Thursday, 29 October 2009

'Herbalism An Exact Science' by Dr W T Fernie

I first encountered Dr Fernie on the Herb Society forum thanks to a chap called Kevin Brown mentioning him back in 2006. Kevin like me is interested in the old herbalists and old herbalist shops and has not only gifted me with wonderful old books from his personal herb book collection, he has become a herbal ally and friend, even though we have never met. Fernie continued to pop up getting mentioned in books by Hilda Leyel who often quoted his remedies and ideas, he is mentioned by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, Mary Thorne-Quelch and Maud Grieve, plus countless other herbal writers of the 20th century. We hear a lot about how we're losing our herbal heritage and how people should be passing on the knowledge of the herbs their grandparents used, and I totally agree. I also think that we should be reading the herb books, pamphlets, lecture notes and essays from the past and looking at herbs that were commonly used by our great, great grandparents and seeing why they're no longer used and if they can be revived.

I find it interesting to look back at what herbs were used way back when and compare them to what we use now. It's also interesting to see what illnesses and diseases were being treated then as opposed to now. In the west diseases like cholera, scurvy and TB still occur even to this day, albeit not in the way they did in earlier times, today we have a raft of modern diseases like stress and anxiety, and illnesses not to so easy to see such as ME. I find it interesting as a person with a thyroid condition that in the Victorian herbals not much mention is made of this condition, nor treatment for it, Goitre aside, but today in the west its becoming increasingly common to be diagnosed and treated for a thyroid linked problem.

But I digress, as I often do when writing about herbal things, the story of herbs and their uses is such a vast subject and crosses so many times, places, countries, uses and people, that its difficult to stay in one place, I often get sidetracked with my research and end up discovering a pile of new mysteries to solve before I've closed the book on the case I'm investigating at that moment, this week I've been researching Heath & Heather Ltd, Maud Grieve, William Ransom and about 6 other people and companies, its so easy to get sidetracked especially when those people begin to become linked in ways you wouldn't have thought!

Back to Fernie, who after all is the reason for this post... The man himself was a herbal ghost as far as information went, beyond the books he wrote, little information on him seemingly existed. There have even been suggestions that Dr W. T. Fernie was a pen name of someone else and the man never really existed, my gut told me when I heard that, that is wasn't true, so I began to dig and research. 

When I go off to find out more about a person or thing, it never sits right with me if I fail to uncover enough information to sate my curiosity, I blame my Grandad for making me love Sherlock Holmes as a young girl, those old movies and books he encouraged me to read furnished me with the subsequent need to solve mysteries and find answers to feed my inner Sherlock.

The lack of Fernie information led me to begin looking for answers in places I ended up visiting and coming away with a few more clues or another piece of the mystery solved every time, and although the case isn't closed, there are a few things I am still 14 years later having trouble resolving but I will, my book on Fernie is coming along. So far I've discovered where, when and to whom he was born, I've traced his family back to his great grandparents, I know of his siblings, his career and  I've found a photo of the man himself and even visited his grave.

My research continues and when I'm done I hope to publish a small booklet about him, this blog post is a result of Kevin asking me recently whether I was ready to reveal who Dr Fernie was yet, sadly I'm not. But I thought I'd add this little article I came across in an 1927 copy of Heath & Heathers book, come catalogue, they called the 'Famous Herb Book', it's an extract taken from the Introduction of "Herbal Simples" a book written by Dr Fernie in 1895, which is the book of his most often quoted from.

"    Hitherto, medicinal Herbs have come down  to us from early times as possessing only a traditional value, and as exercising merely empirical  effects. Their selection has been commended solely by a shrewd discernment, and by practice of successive centuries. But to-day a closer analysis in the laboratory and the skilled provings by experts have resolved the several plants into their component parts, both singly and collectively. So that the study and practice of curative British herbs may now fairly take rank as an exact science, and may command the full confidence of the sick for supplying trustworthy aid and succour in their times of bodily need.

