy is a particularly special preparation which holds many great lessons for us. It is for those who have a very pure vision of the way they feel the world should be. It is a remedy of the imagination, for promoting and holding a clear and positive vision and returning us to a sense of child-like joy and wonder that can heal despondency and the fatigue caused by living in a challenging world.  The sweet violet helps us stay centred in the place where love and imagination have the power to manifest physically and create a better world as a result.

The upper petals are open to give and receive but the perfect gold centre is protected, so the visions held cannot be compromised by the challenges of this world. The fine veins running through the petals are like nerves, indicating the extreme sensitivity of the violet personality. Their heads seem to hang heavy indicating how weighed down these folk can feel by the suffering they see around them. They grow close to the ground indicating how the remedy can help in grounding our dreaming into the here and now and stabilising us when times are tough. The large heart shaped leaves unfurl from the centre enabling us to open our hearts to all life’s experiences whilst remaining equanimous, grounded and free.

A perfect remedy for our troubled times, the violet is one of my favourite flowers.

It was truly a blessing to have such a bright sunny morning for making my flower essence. I’ve spoken to flower remedy makers who do theirs whatever the weather but I find there’s nothing like sunshine to result in a wonderfully energised remedy. You can read my post on how to make your own flower remedies here.

Violet infused honey is such a treat and you can leave the flowers in to add a decorative and delicious touch to your food. It has many of the same properties as the syrup but is simpler and better for those who seek the medicinal benefits of honey rather than using sugar. An added advantage is that you don’t have to heat the flowers or honey at all so none of the antioxidants or vital enzymes will be destroyed. I had thought I wouldn’t bother at all with a syrup this year but Sarah Head posted such an enticing recipe here which involves a magical colour change, so I might have to do a small batch after all!

To make the honey just fill a jar with violet flowers, cover with a reasonably runny raw honey and stir with a chop stick. let infuse for a fortnight or so and then enjoy. The flowers tend to float to the top so just turn the jar or give it a stir now and again to ensure everything is well mixed.

The violets have also been gracing my food regularly over the past couple of weeks and I find nothing more cheering than their beautiful colour mixed here with the leafy greens of my lunch which consisted of quinoa, walnuts. sunflower seeds, cleavers, tender new hawthorn leaves, viola flowers and lemon juice.  It was a delight for all my senses.

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Nettle Root Medicine

Despite using the leaf and seed of nettle on a regular basis, this year was the first time I have harvested and made tincture from the roots. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by Sascha, who I should probably mention, gathered the biggest root of all, honestly it was quite impressive!

I’ve been feeling the call of nettle root strongly this autumn and it keeps popping into my mind in relation to a particularly problematic case involving hormonal dysfunction. I have little experience of using the roots of nettle clinically other than in cases of male pattern baldness and problems of the prostate, most notably Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH). However the case in question is that of a woman, though certainly a testosterone imbalance is indicated in her symptoms, and there is little information available to support my intuitive nudging that this was the right medicine to turn to.

Several studies have shown the success of nettle root in treating BPH, particularly in its early stages when it can help to slow the growth of prostate cells, improve urinary flow and alleviate the constant urge to urinate. This is especially so when combined with other herbs such as Saw palmetto or Pygeum. It does this primarily by inhibiting proteins that help to carry certain hormones into the cells and would otherwise encourage the growth of prostate cells.

In its action of reducing the numbers of sex hormones available to the tissues I imagine that the benefits of nettle root must be more wide ranging than we usually consider. Though, without doubt, certain herbs may have a greater affinity for either male or female conditions and personalities, there is always some crossover and no herb can be said to belong exclusively to one sex or another. Traditionally, nettle root has been used to help menstrual irregularities and for this reason it’s best avoided in pregnancy. Linda Crockett, a herbalist specialising in women’s hormonal health, includes nettle root in her formulas for polycystic ovarian syndrome and Susan Weed writes, ‘ Use nettle root as a hair and scalp tonic, a urinary strengthener and stimulant, an immune system/ lymphatic strengthener and a bit of first aid’ – primarily in cases of diarrhoea.

There is also some information available online, though it’s hard to know how much of it you can trust, especially when one website contained the following gem, ‘Nettle root is commonly prized for its stems and leaves, which are reported to contain numerous health benefits’. Anyone else notice the obvious flaw there?

