The Compound umbel of the Ground-elder flower (James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Ground-elder - Aegopodium podagraria - Herb for March 2017
Here is a wonderful blog from John Handley, a naturalist and friend whose website will soon be a must-see:
I marvel at the synanthropic ability of Ground-elder, a plant that is well suited to live together with us. Often on the outskirts of inhabited areas, it has invariably arrived there because of us, and marks the land where two worlds meet: the natural world and where our influence is total.
While some authorities suggest that the plant was introduced to Britain by the Romans, others propose that it appeared here in the Middle Ages (probably brought in by monks used to cultivating it in monastery gardens on the European mainland, primarily for medicinal use) and was grown as a vegetable.
It obtains many of it’s names from its association with both monastries and the medicinal purposes to which it was put, such as: Ache weed, Bishops goutweed, English masterwort, Goutweed, Goutwort, Housemaid’s knee, and Wild masterwort. The number and variety of these names help us understand how valued this plant was and why it was brought here, planted and encouraged to grow.
Ground-elder is a member of the Apiaceae Family. The Apiaceae are one of my favourite families: in the process of gathering the flowers together evolution has crafted appealing landing pads for a wide variety of invertebrates and on a sunny day, when any member of this family are in bloom, you’ll be treated to a succession of beetles, hoverflies, bees and flies all busily gathering nectar or pollen.
In terms of safety, Ground-elder isn’t easily confused with any other members of this family, and learning a few basic rules should help differentiate it from any other members of the Apiaceae.
Three simple rules for foraging Ground-elder
The best way to forage with confidence is to get to know the leaf shape. Ground-elder has ‘ternate’ leaves – divided into three more-or-less equal parts.
The ternate structure of a compound Ground-elder leaf.
Ground-elder’s rhizomes make it difficult to eradicate; the rhizomes break easily when the soil is disturbed and a small piece is enough to start a new plant. Ground elder often forms dense stands which exclude all other plants. One plant is enough to create such complete shade with its densely-packed leaves that no other shoots can grow.
It makes a great food plant because it grows so abundantly and no matter how much you forage you will be extremely unlikely to eradicate it. Ground-elder is easy to forage: collect the young leaves and use them as you would spinach, wilted down with a little knob of butter. They have a flavour that is reminiscent of parsley and the texture of the young leaves is a little more resistant than spinach but less tough than a winter cabbage. The leaves become leathery as the plant gets older, therefore generally a good plant to use in the early spring.
And here is this month’s poem from my good friend Nadia Kingsley:
What have the Romans ever done for us?
They may be known for their aqueducts, and obviously
the roads – but when they came they also dropped
snapped-off lengths of Ground Elder rhizome
with covering of dirt to grow and feed the stomachs
marching, marching upon these spreading routes.
No one in England, and I mean no one, not in this age
and not on any day in February, should starve
thanks to them: for its stems in soup, in pasta, or
as salad will stave off scurvy, keep the eye sharp,
knit your bones dense, and give blood its oxygen.
And to all modern moaning gardeners, with a toxic
fear of its marvellous tenacity - as it peeps its green
from out of winter's earth, conquer it via your digestive
system to spare the muscles of your back, but know
come summer you will mourn their lost white parasols.
Gorse - Ulex europeaus - Herb for January 2017
Thank Heavens for this prickly but cheery plant! It provides welcome colour to the countryside in an otherwise bleak and drab January. On a sunny day, its little flowers can briefly transport me to a warmer climate with their sweet exotic coconut scent.
Medicinally it has little value today. In the past, the seeds have been used to help rid the body of stones and to ease diarrhoea. They have also been found to contain a cardio-active alkaloid, Ulexine, which has been used in cardiac dropsy. The flowers were given in a tea to ease jaundice and scarlet fever. It also had a reputation for clearing people and livestock of worms.
Although its medicinal values are few, its past usefulness is unquestionable. The young shoots are edible and saved lives in the Irish famine. When burnt, the ash is an excellent fertiliser and can also be made into soap. It has been greatly prized in the past as a fuel, a dye, food for livestock, providing cover, stock-proof hedges and cleaning chimneys
The presence of Gorse, like that of thistles, is said to indicate rich soil. There is a saying referring to plants and the quality of soil –
Where there is Bracken there is GOLD; Where there is Gorse there is SILVER; Where there is Heather there is Poverty
Today I am very proud to present my guest blogger - John Handley - a good friend of Nadia’s so I will let her introduce him:
I first met John on an organised wildflower walk through Bridgnorth Cemetery. Since then he has helped me both artistically – for example he came round and helped me identify all the plants that were growing in a 2 metre quadrant of our lawn so that I could write a poem about each one for “Lawn Lore”; he has agreed to be recorded for, and written about Grey Squirrels – in Fair Acre Press’ project “Maligned Species”; but he has also helped enormously on a personal level, and is a very good friend. John knows an enormous amount about all aspects of nature, but his speciality are Grasses. He will soon have a website up and running: www.chelogy.com He is also a keen forager.
From John Handley:
The buttery, yellow flowers that crowd the spiny branches of Gorse plants are wonderful to see, as much because they can be flowering abundantly even in the middle of winter; there is a saying that “when gorse is in blossom, kissing’s in season”. This is as much about the three different species of gorse in Britain and the different times they flower through the year.
The picture of Gorse, Ulex europeaus, was taken on Dartmoor on the 7th January 2017.
The name ‘Gorse’ probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word gorst, meaning ‘a waste’, referring to the plant growing in rough places. Another common name for it is ‘furze’, this is thought to have come from the Anglo-Saxon fyrs – Gorse has long been gathered for firewood. Oliver Rackham states that it is one of the very few fire-promoting plants of British woodlands (Rackham, 2006).
Gorse is one of the 151 species that make up the Fabaceae, pea family, within Britain. This family were formerly known as the Leguminosae, from which we get the phrase legumes. Many of the plants in this family have root nodules that contain symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobia. These bacteria can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, where it is unavailable to plants, and convert it into a form the plant can use.