    Scientific reasons may readily be adduced for prescribing all our best known native Herbal Medicines. Among them the Elder, Parsley, Peppermint, and Watercress are familiar examples of this fact. Almost from time immemorial in England, a 'rob' made from the juice of Elderberries, simmered and thickened with sugar, or mulled Elder wine concocted from the fruit, with raisins, sugar and spices, have been popular remedies in this country, if taken hot at bedtime, for a recent cold or sore throat. But only of late has chemistry explained that Elderberries furnish 'viburnic acid,' which induces sweating and is specially curative of inflammatory bronchial soreness. So, likewise Parsley, besides being a favourite pot herb, and a garnish for cold meats, has been popular in rural districts as a tea for catarrh of the bladder or kidneys. It has recently been learnt that the sweet-smelling plant yields what chemists call 'apiol,' or Parsley-Camphor, which, when given in moderation, exercises a quietening influence on the main sensific centres of life - the head and the spine. Thereby, any feverish irritability of the urinary organs inflicted by cold, or other nervous shock, would be subordinately allayed.

     Again, with respect to Peppermint, it's cordial water, or its lozenges taken as a confection, have been popular from the days of our grandmothers for the relief of colic in the bowels, or for the stomach ache of flatulent indigestion. But this practice has obtained simply because the pungent herb was found to diffuse grateful aromatic warmth within the stomach and bowels, whilst promoting the expulsion of the wind; whereas we now know that an active principle, 'menthol' contained in the plant, and which may be extracted from it as a camphoraceous oil, possesses in a marked degree antiseptic and sedative properties which are chemically hostile to putrescence, and preventative of dyspeptic fermentation.

     Lastly, the Watercress has for many years held credit with common people for curing scurvy and its allied ailments, while its juices have been further esteemed as of especial use in arresting tuberculous consumption of the lungs; and yet it has remained for recent analysis to show that the Watercress is chemically rich in 'anti-scorbutic salts,' which tend to destroy the germs of tuberculous disease, and strikes at the root of scurvy generally. These salts and remedial principles are 'sulphur', 'iodine', 'potash', 'phosphatic earths,' and a particularly volatile essential oil known as 'sulphocyanide of allyl,' which is most identical with the essential oil of White Mustard."

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A Few Niggles About Grow Your Own Drugs

Lavender & Calendula

I have a couple of small niggles about the programme recipes and the book recipes, some of the recipes in the book aren't adhered to on the show, examples are in week 2 'Flowers' programme, James used lemon geranium leaves which he referred to as just 'scented geranium leaves', the leaves look different to rose geranium for those that don't know. The additional clue to what type of scented geranium he used was when Freddie, the young lad helping James make the remedy, described the scent as being like 'lemony fish'. What James didn't explain is the scented geranium leaves were being added for their astringent properties, lemon geranium is astringent, but rose geranium which is the one listed in the book has both astringent and emollient properties, both ideal for adding to skin lotions and creams.

He also didn't explain that they aren't strictly geraniums but pelargoniums. I did write an article for the Herb Society website on Scented Geraniums for anyone that may be interested. In fact as I love scented geraniums so much I feel another blog post coming on about these fragrant beauties :)

He's using mostly fresh plant material, but most of the plants will only be available now in their dried form and so far on the programme I don't recall hearing him mention to people if you're using dried herbs use half the quantities. Something that people need to know, the book does mention this in some of the recipes, but not everyone will have the book.

Another niggle I have is about the recipe for Neem Lotion for Headlice shown in week 3 'Trees'. In the online recipe, and in the book the recipe has 6 minced garlic cloves added, but in the recipe demonstrated on the show it had no garlic at all. Personally I don't see why he couldn't have used a neem leaf infusion with some soapwort root to help it lather to make it more like a shampoo and add some neem, garlic and tea tree oils to the mix instead of using so much oil, unless the point is its the oil that kills the lice?

James is looking at 'herbs' next week, umm forgive me but as far as I'm concerned all the things he's taken a look at so far are herbs! I consider a herb to be any plant that can be used for its flavour, fragrance, medicinal properties, pesticide properties, can be used as a dye and a myriad of other uses, so that opens the field to a huge number of plants. The remaining two programmes focus on vegetables and roots, although I'm not sure in which order. Don't get me wrong my small niggles aside this is a great programme, in so much as its getting people in their kitchens and trying to make their own simple remedies and beauty treatments. I know from sales in my own shop that people are having a go, since the programme started I've seen a rise in the sale of lavender, hops, calendula, gum arabic etc. It's also been an active topic of conversation at the recent Mercian Herb Group meetings and workshops I've been along to lately.