I feel like, in getting to know nettle root, I’m accessing a whole new facet of a long time favourite herbal ally, and I’m really excited to carry on my research and experimentation into the possibilities for its different healing applications.

Soaking the roots.

When digging roots it’s especially important to connect with the plants an ask permission because, unlike when you gather the arial parts of perennial herbs, you are taking the life of the plant when you harvest its roots.

The soil is very sticky clay round here so our roots needed a good soak before scrubbing with a brush and chopping finely ready for tincturing.

I’m quite excited to try the finished result and will be experimenting on myself before giving it to my client. I hope to have some interesting findings to report back before too long.

References:

Healing Our Hormones, Healing Our Lives – Linda Crockett
Healing Wise – Susun Weed
Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy – Mills and Bone

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I have many mottos but one of them is ‘Eat something from the wild everyday’. At this time of year we are spoiled for choice with the hedges dripping with all sorts of goodies, but by preserving, freezing and making lovely medicines we can make sure we have something to keep us going all through the winter too.

Eating local wild foods is not only great for our health, as they are often fresher, more vital and richer in nutrients than anything we can buy, but also connects us to a sense of place and belonging and encourages a deeper relationship with our natural environment. Even if it’s just a few berries whilst out walking or a handful of leaves added to a salad or soup, the plants around us are experiencing the same environmental conditions that we are and have adapted well and therefore are able to help us do the same.

 

Nourishing foods and medicines from the hedgerow

 

At the moment I’m enjoying most of my wild foods in the form of elderberry and rosehip syrups, blackberry crumbles, nettle seeds, hawthorn teas and the young ground elder leaves that are poking up through my newly weeded vegetable beds and taste lovely in carrot and apple soup.

My mornings are starting at the moment with a lovely big glass of ‘hedgerow milk’ which consists of freshly made almond milk, a little local honey, some hawthorn berry powder, rosehip syrup and nettle seeds. Delicious and nourishing it helps me start the day feeling energised, connected to the land and full of gratitude.

 

Morning Hedgerow Milk

 

Eating local wild foods helps ensure we are getting the right nutrients for our seasonal needs. The berries that are in abundance here at this time of year are filled with anti-oxidants including flavonoids and other polyphenols as well as lots of Vitamin C to help protect our bodies and support our immune systems as the weather gets colder. Many also have an anti-inflammatory action which helps soothe the aches and pains that can accompany colds and flus.

Foraged nuts and seeds such as walnuts, cobnuts or hazels, chestnuts and nettle seeds are nourishing and contain proteins, healthy fats, vitamins such as B’s and E and are a good source of well sustained energy.

And soon it will be time for harvesting roots which help us to draw our energy in and down (just like the plants do at this time of year) and give us much sustenance and grounding ready for the more inward focus of the winter months.

When the spring comes round we can feast on young green leaves of plants and trees to cleanse our winter stagnancy and boost our dwindling levels of many key nutrients. Brigitte just wrote a post here about all the lovely tree leaves she is harvesting for her salads over in New Zealand where Spring is in full swing!

Nature does take care of us well!

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Brambles are one of those plants that display perfectly how the abundance and resilience of a particular species can make it beloved by some and loathed by others. Blackberries, the fruit of the bramble or Rubus fruticosus, must be by far the most popular and well known of wild foods, growing in practically every hedgerow and irresistible to all who pass by. Yet the bramble is also the gardener’s bane, invasive, fast growing and difficult to eradicate, this woody weed is a far from popular addition to most gardens. Here at our new house we have quite a bit of it growing through the area we hope will become our veg patch and, whilst I’m not exactly thrilled to see it there, it’s humbling to remember all the gifts of food and medicine that brambles give to us each year and seek to find ways to manage it naturally, principally by using it freely.

Bramble

As we follow brambles through the year we can find something of use at all times except darkest winter. In early spring the leaves and young shoots can be used as a pleasant tasting, cleansing and tonifying tea. The leaves can be harvested throughout the summer and are a valuable astringent due to their tannin content. Traditionally they were used to treat diarrhoea, sore throats and dysentery. The root bark is a stronger astringent, indeed it may be too strong for people with very sensitive stomachs, and is also useful in cases of diarrhoea as well as spasmodic coughs. I don’t have any experience with using the root bark myself though I have made the leaves into teas and an infused oil which is helpful for bumps, bruises and minor injuries. The oil or tincture also make a valuable addition to creams or salves for treating haemorrhoids and varicosities, due once again to their astringency. The leaves have been recommended for treating bleeding gums for this same reason, as well as for their vulnerary properties. An infusion of the leaves or root can also be used as a compress or formentation for sores, burns, varicosities and minor wounds. The inner part of the spring shoots can also be eaten as a tasty, crunchy vegetable, either raw in salads or lightly steamed or stir fried. Just peel the outer portion of the stems back to reveal the yumminess within.