This adaptation means that gorse is a common plant of nutrient poor soils such as heathland and commons. As a pioneer plant it quickly colonises brownfield sites, and it is quick to establish itself on land that is reverting back from farmland.
My pleasure at seeing it bloom when so many other plants are in their basic form sets it apart, but for so many people, commoners, it was a daily blessing. It grows rapidly and requires no maintenance and provides a source of fuel that burns fiercely, an ideal source of kindling and perfect for the baker’s oven.
Its uses are varied, as much because the poverty which necessitated its collection provided the inspiration for its uses - therefore it has been used as a barrier to inhibit livestock, in the darkest of situations as a chimney brush, as a colourant for Easter eggs, scattered over the surface of seedbeds to discourage deer and pigeons, and bound up with heather to create a besom broom.
Gorse mills were used to bruise the gorse stems and help take the edge of the grooved spines; gorse was an important foodstuff for livestock, especially for horses, with an acre of gorse providing sufficient winter fodder for six horses. Its value meant that there were strict rules as to when it could be cut and how much each commoner could take. Richard Mabey (1998) refers to parishioners only being allowed to take as much as they could “carry on their backs”, on Cumnor Hurst, Oxfordshire following the Enclosure Award in 1820. In other areas of the country, rules prevented plants from being uprooted and only certain types of implements could be used, to restrict the amount that could be harvested.
The ability of gorse to flower over such an extended period and throughout an adverse period of the year makes it a useful plant for bees, who will use the pollen as they come out of hibernation. Bees are the primary pollinators of gorse: flowers that emerge in the winter produce as much pollen and are of comparable size to those produced in the spring. The winter flowers stay open for longer and the particular appeal of winter flowers means that the pollination is as high in the winter as the spring.
My main use for gorse is as a tea.
You can use the flowers fresh or dried: a useful tip is to pick the flowers and put them to one side until they have wilted a little, any residents will leave and you won’t have to fish them out of your cup! It is said to smell and taste of coconuts though that defeats many of the people I mention it to. A dozen flowers per person if using fresh flowers, half a dozen if using dried flowers, bruise them to bring out the flavour and infuse in boiling water. I serve it with a little lime flower honey, a lovely buttery taste that I find soothing for throats too.
MABEY, R. (1998) Flora Britannica, Chatto and Windus, London. RACKHAM, O. (2006). Woodlands (New Naturalist). Harper Collins, London.
And here is a poem from Nadia Kingsley:
Striking it rich
When you see the golden flowers know that gorse is as common as kisses that it talks with stonechats its blossom smells of coconuts its buds - seams of protein. I read of a drunk who woke ten foot in took a helicopter to free him.
It's not an easy harvest: be armed with a basket leather on hand some vinegar, some bandages a prayer on your tongue
Angelica archangelica - Angelica - Herb for October 2016
October’s herb is a beautiful giant plant: sweet-smelling and standing like a guardian angel in gardens across the world.
Native to Syria, this plant has spread and naturalized in cooler countries such as Denmark, Germany, Belgium, France and occasionally Britain. It can be found wild in damp waste places, often by riverbanks and has self-seeded itself for generations in several London parks and gardens, notably Lincoln’s Inn Fields and, until recently, has stood sentry on the slopes of the Tower of London.
There are around 40 varieties but it is only Angelica archangelica that is used in herbal medicine - mainly for respiratory disorders such as asthma, pleurisy, bronchial catarrh and fevers but it can also be used for digestive disorders such as bloating, heartburn, hypoacidity, and has had some success in cases of anorexia nervosa. It also has a reputation of improving vascular health and thus aiding in the prevention of arteriosclerosis when taken in the long term.
The stems are collected in June and July, while October is the time to collect the fragrant roots for use as a medicine…
Angelica is an ancient plant and is therefore steeped in folklore, stretching across many decades of human history. Its very name is a strong indication of its protective qualities against contagion and negative energies. Its old name was ‘root of the holy ghost’ and was used in ancient pagan festivals to ward off evil and disease. After the introduction of Christianity the name was changed to its present name of Angelica archangelica. Legend tells us that Angelica was revealed in a dream by the angel Raphael who told the dreamer it would cure the plague and was chewed to avoid infection. Today we can not agree with this claim but its healing properties do cover some of the Plague’s symptoms.
It blooms on the feast of Apparition of St. Michael (May 8th) which fortifies its reputation of having Angelic connections. The fragrant seeds of Angelica are used to flavour vermouth and due to their sweet smell are also widely used in perfumery. It will also lure a queen wasp to a trap in spring.
Today, this herb, which in the past was respected as a great and powerful plant, has sadly dwindled in our appreciation and is used mainly for cake decorations. How the great have fallen.
Here is a poem from my good friend Nadia Kingsley – who wrote this poem to mark the opening of the Roots to Health treatment room and shop, on the High Street of Honiton, on October 1st 2016:
From a non-cook
There’s a woman I know
who wears her love with knowledge,
whose eyes smile a lot -
filling you with brightness like
the Harvest Moon on cloudless night.
I see her with a willow weave
heaping it with harvest - from
woods, fields and riverbank.
She walks the hills,
she walks the valleys.
I want to honour her - so,
with chopped up candied
emerald stems from aptly named
‘Herb of the Angels’,
I’m baking her a poem-cake.
Walking with purpose
she’s always remembering.
Knows how to use Angelica
in case of indigestion. Have a slice,
I say to her - she happily accepts.
Silybum marianum - Milk Thistle - Herb for September 2016
Try as I may, this pretty thistle has eluded me! It is our only thistle which has the milk white veins running along its dark green leaves. It is native to southwest Europe and introduced to Belgium, Holland, Denmark and the lowlands of Britain but as hard as I have searched for it I have not come across it.
Ever since I learned about its amazing liver-healing properties I have looked for it. Just to frustrate me even more, I have learned that this plant can be used as a vegetable and is very similar in taste to artichoke. I love artichoke! I love finding wild food! So why, oh why, can I not find this very special plant? I will persevere.
It seems it’s not just us who like to eat this thistle, it has been given the name Pig thistle because pigs used to snuffle them out and eat them (maybe I should get a pig), also the seeds are a favourite food of finches.