There has been a lot of controversy from angry herbalists because apparently no herbalists were consulted during the making of the programme or the book, only a pharmacist was consulted apparently. I've made my point about nutritionists not getting up in arms when Jamie Oliver releases a new cookery book and doesn't consult them in a few other places, so I won't mention that again.

Whilst I can see and agree with some of the points that some of the rational herbalists are making, I'm taken aback at the condemning attitude that the majority of them have about the programme, and by them not embracing it as a vehicle to begin re-educating people about our medicinal herbal heritage and the many benefits and uses of herbs. They should be being more positive and turn the negative aspects they see in the show and book and any issues they have, into something more positive and maybe next time the BBC will consult them? They certainly won't get brownie points by pouting, sulking and pointing fingers!

That aside, I've since discovered that the book was written with the help of Lorraine Wood a Medical Herbalist practising at the Archway Clinic of Herbal Medicine in London which is a charity company that is accredited by NIMH (National Institute of Medicinal Herbalism). Archway provide high quality, low cost, Western medical herbal treatment and clinical training for the BSc in Herbal Medicine degree run by Middlesex University [2019 update, sadly Middlesex University no longer offer a BSc in Herbal medicine, the umber of universities that do can now be counted on 1 hand and that number is shrinking fast!]. Strange that herbalists aren't acknowledging this fact, but maybe they don't know its the case?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Simple Flower Essences


Horse Chestnut 'Sticky Bud'

I recently uploaded an article by Sarah Head to the Herb Society website about Horse Chestnut, in it she details how to make a horse chestnut flower remedy, so I thought I'd have a go. This weekend on our walk I found a few trees with plenty of 'Sticky buds' on them so picked enough to make the remedy. The thin white line between my finger and the bud in the photo above is actually the sticky sap that surrounds the leaf bud and it really is sticky, almost glue like.
The Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is not a native of the UK and is often confused with the Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) also not a native of the UK and another plant said to have been introduced by the Romans. Sweet chestnuts are edible but horse chestnuts are not, the leaves on the sweet chestnut are different to horse chestnut as are the capsules that surround the nut, sweet chestnuts look more like hedgehog prickles, whilst horse chestnut resembles a slightly spiky golf ball.

Sarah's simple recipe for Horse Chestnut Flower remedy is useful for dealing with “mental chatter, easing repetitive thoughts or worrisome behaviours” and this is how you make it:- Pick 6-8 sticky buds. Place them in a stainless steel or glass saucepan and cover with spring or distilled water. Place a tightly fitting lid on the saucepan, place on the heat and bring to the boil slowly. Simmer for about twenty minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and leave to cool. When the infusion is completely cool, remove 50ml and place in a sterilised glass bottle (dark glass is best). Add 50ml brandy to the infusion to help preservation.

This is the mother essence. It can be taken as it is using 4 drops under the tongue or in water or fruit juice 3-4 times a day or every half hour in a crisis. Sarah advises us to take care when cleaning out the saucepan used for making the remedy as the buds leave a very sticky residue around the edges when cooked. She wasn't wrong, my pan was rather sticky despite being non stick, but with some hot water and scrubbing it cleaned up like new. The remedy really is simple to make, the hardest part was cleaning the pan.

Sun Infused Dandelion Flower Essence
At one of Sarah's workshops in May last year we made a couple of sun infused flower essences hawthorn and dandelion. I took a sample of dandelion flower essence home with me and I use a couple of drops when I'm feeling tense. This year I'm going to make a few more flower essences using the sun infused method that I can use to help me when I experience different things that I find difficult to cope with. Amongst the ones I want to make are honeysuckle, rose, gorse, dandelion, calendula, blackberry, borage, peppermint and lavender.

Making sun infused flower essences is easy, you need a sunny day a clean glass bowl, pure spring water and the flowers of your choice. Find your sunny spot, and a spot that is going to stay sunny for at least 5 hours. Add the water to the bowl, then sprinkle the flowers on the top and leave them to infuse in the water for 3 - 5 hours. Once infused fill a bottle 2/3rds full of the sun infused flower essence and add 1/3rd brandy, take a few drops in water or juice several times a day.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Alkanet Alchemy

Alkanet Alchemy

Just got back from a wonderful 'playgroup' at Sarah's, I call them playgroups, because you spend so much time having fun, laughing and learning that it hardly feels like work, so calling them workshops seems to formal to me lol! This time we investigated creams and salves, after a discussion I'd had with Sarah recently about Alkanet (Alkana tinctoria) and its dyeing properties Sarah said we could have a go at making a lip balm using it.  And boy does it ever work wonders as a dye for cosmetics! Everybody was in awe at the beautiful colour the Alkanet Root gave, whilst I had one of those 'Harry Potter' moments, gazing into the pan like it was a cauldron marvelling at the alkanet alchemy going on in there.