Later, as the flowers begin to form in summer, a lovely flower remedy can be made which I have found useful for people who are good natured and generous at heart, but can tend to be over-dominating. The American FES remedies make a blackberry essence which they claim “helps the person who cannot make a viable connection with the will. The soul has many lofty visions and desires but is unable to translate these into concrete manifestations.” I suppose both these things relate to the ability of the blackberry to make its mark on the world, but in an appropriate way! It would be interesting to hear anyone else’s experience of blackberry flower remedy and what they have found it useful for.

Now, on to the berries themselves! Though they are probably most delicious straight from the bush and still warm from the late summer sun, there are numerous things that can be done with a blackberry. Cakes, crumbles, biscuits, smoothies and many other puddings benefit from their flavour but they are also useful in promoting health as they are full of vitamins and antioxidants. They are high in vitamins C and K, folic acid and manganese and rich in the antioxidant polyphenols which are thought to be beneficial in preventing a host of diseases.

Blackberries

One way I enjoy my blackberries later into the season is by infusing them in apple cider vinegar for use as a deliciously fruity salad dressing. This could also be taken with a little warm water and raw honey as a remedy for gout and joint stiffness. In fact, blackberry was used by the ancient Greeks as a cure for gout.

I made my blackberry vinegar with the addition of a cinnamon stick this year to make it extra warming and delicious for this time of year. Just lightly fill a jar with blackberries and one cinnamon stick broken into pieces, then cover with apple cider vinegar and leave to infuse for a month, swirling the mixture daily for the first week. Be sure to cap with a plastic lid as the vinegar will erode metal.

Blackberry and Cinnamon Vinegar

The bramble is a plant surrounded by folklore and superstition. A sacred plant of the Druids, it was said to protect the faery realm and was also connected to the Goddess. Mrs Grieves tells us that they “were in olden days supposed to give protection against all evil runes, if gathered at the right time of the moon.”  Walking or crawling under the arch of a bramble shoot was thought to cure a variety of diseases from whooping cough to warts, though I’m inclined to believe all the scratches just took your mind of any other problems you were experiencing! Even today it is thought unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmas, as they have been claimed by the devil. This is actually quite sensible as they are often infected with fly eggs from around this time… so let the devil keep ’em.

I’ve just realised that leaves us only six more days to gather as many as possible… so I’m off!

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Since my last post on harvesting nettle seeds I’ve had a couple of emails asking me for more specific details about how and when to harvest. I remember that when I first started to collect herbs and make my own remedies it would always annoy me when writers skimmed the surface of the topics they were discussing, making assumptions that their readers already knew how to make this or that. So, in the spirit of making things clearer, I thought I’d post a few more photos to show those of you who’d like a bit more info exactly what nettles look like at different times of the year, how the seed should look when you pick it and how it looks when it’s dried. I hope that clears up any confusion and makes it easier to get out and enjoy your harvest.

Nettles come up in Spring at which time you can harvest them for soups, to eat raw, to add to juices, vinegars, teas or enjoy as a steamed or cooked green.

Nettles in Spring

Later, as summer starts to warm up, the nettles begin to flower at which time they are no longer good for eating. Nettles in full sun will flower before those in the shade and will also produce seeds earlier.

Nettle in Flower

The flowers begin to turn to seeds…

Ripening into seeds

But aren’t ready to harvest until they look like this.

Perfect Timing

Collect the green seeds rather than the brown or black.

After hanging the stems to allow the insects to escape, cut off the small strands of seeds and allow to air dry or use a dehydrator like this one.

Drying nettle seed in the dehydrator

When dry, take small handfuls of the seeds and rub through a sieve.

Sieving dried seeds

The seeds will come away and you’ll be left with the small grey-green stands like these.

After sieving

Pop your dried seeds into a jar, store somewhere cool and away from bright light and enjoy sprinkled on food.

Jar of dried nettle seeds

Hope that was helpful!

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