In modern herbal medicine, the Milk thistle has received more scientific interest than most plants, which has proven its healing and restorative effect upon liver cells. It is a remarkably safe herb to use and is very effective for hepatitis, fatty degeneration of the liver and cirrhosis.
It is also a proven antidote, if used in time, to many poisons such as that of Amanita muscaria (fly agaric).
As I mentioned, this plant is a good food - tasting much like artichoke, being of the same family. The heads of the thistle used to be boiled like artichoke, as were the leaves and stems, with the thistles being removed first. The young shoots and leaves, cut close to the ground were eaten as a boiling salad.
In folklore, it was said that drops of milk fell from Mary’s breast onto the leaves while she was suckling Jesus, hence its name milk thistle; due to this legend, herbalists of the past used to use it to bring on a new mother’s milk.
I will keep searching for this powerful plant, living in Devon they should be around: I will pay a visit to the coast where they like to grow. When I find one, I will not pull it up, but harvest the seeds to sow in the garden and add to my collection.
Poem by my good friend Nadia Kingsley – find out more about Nadia at http://fairacrepress.co.uk
At seven millimetres
a milk thistle’s seed sits amongst a thousand others
waiting for its tuft of hairs to lift it on to air currents.
The flower that gave it life on metre-straight stem,
was more red than purple, with necklace of pain.
White-veined leaves , sharp spines on each edge:
seed well protected from all - but this goldfinch.
Petasites vulgaris - Butterbur - Herb of the month for August 2016
On a rainy summer’s day, when I was a child, I was always glad to come across this mighty plant whilst out on my adventures in the countryside, as I would pick the largest leaf I could find and use it as an umbrella. Its huge size would completely shelter my entire body. I would stand under it, keeping dry, listening to the pitter patter of the rain all around me and breathing in that lovely smell you only get with the warm summer rain. I remember thinking “This must be what it is like to be a fairy!” as the large leaf somehow made me feel miniature.
As an adult and a herbalist, I now also treasure this plant for its healing properties.
Butterbur is found throughout Great Britain and Europe except in the far north. It grows in wet ground, marshy meadows and riversides and it has the largest leaf of any plant found growing in Britain, which can reach 3 feet in diameter.
Its genus name – Petasites comes from the Greek word petasot - a felt hat worn by shepherds. Butterbur was the British name given to it as it is believed that the large leaves were used to wrap up butter on hot days. Germany gave this plant the name Pestilenzenwurt, meaning the plague flower. This brings us closer to its medicinal values. Ancient herbalists revered it as a herb of great value in times of the plague. Lyte, in his herbal in 1578 calls it ‘a sovereign medicine against the plague’ which is one of the earliest recorded usages of a herb that we have to date. Today it is still used for fevers, pain and as a heart tonic. It can be used for colds and flu and is useful in urinary complaints due to its diuretic properties. Its pain-relieving and sedative action also make Butterbur a good plant to use for gallbladder pain.
The fresh plant is better to use than dried. Leaves and flowers are collected in spring, roots and rhizomes in the summer. This is not a plant that can be used long term due to its alkaloid content but it is very effective for acute conditions.
I still use its giant leaves today in the summer to protect my head from sun or rain while walking by the riverside, but alas I have grown and no longer feel like a fairy.
It's not fair! I announce, as I set our four pints down for we're ready to drown our most recent defeat to the Couch Potatoes (and the rest of them). With Bitter aloft, we shout Here's to the Herbalists! Then I expound: I mean – why aren’t there questions on what herb can treat
the most obstinate sciatica or which of all plants has the largest leaves in Britain? Butterbur! says Pete And its seeds sown on a Friday, a half hour before sunrise will conjure up your future husband! That's a myth, I reply, but to the rest, I say this: Let's toast the damned lot of them!
We raise glasses again, and as the pub fills all conversation sounds the same: Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb. I smile at this - for Butterbur leaves share a similar shape to that pink-stemmed vegetable.
Hypericum perforatum - St John’s Wort - Herb of the Month for July 2016
St John’s Wort has naturalized in the UK and is widely found throughout Britain, Europe and Asia. It can be found on roadsides, banks, and hedges, open, dry places and prefers chalky soil. It flowers in summer to early autumn.
This is one of the Herbalist’s great power herbs and is one of our few herbs that has been well researched and embraced by the mass market, which is not always a good thing for us Herbalists. This is because plants used in research are standardized on a marker compound and do not represent the complex chemical components found within the whole plant; this can lead to it being associated with side effects which would be less likely found in the whole plant preparations that Herbalists use.
On the positive side, research has found that extracts of Hypericum to be as effective as antidepressants of the class known as SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) without the unwanted side effects of those drugs. Indirect evidence does show the possibilities of interaction between some prescription drugs and St John’s Wort, so much so that the Committee on Safety of Medicines in London, March 2000, issued recommendations of caution to practitioners and the public; so if in doubt, consult your herbalist.
As well as its antidepressant action, St John’s Wort is also used topically as an antiseptic and analgesic (painkiller) for burns, wounds, bruises, itchiness; it is a specific for Herpes Zoster and shingle’s rash.
We included it in our personalized prescriptions for patients, for a large range of ailments such as :- Neuralgia (facial and intercostal), sciatica, shingles, back pain, post-operative pain, physical shock, polymyalgia, tingling, injuries that have caused nerve damage, shooting or stitch pains, animal bites, piles, Tetanus, Parkinsonism, anxiety, stress, depression, menopausal nervousness, menstrual cramps, cramps of terminal disease, colic of digestive, bladder and uterus, gallstones, gastritis, varicose veins, peptic ulcers, diverticulitis, nervous bladder, stress incontinence, rheumatic pain, nervous headache, cough, insomnia, diarrhoea and earache, to name just a few!
As you can see, this is a most effective and useful plant to have on our doorstep. Its medical uses are ancient and it’s no wonder that in folklore this plant is steeped in superstition and is associated with religious and magical powers.