At a Herb Society demonstration last year Tina Stapely mentioned using alkanet to get a pink colour for creams and salves etc, she must put a very small amount in to get pink as it seems very potent. As an aside she also mentioned using Calendula (Calendula officinalis) to get a pale yellow to orange colour and Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) to achieve green, but Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) also give a really pretty daffodil yellow colour and St John's Wort oil will turn a cream, lotion or balm pink.

The recipe we used was adapted from one in Josephine Fairley’s book “The Ultimate Natural Beauty Book” ISBN 978-1856265133. We changed quantities so everyone could take a jar home and the main oil was changed, in the book olive oil is used, but we used a double infused calendula oil instead. I'm giving the recipe for our version of the recipe below, the quantities were tripled, except the alkanet, which for 75ml (3oz) of oil in the original recipe is given as 45g (1½ oz). Although I think that is way too much, as with 225ml of oil there was still more colour than needed. Next time I make this I would only put about 10-20g of alkanet in to start, and keep adding more until I get the colour I'm after.

The rose essential oil is given in the original recipe as 9 drops, we didn't triple this just added 12 drops. The beeswax also said 20g (3/4 oz) but Sarah thought that was too much for the small quantity the recipe was making, and our tripled recipe would only need 1oz of beeswax and that's what we used. She was exactly right, the quantity we made over half filled 16 of the tiny 28g preserve jars you get from hotels etc.

Rosebud Lips Balm

225ml (9floz) Calendula Oil
3 Tablespoons Jojoba Oil
45g (1½ oz) Dried Alkanet Root
30g (1oz) Beeswax
12 Drops Rose Essential Oil

Method - Gently heat both oils in the top of a double boiler for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the alkanet root and steep for around 30 minutes, to extract the colour from the root.

Strain the root from the oils through a muslin cloth. Return the oils to the double boiler with the beeswax. Once this has melted, remove from the heat and add the rose essential oil drop by drop. Pour into small sterilised pots or jars. Allow to cool thoroughly before putting the lids on.

The lip balm was tested by everyone except the guys, (although Gary said he would try some later ;) ) and it did turn everyone's lips a light rosy red colour, not too intense, just a nice pleasant shade and it is a wonderful moisturiser for the lips. I suffer from dry cracked lips in the winter and this balm helped make my lips feel soothed and soft, part of that will be down to the calendula.

Rosebud Lips Balm before setting


Other things we made today included an aqueous cream which we added infused oils, tinctures and essential oils to. I chose to make a rose geranium cream, I added calendula oil, st john's wort tincture and rose geranium oil, it smells wonderful and will get used often. It was so easy to make as well, following Sarah's recipe I can easily replicate the recipe at home. I think some of my family members will get homemade herbal creams for Xmas this year tailored to suit them.

We also made a salve for sore hands, we used a combination of plantain, calendula, yarrow and sweet violet double infused oils with beeswax. Once again it was really easy to do, the great thing about Sarah's 'playgroups' is you always get to have a go at something yourself and you get to take away something that you've made.  As I'll be getting a double boiler this week I'll be able to begin making my own infused oils, add them to the tinctures I've already made and the ones yet to make and I'll be able to produce a variety of herbal hand creams, balms and salves  to suit all my needs. The alkanet as a cosmetic dye has really spurred me on to investigate using it to dye wool and cloth, so watch this space, more dyeing posts to come in the future and more recipes I'll be bound.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Shakespeare's Herbs


William Shakespeare Rose
William Shakespeare 2000 Rose © Debs Cook

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Deeply fragrant joy! This week my William Shakespeare 2000 rose finally arrived from David Austin Roses, I fell in love with this wonderfully fragrant rose last year at Gardeners World, but they had none left to buy at the time. He arrived as a bare rooted rose, so I've potted him up and he'll be planted out when the frosts have all gone. I can't wait as he'll be a perfect fragrant candidate for making wine, rose tincture and a variety of other rosy delights, as you can see from the picture above taken at GW last year, he's a rich velvety crimson, gradually changing to an equally rich purple as he gets older. He has a beautiful strong, warm Old Rose fragrance and also apparently has excellent disease resistance to, he'll replace Cardinal de Richelieu, as the Cardinal isn't as fragrant as I was led to believe and he suffers from blackspot!