The name Hypericum was originally given by the Greeks, meaning ‘over an apparition’ the plant was put above figures or icons of the person or thing to be protected, usually against evil sprits and witchcraft, a tradition which is reflected throughout the continents in which it grows. Perforatum is on account of the leaves, which look perforated when held up against the light. The golden pockets that are seen are not perforations but tiny glands of oil held in the leaves. This is a very good way of identifying the medicinal variety of St John’s Wort from the many other types of Hypericum with which it can be confused.
Here is a little ditty I found translated from Gaelic:-
St John’s wort, St John’s wort,
My envy whosoever has thee,
I will pluck thee with my right hand,
I will preserve thee with my left hand,
Who so findeth thee in the cattle fold,
Shall never be without kine. (cow)
[Carmichael, 1900: n103]
It first flowers around about St. John’s Eve (June 24th) Its ruby red oil and bright yellow flowers are symbolic for the mid-summer and for the solar fire and blood representing the Baptists’ martyrdom and the patients’ wounds.
No one should be without a bottle of St John’s wort oil in their medicine cupboard, Its beautiful colour and abundant healing qualities makes this a joy to make and delightful to use.
Here is a very simple and effective recipe from my most revered herbalist and teacher H. H. Zeylstra 1999:-
St John’s Wort Ruby Oil.
Take a minimum of 110g of fresh St John’s Wort flowers.
Steep in 250ml of oil – sunflower, corn or almond.
Stand for at least 6 weeks in full sunlight.
Shake occasionally during the steeping time.
Strain through muslin and into sterile bottles.
It will keep up to a year in a cool place away from sunlight.
Use topically, as required.
Here is our regular herbal poem from the lovely Nadia Kingsley fairacrepress.co.uk
If your child
If your child suffers from wetting-the-bed
it might be something primal: a fearing
of ghosts or monsters – so I suggest
you harvest Hypericum perforatum - hang it
in their room and the dreadful whiff
of turpentine will rid both cause and effect.
If this doesn’t cure, pour them its tea at storytime.
But if this fails, then treat yourself: let sunshine-flowers,
from the weed St John’s Wort, plug your flooding depression.
Lime Tree Flowers
Tilia europaea - Limeflower - Herb of the Month for June 2016
Found in Northern Temperate Zone, especially the British Isles.
The flowers from this lime tree, also known as Linden flowers are collected in June for use as herbal medicine. I love the tea made with the fresh flowers, they have a wonderful delicate taste of honey that is lost when dried. They should be gathered as soon as they flower on a dry day a dried carefully in the shade so as not to lose the essential oils.
Lime blossom is a soothing, relaxing herb used in conditions where there is nervous tension. It is used to help prevent arteriosclerosis and in hypertension. We herbalists specifically use it to lower blood pressure associated with nervous tension. Its relaxing effects on the circulatory system makes it helpful for some forms of migraine. It is also used to help increase sweating to bring down fevers and so is a good remedy for colds and flu.
Linden tea is commonly used in France as a household drink and honey made from the lime flowers is regarded as the best tasting honey and is one of the most valuable in the world! Is wood is good for carving being white, close grained and smooth it allows for great sharpness in minute details, Grinley Gibbons did most of his flower and figure carvings for St. Pauls Cathedral, Windsor Castle and Chatsworth in Lime wood. It is a light wood and never becomes worm ridden.
A beautiful tree with heart shaped leaves, I am always thrilled when I come across a Lime tree in the wild, and look forward to a sunny summer day when I can take my willow basket, collect the flowers and make the delicious tea which can only be drunk fresh at this time of year. Try it for yourselves; it can also be drunk cold with ice as a refreshing, relaxing summer drink.
Here is this months poem by Nadia Kingsley. See more of her work at www.fairacrepress.co.uk
As a child I had my favourite subjects:
Maths - for its pie charts;
R.E.- for illustrations of Joseph’s brothers,
and the story of the Ark.
Both classes required me opening that box:
Caran D’ache it said
on top of snowy mountains;
inside the promised rainbow spread.
Look back at pictures drawn aged five.
See happy sun, line of blue,
and tree that was always a Lime:
as wide as its height, its leaves are love.
Walk your city - hear the Lime
before you see it -
humming with punch drunk bees.
Sit under for shade as the temperature rises.
Feel calmer about the global crisis.
Plant more Limes – then disgruntled drivers
may give up their cars – for there’s always a cloud
behind every lining. And as for me?
I’m starting to grow up.
I will scavenge through car boot junk,
amass crayons of green, brown and cream.
Then I’ll draw as many Limes
as I can, before the heat from global warming
reaches our more Northern climate,
and I forget what they’re like.
Convallaria majalis - Lily of the Valley - Herb of the Month for May 2016
My first encounter with this queen of Lilies was also one of my first memories. My grandmother, Alice was a keen gardener, a skill that was kindled during the harsh days of the war, and one that remained with her for her whole life.
Her house in Arundel had a garden that was brimming with flowers, fruits and vegetables. There was one spot, along the side of the house, an alleyway, flanked by the high walls of two houses, always draughty, cool and with very little sunshine, but at this time of year it was my favourite spot in the whole of Arundel.
My Grandmother had somehow managed to raise a large bed of Lily of the Valley plants along the whole length of this alley. Their angelic fragrance hung in the air, day and night, on fine days or dull days; their abundance was their strength and ruled that space for a few weeks a year. If I was sad, they would cheer my heart and raise my sprits with their wonderful sweet smell and beautiful delicate little flowers. From then on these sweet and powerful plants etched themselves deep into my memory and my soul, a mere whiff of their fragrance transports me back to those very early days of my childhood.
Native to North America, Lily of the Valley is found in dry woodlands in England and Wales, as far north as Dumbarton and East to Inverness but absent from Ireland and Western Britain except where it can sometimes be found as a garden escape. The leaves and flowers are used for herbal medicine but the berries are poisonous.
This is a powerful plant that should not be used by non-professionals and can be toxic in untrained hands. It is the herbalist's number one choice for congestive heart failure, and helps with water retention and breathing problems associated with this condition.