2009 is a very good year to be adding Shakespeare to my garden; this year the Herb Society annual conference and AGM is to be held in Stratford-Upon-Avon over two days and the theme is Shakespeare's Herbs. Day two will involve visits to the Shakespeare's Birthplace garden and Hall Croft home of Shakespeare's son-in-law John Hall, which I'm looking forward to visiting. I've had a love hate relationship with Shakespeare over the years, when I was 12-14, if asked I'd say I hated him, that was because I had a real pain of an English literature teacher, who force fed us Shakespeare, and made us use a fountain pen for our class and homework and punished us if we didn't (this was the age of the biro for goodness sake!). His lessons were frankly boring, all I learnt about Shakespeare was I would avoid him when I left school!

As I got older I began to appreciate the plays and sonnets, but my passion for Shakespeare lay in the herbs and plants he mentioned in his works. When I went back to rediscover Shakespeare after my school trauma, I was astonished at the number of herbs and plants that turned up in his works, take for example this section from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oslips and the nodding violet grows. Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine With sweet musk-roses with eglantine There sleeps Titania sometime of the night Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight."

Recently I picked up an old book published in 1935 by The Medici Society written by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde entitled "Shakespeare's Wild Flowers, Fairy Lore, Gardens, Herbs, Gatherers Of Simples & Bee Lore" in which she attempts to identify the plants that Shakespeare wrote about. Her observations are historically interesting although I'm uncertain how accurate the facts as presented by Ms Rodhe's are.

There are several coloured illustrations attributed to Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, a French artist and member of Jean Ribault's expedition to the New World circa 1562. There are also a number of black and white illustrations from La Clef des Champs (The Key of Fields) from 1586 which is an excessively rare book. The book also includes a chapter with suggestions for making your own Shakespeare Garden and provides a myriad of quotes that you may like to include in the garden. Ms Rohde lists 169 plants in total with their Latin names (as in 1935 some have changed since then), I was pleased to observe that I grew a good number of them in my garden already for example:

Balm/Lemon balm  Melissa officinalis  Antony and Cleopatra  5.2 (although Ms Rhode points out that balm could also have referred to the Balm of Gilead tree (balsamodendron gileadense now Commiphora opobalsamum) which is also called Balsam of Makkah (Mecca).
Bay laurel   Laurus nobilis   King Richard II 2.4
Broom    Cytisus scoparius  A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1
Burnet    Sanguisorba minor  King Henry V 5.2
Chamomile   Chamaemelum nobile  King Henry IV, Part I 2.4
Carnation   Dianthus   The Winter’s Tale 4.4
Fennel    Foeniculum vulgare  Hamlet 4.5
Gillyvor/Gillyflower  Dianthus   The Winter’s Tale 4.4
Honeysuckle   Lonicera periclymenum Much Ado about Nothing 3.1
Hyssop    Hyssopus officinalis  Othello 1.3
Lavender   Lavendula angustifolia  The Winter’s Tale 4.4
Marigold/Calendula  Calendula officinalis  Pericles 4.1
Mint     Mentha   The Winter’s Tale 4/4
Myrtle    Myrtus communis  Anthony & Cleopatra 3.12
Parsley    Petroselinum crispum  Taming of the Shrew 4.4
Rose    Rosa sp.   The Merry Wives of Windsor 3.1
Rosemary   Salvia rosmarinus syn. Rosmarinus officinalis  The Winter’s Tale 4.4
Thyme    Thymus sp.   A Midsummer Nights Dream 2.1
Violet    Viola odorata   King Henry V 4.1

I have a couple of books on Shakespeare's herbs and also John Hall which I'll be taking with me when I go on holiday to France so I can have a leisurely read and pick up some snippets of information for the conference. I may even scatter a few quotes around the garden, and if I ever get round to labelling all the plants I may add the Shakespearian references. I think I need to look further into the history of gardens, gardening and herbals though. Oh dear I feel another section of my library appearing, Simon will not be impressed if I don't have a clear out and make some room for adding more books lol!