The generic name Convallaria comes from the older name Lilium convallium due to the pure whiteness of the flowers and was therefore naturally associated with the Virgin Mary in many countries. Long before this it was known in Greek legend, it was found by Apollo and given by him to Aesclepias the Greek physician. An old English name for Lily of the valley is liriconfancy or Our Lady’s tears. They would grow wild in St Leonards Forest, Sussex - supposedly where this saint’s blood was spilt after his fight with the dragon and can still be found today carpeting that forest floor. Its sweet fragrance is said to lead the nightingale from the hedge to his chosen mate.
On writing this I find myself reflecting on those happy childhood days spent with my Granny Alice, gazing into my lovely little Devon garden and wondering - why do I not have any Lily of the Valley plants yet? Note to self - come October, plant many Lily of the Valley as a tribute to Alice Aylin and her green fingers.
Poem kindly written by Nadia Kingsley – find out more about Nadia and her works at http://fairacrepress.co.uk
Overheard, in a garden centre near you
Joy: Oh look Matt look! We must buy this pot.
Matt:Looks dead to me
Joy:Well of course it does. But look at the label - Convallaria majalis
Matt:Eh? (looks puzzled)
Joy:Lily of the Valley. You know - white flowers. Plant in partial shade it says, and a woodland plant - perfect for our dingle!
Matt:I know what it is, Joy. Mother had some plastic ones up on the dining room mantel. An abomination. Like everything she touched. I don't want to be reminded.
Matt:Look, I've spoken.
Joy:They're sweetly scented
Matt:I wouldn't know about that
Joy:Prefers alkaline soil (pause) Well. That’s no problem – we’ll buy some additives...
Matt:I've heard they're highly poisonous
Joy:You're making that up
Joy:It’s what you always do - when you find yourself in a corner.
Matt:I'll prove it (gets his mobile out)
Joy:(hisses) Not here
Matt:(loudly) Why not?
Joy:Please (holds out her hand, it hangs mid air for a moment then drops) - forget I ever mentioned it
Matt:Here we are. All parts highly poisonous - causes abdo pain, vomiting, blah, blah, blah. What about the grandchildren?
Joy:Herbalists use it - I remember Jayne saying...
Matt: There's a Pet Poison Helpline
Joy:Tell me - in America?
Matt:And a website called 'no lilies for cats dot com'. Ah. And this is how I knew
Joy:What? (getting her own phone out)
Matt:That they're poisonous, keep up. It's what Walt used - both on Augustus Fring, and that six year old, Brock. Though they first suspected Ricin.
Joy:Why does everything we discuss have to end up back at Breaking Bad? Says here it works like the drug from the foxglove, profoundly effective in the treatment of a failing heart
Matt:Series 4. Episode 13. Title Face Off. Look - there's the shot - them by Walt’s pool
Joy:Looks nice (leaning over). What do you think?
Matt:Get four, no six. There's a three for two thingammy on!
Styled on a much better poem by Shauna Robertson Denver ‘77
Urtica dioica - Stinging Nettle - Herb of the Month for April 2016
It is because of plants such as the noble stinging nettle that I have great pride in my art as a Western Medical Herbalist! The nettle is so common that it is taken for granted and even regarded as a pest to be cleared, destroyed and controlled. At best it is put on the compost heap or made into a natural liquid fertilizer, but this overlooked plant is a powerhouse for healing.
Urtica dioica, along with its not so common and smaller cousin Urtica urens, are true natives to Britain. It is widespread and abundant in every sort of environment, particularly waste and cultivated land, wet woods, hedge banks and river valleys. The best time to gather it is in the spring and early summer, picking after the month of June should be avoided as it becomes coarse and bitter and more laxative in its action.
The nettle has two distinct healing parts: the herb, which is all the plant from the ground upwards, and the root. The root is an anti-prostatic agent and is used specifically to improve symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate).
Nettle herb is one of our greatest detoxifying plants. It increases urine output eliminating waste, especially urates, which makes it excellent for problems such as arthritis and gout; with its high and easily-absorbed silica content, it is used to help with connective tissue repair and regeneration. Its cleansing action helps skin problems such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Nettles can slow or stop heavy bleeding, especially heavy menstruation and due to its high iron content it will help with anaemia, which often accompanies chronic blood loss. Nettles also have an anti-allergenic activity making then effective for allergies such as hay fever, asthma and ironically, nettle rash (urticaria)! They are also hypoglycaemic and are effective for lowering blood sugar levels, making them a useful addition in the treatment of some types of diabetes.
Being a greedy plant, nettles’ extensive root networks take up large amounts of nutrients from the earth, which gives them a high content of iron, vitamin C, A, calcium, silica, histamine and chlorophyll for example. So a drink of freshly picked nettles brewed as a tea, make an excellent spring tonic at this time of year.
Nettles and people are old friends; as well as its many healing virtues, the stinging nettle is one of the most common edible plants. It has been used throughout time as a nutritional vegetable, even today it can be found in the most elite restaurants where it is having a revival in its popularity as a wild food and can be used in a number of ways. Its fibres are very similar to hemp and have long been used for making string, rope and cloth. In the Second World War, hundreds of tons were gathered in Britain for its chlorophyll and to make dyes.
It had been said that Roman solders brought their own nettle species with them called the Roman nettle - Urtica pilulifera, but the absence of Roman nettle seeds, and the abundance of common and stinging nettles seeds that the archaeo-botanists have found at archaeological settlements, suggests that Roman nettle was not cultivated here in Britain.
In old medicine, the nettle sting itself was used as a remedy for joint pain. The effected joint would be flayed by the nettle, which would draw the infection and pain away from the joint. I’m glad to say this is little practiced today.
In folklore, nettles are said to give courage in times of danger, save a house from lightning, cure dog bites and baldness. Nettle oil preceded paraffin and the juice will curdle milk in place of rennet. Fruit packed in nettles would last longer and the juice could be used to seal cracks in leaking tubs and barrels. Bunches of nettles were hung up to increase egg laying in hens, keep flies away from larders and frogs away from beehives.
This I think is one of the most pleasant ways to enjoy nettles. Salute!