Herbs We Used to Know: Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)

Dog's Mercury is a native of the British Isles and a member of the Spurge family, it's commonly found  in shady woodland areas. The green flowers (see photo below) are tiny and grow along spikes, an interesting thing about this plant is that the male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The dark green leaves are oval and slightly pointed with a rounded 'teeth' edge. Dog's Mercury shouldn't be confused with Annual Mercury (Mercurialis annua) sometimes called Garden Mercury which is an edible pot herb which seems to have been confused with Dog's Mercury by the likes of Gerrard and Parkinson and the herbal archivists of their time.

It's a plant that occurs across Derbyshire, the above photo was taken at Crich Tramway Museum in April 2007. This weekend on a visit to Calke Abbey, I noticed that the Dog's Mercury there was beginning to emerge, which triggered me to post some information on this herb/plant. To date, Crich is the only place I've witnessed just how invasive this plant can be, along with the Ramsons it forms carpets of lush green growth in the spring that seems to smoother out everything else.

According to Maude Grieve, the juice of the whole plant, freshly collected when in flower, mixed with sugar or with vinegar, is recommended for externally treating warts, and for inflammatory and discharging sores, and also, applied as a poultice, to swellings and to cleanse old sores. Although I wouldn't want to apply it to my hands in the event that I may end up putting them in my mouth and end up ill or dead!

Dog's Mercury is cited in some of the old herbals, but it was abandoned as a medicinal remedy as it was found to be lethal for internal use. Culpeper speaks strongly about the poisonous qualities of Dog's Mercury, and adds, with some contempt: ' The common herbals, as Gerarde's and Parkinson's, instead of cautioning their readers against the use of this plant, after some trifling, idle observations upon the qualities of Mercurys in general, dismiss the article without noticing its baneful effects. Other writers, more accurate, have done this; but they have written in Latin, a language not very likely to inform those who stand most in need of this caution.'

Something I did find of interest given my latest herb project to discover native herbs and wild plants to dye with was a snippet in Maud Grieve's "A Modern Herbal" that says when Dog's Mercury is "steeped in water, the leaves and stems of the plant give out a fine blue colour, resembling indigo. This colouring matter is turned red by acids and destroyed by alkalis, but is otherwise permanent, and might prove valuable as a dye, if any means of fixing the colour could be devised. The stems are of a bright metallic blue, like indigo, and those that run into the ground have the most colouring matter."

Something to look into and given the abundance of Dog's Mercury around these parts, I won't be without a plentiful supply to experiment with, all I need to do is donne the marigolds and make sure I don't put my fingers in my mouth when I experiment!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Herbs We Used to Know: Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea)

I was just going through some folders of photos and came across some of Pineapple Weed, the image took me back to my childhood in Manchester where this deliciously fragrant herb used to grow abundantly on the waste ground. I recall picking small bunches of it and spending an afternoon squishing the flowers to release the fruity pineapple aroma, still to this day when I come across the plant I can't help but gather a piece to crush and sniff. Its also called Rayless Mayweed and as far as I can tell isn't a native of the UK, despite cropping up everywhere, I haven't been able to find out when it was introduced into this part of the world, so if anybody knows please let me know?

Beyond the scent of this fragrant wild plant I'd not investigated any further, its a useful 'time travel' plant, (wait I can now officially refer to it as a herb whooo hooooo!) time travel in so much that one whiff and I'm a kid again without a care in the world peddling around on my tricycle, but I digress... Out of curiosity just now I decided to look and see what I could discover about any potential uses for this fruity scented darling and was amazed to discover that it's perfectly edible!

You can eat the flower heads either raw or cooked, although what you'd put them in... Mmm wait, I can see them scattered on a chicken and pineapple salad or cooked in a light syrup and used to garnish fresh summer fruit salads, oh boy I can't wait until June when they'll be ready to harvest. Apparently the dried flowers are used to make tea which has a lovely pineapple scent and taste, which could be useful info to know for those people who don't like chamomile tea. They may prefer Pineapple Weed tea as it is sweeter and milder than chamomile. I can't wait to try for myself, and to think all these years I've done nothing but smell it! It can also used as an insect repellent, so would make a great addition to pot pourri and moth bags etc.
The flowering plant is antispasmodic, carminative, galactogogue, sedative, skin and vermifuge. Sadly it is rarely used medicinally these days, but in the past it was used to treat fevers, infected sores and stomach upsets. In some parts of the world it is still used to treat diarrhoea something it has in common with its counterpart Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), it is similar to chamomile in many of its medicinal qualities but much milder. It is also used to help ease flatulence, and is good for colds and menstrual problems. Externally it can be added to creams, salves and decotions used for treating itchy skin and sores.

I was amazed to discover on some of the American herb blogs that people have been experimenting and using pineapple weed for ages, in the UK it isn't one of the plants that spring to mind to harvest from Mother Nature's Larder unlike nettles, wild garlic and jack by the hedge, nor is it one that is focused on, which is bizarre as its so common, maybe its because its name self-brands it as a weed, therefore people avoid it? In the UK we seem to have a severe distrust of wild plants, everything we don't know is poisonous and to be avoided.

Okay there is sage wisdom in avoiding ingesting plants we know nothing about, and I'm always saying "If in doubt, DON'T", but where's the natural curiosity? And why isn't the media here exploring more wild plants, and showing us what we can eat from the wild? Helping people explore free food and seasonal delights beyond the common ones e.g. nettles, dandelions etc? Maybe the public will become more curious as the credit crunch bites deeper and they'll explore more wild plants? We can hope for more educational programmes, maybe even local councils will do more nature forage walks, now that I'd like to see! But since WWII in England we seem to have lost not only the ability to identify the wild free food, but those not in the know seem to scorn upon the collection and use of wild plants, so I won't hold my breath, and anyway if the public don't latch on to the benefits of all this free bounty, it'll mean more for those of us who understand its worth :)

I recall when I was little being told not to eat wild blackberries because they had worms inside, the same Auntie told me not to pick dandelions because they would make me wee the bed and I believed her, you tend to believe what adults tell you when you're 6! I was 15 before I discovered that blackberries and dandelions are not only safe to pick, they can do you more good than harm.

Warning
- Both Pineapple Weed and Chamomile are related to Ragweed and can actually cause violent allergic reactions in people who suffer from hay fever.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Tackling Food Cravings with Spices and Herbs


New Pukka Organic Herb Tea's

Last week whilst researching herbs to help weight loss I discovered that liquorice regulates blood-sugar levels and can reduce cravings for sweets and chocolate! Something really useful to know when you're hormonal and nothing in the world will make you feel better than a bar of chocolate. I found out that liquorice could help me kick the chocolate cravings quite by accident.

A few of the pukka tea blends I drink have liquorice root added to them, and I noticed when I had a cup of those teas any cravings for chocolate went away. I looked at the ingredients and did some research and found out that liquorice could be a superb friend when the sugary cravings hit! I've also found that a mug of Fennel, Plantain and Nettle tea seems to suppress my appetite. Now when I'm feeling hungry, but its not time to eat, or I need to wait a little while longer until dinner or tea is ready I'm finding a mug of Fennel, Plantain and Nettle tea takes the edge off my appetite.

I've been looking into herbs to aid weight loss since the MHG detox talk that Jenny gave back in January, and I'm wondering about the age old marriage of dandelion and burdock!? Dandelion is often associated with diets due to its diuretic and mild laxative effects, it also has a gentle stimulating effect on the metabolism. Burdock also acts as a diuretic and can also help to reduce cravings and hunger. I couldn't find a sugar free recipe for dandelion and burdock but I came across a recipe for Root Beer Tonic by Rosemary Gladstar, not being a fan of Sarsaparilla or Sassafras I've opted to omit them and make my variation of her recipe linked to above. I've made the blend up and it smells really nice, but I've not actually tried brewing it yet, maybe later today. I'll post my thoughts on taste etc and if it works it may be a candidate for a turning into a low sugar cordial or a tonic wine.

Dandelion & Burdock Brew


85g (3oz) Dandelion Root, dried
85g (3oz) Burdock Root, dried
55g (2oz) Liquorice Root, dried
14g (1/2oz) Ground Ginger
14g (1/2oz) Ground Cinnamon
7g (1/4oz) Orange Peel, dried

Mix together all ingredients and store in a tightly closed container. In a large pot combine 2 pints of water and 4 tablespoons of dry mixture. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain and sweeten with honey if desired. Makes about 4 cups.