100 nettle stalks (with leaves)12 litres of water1 ½ Kg sugar50g cream of tartar15g yeast Boil nettles with the 12 litres of water for 15 minutes, strain and add sugar and the cream of tartar. Heat and stir until dissolved, wait until warm and then add the yeast and stir well. Cover with muslin and leave for 24 hours. Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment. Bottle, cork, and tie down; leave to ferment for 4 days.This is a light and refreshing drink perfect for warm summer evenings to come.(from - Wild Foods by Richard Phillip)
Here is this month’s poem by Nadia Kingsley: To see more of Nadia’s works and projects visit her web site at fairacrepress.co.uk
Knowing Which Battles
Can you believe - how any leaflet alone a maligned one
can harness a Star, how constant change is behind evolution
or how, despite dragging its rootmesh clear from the earth,
a section breaks off to grow new plant - battle already lost?
Add swathes of nettle to bucket, add water, then make doubly sure the lid is on tight. Wear leather gloves to harvest, eat speckled green soup with dollop of sour cream.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi - Bearberry - Herb of the month for March 2016
This month herb is little known to most people in England; although still native to the UK, it is found in the Northern latitudes and high mountains of Europe, Asia and America. In the British isles it is common in Scotland, on heaths and barren places in hilly districts, especially in the highlands and can be found as far south as Yorkshire and on the hills of the north-west of Ireland.
This is an evergreen dwarf shrub with long rooting branches which form a dense mat. It has flat, leathery leaves which are the parts used for medicine, and can be collected throughout the year, but preferably in the spring and summer. Its clusters of whitish pinky flowers turn to red glossy berry-like fruits in the autumn and provide a food for grouse on the moorland. The latin names uva-ursi literally means bear’s grape and comes either from the notion that bears enjoy eating this fruit or from its very rough, unpleasant taste which might have been thought of as only fit for bears to eat.
Bearberry has been used medicinally for at least hundreds of years. Medical references for it are found in the 13th century in Wales and by the 18th century it was well used by orthodox medicine throughout Europe.
Today, Bearberry is widely and regularly used by modern herbalists. It is specifically used in the treatment of cystitis. Its powerful antiseptic and astringent effect on the urinary system make it a very useful plant to use for infections, gravel or ulceration in the kidneys or bladder. Its action will sooth, strengthen and tone every part of the urinary system. A very valuable plant indeed.
Native Americans use bearberry leaves mixed with tobacco and other herbs. When smoked in a sacred pipe, they believe it will carry their prayers to the Great Spirit. The leaves are also used for bluish-black dyes in Scotland and a grey and black dye in Norway and Sweden.
As this is such an attractive looking plant, you may like to try growing it. Its natural habitat is cool, so find a north facing wall or bank and grow on the top so it can naturally sprawl. It likes an acid medium, so will benefit from being buried in a tub of its own soil; this way it can be set alongside other herbs with an alkaline preference. Let's bring this little treasure into our gardens and hearts and get to know it a little better.
Nadia Kingsley again treats us with this month’s herbal poem. Enjoy !
like transmogrification or mandatory,is one of my favourite words - not because of its meaning but for how it rolls aroundmy mouth. And here it is again, in a description of the Bearberry, so I finally reach for the dictionaryfind its origin is from the Latin - that it means to lie down, or to take to one's bed.
Uva-Ursi, or Bear's grape, is found on Yorkshire Moors and trails its evergreen branches across the wilds of Scotland. Culpepper said that it’s named either from the notion that bears eat the fruit with relish or because its berries taste so rancid - I can see the sense of adding Branston's, but how do bears open all those jars, or turn up on our Northern ground, in the first place?
Pictures of the plant show waxy-looking flowers,gathered as bridesmaids, its fruit a letterbox red. And I realise quite suddenly that unless I am transmogrified into some kind of athlete, or the government makes it mandatory for everyone to roam the moors, then lying in my bed with books and the internet, is the closest I will ever get to the wonderfully-decumbent plant that’s Bearberry.
Elymus repens - Couch grass - Herb of the Month for February 2016
February is the month to collect the rhizomes for couch grass. Being a gardener I know this plant can be a real pest, difficult to clear and doesn't have much of a place in anyone’s garden!
Being a Herbalist, I love it! I have a special place my garden where I let it grow to its little heart’s content not just for collecting but also out of respect for this great plant healer.
Couch grass is one of the most important herbs we have in our apothecary. Its soothing, cleansing action is valuable when treating infectious conditions of the bladder, prostate and urinary tract and is widely used in cases of cystitis. It is also a good blood cleansing herb and can used in ‘Spring cleaning’ mixtures and also has a place to play in treating gout, glandular swellings, liver and rheumatic problems.
Being such an invasive plant, couch grass if found in Europe, Asia, North and South America, Mediterranean to Arctic Regions, abundant in the British Isles, and Australia. It grows in every type of soil.
The most famous herbalist Culpepper says of this herb “If you know it not by this description, watch the dogs when they are sick and they will quickly lead you to it” and “Although a gardener be of another opinion, yet a physician holds half an acre of them to be worth five acres of carrots twice over.”
Its not just dogs and cats who seek this herb in time of sickness, also cattle, sheep, goats and horses eat the couch grass in the early months of spring, especially when they are put out to pasture after a prolonged time indoors. Herbal medicine is the only therapy (apart from preening in other primates) which is also practiced by animals. It is interesting to note here that the rhizomes are knotty and tuberous in early spring but in Summer these bulbs lose their shape and form. So now is the time for people and animals alike to seek out and collect this most useful plant.
In times of famine, couch grass rhizomes have been roasted and ground to be used as a substitute for coffee and flower.
Gather the rhizomes now and dry them out so they can be added to other herbs when they are in season and made into a detoxifying, cleansing spring tonic.
Open letter to all of England's Farmers: on Agropyron repens
We all know of Couch-grass, know the irony in its name. A bane.
Flourishing only in toiled soil: our fields are being overwhelmed
by its slender creeping underground stem, the smallest piece left
will vegetate (another slang term used in the human lounge, but
in botanical terms: soon developing lateral branches, nodes that hold
both roots and leaf-buds, our crops outnumbered by this beardless
wheat impersonator). Be reassured. Call on the country's herbalists!
Let them loose in your empty fields midwinter, ahead of your next crop -
Imagine the teamwork! They desire exactly what you aim to eradicate.
They will gather its vivacious roots, even eat them like licorice!
If still in doubt, read up on Culpepper - " Although a gardener be
of another opinion" he says, "yet a physician holds half an acre of them
to be worth five acres of carrot, twice told over." Look to the wild,
see how everything's interlinked - Humans too, should co-operate.
Or be prepared to lay your land to pasture for some years
let the close-growing Grasses smother the Agropyron Repens.
Be aware. That without taking one of these measures, this grass will turn
you mad. Soon all you will do is play at the ancient child's game:
sticking head of one into another still on its stem, while reciting, over
and over till you're dead, "Grandmother, grandmother jump out of bed."
Vinca major and Vinca minor Periwinkle (Greater and Lesser)
Herb of the month for January 2016
This winter has been unusually mild so far and nature is confused, I have seen fields of Daffodils, Primroses in hedges and many other spring plants popping up in December!
The Periwinkle is one plant that I am never surprised to see, its cheeky little blue face sneaks into any season. I find it in the frosts of winter and the drought of summer, somehow it is always there, not always in abundance but constant.
As the Periwinkle has been cultivated for so long in in the British isles and has spread so successfully into our woods and hedgerows, there is uncertainty among botanist as to whether this is a native plant or not. It is a perennial plant and keeps it glossy leaves through the winter.
The lesser Periwinkle is used in modern herbal medicine for problems of the circulatory system epically the circulation to the brain. Its main uses are for Headache, dizziness, poor memory, tinnitus, some types of Hypertension, cramp, Ménière’s syndrome and behavioural disorders. It also has a part to play in in the digestive system, it can be used successfully in cases of indigestion, bloating and excessive wind. The parts of the plant used for this are the roots and leaves.
The greater Periwinkle has more of an affinity with women’s ailments and is widely used by herbalists for heavy and painful periods, blood loss between periods and discharge. Other uses are again for digestive problems such as colitis, diarrhoea and some circulatory problems such as nose bleeds, bleeding gums, mouth ulcers and sore throats. It is also used in some treatments for Diabetes. Parts of the plant used for these is herb, which means the whole plant that grows above ground.
As you can see, a very useful plant to have so close to home.
Vinca comes from the Latin meaning to bind. Its wiry runners were plaited into wreaths and used like string. In ancient times Periwinkle was known as the Sorcerer’s Violet and was used for love and fertility potions as well as a symbol for remembrance. It was also used to protect against ‘bad spirits’ and poisoning of all kinds, carrying a sprig with you would be certain to bring you prosperity and acceptance and bountiful good luck. To be sure of being bestowed with its good virtues, this charm should be said while picking, and at very specific times of the moon: i.e. when the moon is 1, 9, 11 or 13 nights old.
I pray thee, Vinca pervinca, thee that art to be had for thy many useful qualities, that thou come to me glad blossoming with thy mainfulness, that thou outfit me so that I be shielded and ever prosperous and un-damaged by poisons and by water.
These superstations concerning our dear little Periwinkle are very ancient and have been repeated by writers throughout history.
So pick a sprig of Periwinkle and magic up yourselves a little good luck for this brand new year! Wishing you all a very happy and healthy 2016 !
Here is a poem by Nadia Kingsley:
Veni Vedi Vinca
It was her mother who, tasked with the care of the garden,chose 18 tiny pots of it, didn’t know it was the periwinkle
had just believed the label: makes most excellent ground cover, when it’s always been about the height. How we laughed, bound
in her lack of knowledge – and how I could have brought across a bucket of the stuff. Now, as days are
lengthening, we find we’re in the clutch of winter. Vinca weaves its glossy leaves in and through the all of seasons, we’ve lost touch.
Pinus spp. - The Pine Tree - Herb of the Month for December 2015
It has been a year since my first herbal blog last December and my herbal year has come full circle, once again celebrating the festive season. This December I have chosen the noble pine tree of which there are many species. The Pines, being evergreen trees are pillars of green in the woods and hedgerow, the only colour in the dullness of winter, reminding us of the green that will return in all its glory in the spring.
The main species used in herbal medicine is the Scots pine - Pinus sylvestris, but other species are also used, such as the Maritime pine - Pinus pinaster, the Stone pine - Pinus pinea and the Black pine – Pinus nigra.
The Scots pine truly is indigenous to Great Britain, alongside the Juniper and Yew tree, it used to cover this beautiful land of ours making up huge forests.
In modern herbal medicine the needles, resin and young buds are used. Traditionally, this is a remedy for pulmonary tuberculosis and other upper respiratory disorders. It can be use internally for respiratory conditions but the preferred way to use pine is as an inhalant. The resin and oil also have an important role to play in rheumatism and arthritis. Adding a preparation made from the twigs to bath water will also help with nerves, muscle pain, fatigue, sleeplessness, healing of cuts and wounds and skin irritations.
The essential oil is widely used and distilled from the needles and collected from the resin. Its fresh clean odour and its great antiseptic properties make this an ideal plant to use for sprays which can be used as a deodorant and/or room freshener, as it kills odour-causing germs and covers unpleasant smells.
Being such an ancient tree, the Pine has many customs associated with it. Druids considered it sacred and used to make fires from Pine to celebrate the Winter solstice and to draw back the sun. Glades of Scots Pine trees were decorated with lights, shiny objects and stars which would symbolise the Divine Light. It is easy to see where out modern-day traditions of the Yule log and decorating a Christmas tree comes from.
Due to its long straight trunk and natural resins contained within the wood, Pine trees were a favourite for ship building as it is slow to decay. Probably for the same reasons the tree was also used as markers in the landscape, in the Highlands in Scotland it is said that it was used as markers for the burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains. Further south, these great trees were used to mark ancient cairns, trackways and crossroads. In England they were used not only to mark the drove roads, but also to mark the perimeters of meadows in which the drovers could graze their animals.
So when decorating you tree this year, give a thought to its traditional uses of celebrating the return of the sun and the great cycle of life. Happy Christmas and very merry festivities to you all.
To help you have a healthy cold free winter season here a few basic recipes for Scots Pine.
Infusion - for coughs and colds
Pour a cup of boiling water onto ½ teaspoon of twigs and leave to infuse for 10 – 15 minutes. Drink 3 times a day.
Inhalant- for catarrh and chesty coughs.
Bring 2-3 handfuls of twigs to the boil in 2 litres of water, simmer for 5 minutes and use as an inhalant by covering you head with a towel and inhale the steam for 15 minutes, Repeat often.
Bath – for fatigue, muscle aches and pains, sleeplessness and rheumatic pains.
Leave 3 handful of twigs to stand in 750ml of water for ½ an hour, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, strain and add to a nice hot bath.
Here's a poem by my good friend Nadia Kingsley:-
My History Lesson
Most of my observing nature happens here, at the landing window.
A lazy person at heart, I’ve wondered for over a year why each of my two Shropshire
homes has shown me a Scots Pine from its upstairs.
Both have been abutted by Grand Estate: land owned by gentry once, now run by
Management. Both overrun by pheasant – but here, on the Welsh border we also are
surrounded by sheep, untouched Ash, Oak, and Beech.
To write this poem – I now read about the Scots Pine. Turns out it was planted
everywhere but Scotland: for nine thousand years a native in The Great Caledonian
Forest but then the English came, cut them down, turned them into ships and they
burned against Napoleon.
Forced the Highland Clearances next into grazing, some cling on, some cling on. It’s
not a coincidence that the cone makes good kindling – fire’s needed for the sprouting
– nor that in North England the Pinus sylvestris was planted next to houses with
allegiance to the Jacobites.
This erect tree – then used as sign for Croeso: a welcome through bryn and cwm
in Wales – explains why ‘my’ two Scots Pine stand erect on hill ridges. For centuries
the drovers walked their sheep to market. And the market was in London. Then came
the railway, and the drovers gone.
From here I can’t see the blue-green paired needles, or the cracks in its bark.
But it is straight, and unchanging in its colours, looks ancient and vulnerable.
And through my binoculars I see it's red, like old blood. It has my respect.
While scrunching through the dry colourful tapestry of autumn leaves in November, there are treasures to be found under the horse chestnut tree. I like to prize them from their spiny pods while they are still new to the day. These beautiful, shiny, rich ruddy brown conkers still bring me joy when I find them fresh, as they did when I was small, as they still do and have done, for millions of children and adults alike across continents. When I was young and eager to find the biggest one, which would be a winner in the school playground conker fight, I then had no idea of the healing properties locked within.
Caution must be taken when using these seeds for medicine, the correct preparation and dosage is imperative. Luckily, due to their dreadful taste, harm from incorrect ingestion of conkers is very rare. Warnings aside, the correct preparation of the conker is extremely effective in treating problems concerning veins and the venous system. Horse chestnut has a unique action of strengthening and toning the vein walls and so is especially good for the treatment of varicose veins, piles, phlebitis, swollen legs, leg ulcers, chilblains, night cramps and more! Symptoms of heaviness, tingling, pain, itching, tiredness and coldness which is associated with poor circulation of the legs will also be alleviated. The cream used externally has also been found to be useful for cosmetic problems such as cellulite and ageing skin.
The horse chestnut is native to northern and central Asia, from which it was introduced into England about the middle of the sixteenth century. The name Horse Chestnut comes from its usage to treat horses for chest conditions, as this is a direct translations from the Latin name Hippocastanum. In Eastern countries they are used for cattle food and allegedly relished by cattle but not by pigs! Not being poisonous to any farm animal within the limits of what they can be encouraged to eat, they are found to form a highly nutritious food for them. In the Great War, experiments showed that for every ton of Horse Chestnuts harvested, half a ton of grain can be saved for human consumption. So although totally unfit for human consumption, Horse Chestnuts can be used indirectly to increase the national food supply. Along similar lines, conkers were sought during the first and second world wars for military purpose. The need for acetone essential for the manufacture of cordite, became great as usual sources had become erratic and costly. It was discovered that the starch content in conkers could be used for such a purpose, so much so that groups were organised nationally to collect them for the military.
In 1878 – 86 the dictionary gave two references to the name conker:-
So comes the name conkers.
The tradition of conker fights is a very English one. Children from other countries prefer to make small animals from them.
Here is a simple recipe for Horse chestnut gel which works wonderfully when used externally on varicose veins. Taken from - Grow your own drugs, by James Wong.
Prepare the tincture first, then use to make the gel. Tincture and Gel should only be used for external application.
1 – Blend the conkers and vodka in a liquidizer until smooth.
2 – Place in a sterilized bottle and keep in a cool dark place for 10 days to 1 month shaking every day. Strain before using. Keep for up to 1 year.
3 sachets vegetable gelatine
150 ml horse chestnut tincture
5 drops of lavender oil
1 – Add the vegetable gelatine to150ml of cold water in a pan and whisk until dissolved. Heat for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly. As the mix begins to thicken, slowly pour in the horse chestnut tincture a little at a time. Add the lavender oil.
Try a 24 hour patch test before using. Apply to the affected area twice daily, or as often as required.
The Gel keeps for 3 month in the fridge.
Here is this month’s poem by established writer, poet, artist and publisher Nadia Kingsley:-
His Mum still calls him Billy.
In the classroom he’s called Spratt.
Nine years on this planet.
Small for his age. Intelligent.
The bullies in the playground
have always called him Brainiac.
Worse names too –at least they did, until,
behind the bike shed
they form a queue, fidget a bit,
horse chestnuts readied - on
laces, on strings - an illegal act
without safety glasses.
One after one, they back away,
their champion buckeye in tatters.
In-cred-u-lity on their faces: it’s not as if
he has the moves. Certainly not the muscles…
They beg to be taken out to the park,
their hands will soon be bloodied,
by prising open spiny vessels
they too will carry pale brown scars.
They search for answers on the web:
oven-baked, or varnished? No! Now known
as William the Conkeror, it’s thanks to one
- handed down by his Grandad.
Ssssh ! Don’t tell anyone !!