Chickweed is another potential friend for dieters, apparently in several studies it has shown an ability to break down fat molecules. It's usually recommend in combination with burdock root; the chickweed breaks down the fat and the burdock helps transport it out of the body. As a tea, chickweed is thought to be an effective way to curb cravings, assist digestion, and help you lose weight. So when I next come across chickweed whilst I'm browsing Mother Nature's larder, I have yet another reason to gather this wild herb and make a tea from it and add it to salads. I'm also wondering about making a Burdock & Chickweed cream or oil to use for massage, I'm wondering what benefits these two herbs would have on the skin?

Sarah will be happy to hear that Flax Seed is also considered a dieters friend, apparently if its taken half an hour before meals it will help you eat less, it stabilises the bodies sugar levels, and expands to five times its original bulk when ingested, thus making you feel fuller and it also strengthens the immune system. Orange (Citrus aurantium) is also diet friendly due to its thermogenic properties. Which means that the lovely tea she showed me how to make the winter before last, from a recipe on Rebecca Hartman's blog can also be diet friendly!

Relaxing Cinnamon Tea


3 parts Cinnamon sticks
1 part Orange Peel (fresh)
1 part Crampbark (you can also use Valerian or Black Haw, but I prefer Crampbark)
1/2 part Flaxseeds

Put flax seeds, cinnamon, orange and crampbark in a small pan with 1 cup (285ml) of water per teaspoon of seeds. Simmer gently until the liquid is reduced by half. Drink hot. (If you let it cool, it will be the texture of raw egg white.) This tea is wonderful for increasing circulation, for “irritable bowel” and for menstrual cramps in people who tend to cold. So it's perfect for me right now, I think I'll pop off and make some to sip, I have everything in and the cramps are being a bit of a bugger at the minute! Hmmm you know this blogging about my weight loss is a wonderful tonic. When I started this post earlier I felt like curling up in a ball, now I'm fired with enthusiasm again, had I not blogged who knows what could have happened and all this thanks to the wonder and diversity of herbs :)

Monday, 16 February 2009

Herbs We Used to Know: Harlequin Glorybower (Clerodendrum trichotomum)

Harlequin Glorybower (Seed Head)
Harlequin Glorybower (Seed Head)
© Debs Cook

Back in September 2006 we visited Lyddington Bede House a place with a small herb garden maintained by English Heritage near Oakham in Rutland. The village of Lyddington is a beautiful place and we took time to walk around drinking in the sights, sounds and the gardens. I was amazed to see the above seed pods staring out at me from one garden, it looked almost alien and I had no clue what it was, but as is my way I took lots of photos intending to identify it one day. Imagine my delight when this week I was looking for something else entirely and I came across a similar image to the one I'd taken (above). It didn't take long for me to discover what the plant was and to further discover that it did indeed fit into the herbal world and what it was used for.

The plants Latin name is Clerodendrum trichotomum more commonly known as the Harlequin Glorybower and Chou Wu Tong. I actually found Chou Wu Tong with a small photo in Andrew Chevallier's "Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine". Easy once I knew what I was looking for, but no way would I have found it before I had a name!

Chou Wu Tong has been used as a medicinal plant from the earliest times in its native country China. Where its used to dispel wind, remove damp and lower blood pressure, it has also been used as an antimalarial agent. Chou Wu Tong was first documented in the Illustrated Classic of the Materia Medica (AD 1061). The leaves although they have a pungent aroma, some say that they smell like peanut butter, hence one of its other names "The Peanut Butter Tree" are mildly analgesic, anti-pruritic, hypotensive and sedative, and can be used externally in the treatment of dermatitis and internally for the treatment of hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, numbness and paralysis. The roots and leaves are anti-rheumatic and hypotensive and the pounded seed is used to kill lice!

Harlequin Glorybower (Flowers)
Harlequin Glorybower (Flowers)
© Debs Cook

The flowers of the Harlequin Glorybower are white and tubular, with four prominent stamens – they have a strong and attractive fresh fragrance, like fresh lemon scented washing hung out to dry. But the true wonder of this plant is the shiny deep blue or turquoise berries framed by scarlet to deep pink calyxes, that stand around each berry like a four pointed star, which form in late summer and hang on after the leaves drop. They look like they're artificial and made of wax, so amazing to see such a brilliant colour combination and so unusual, I've also discovered that the seeds make a good blue dye. Remove the outer covering of the seeds and simmer what is left in water. Use this water to dye wool or silk mordanted with copper. The leaves can also be used as a dye, although what colour is given I've not been able to determine, maybe its blue the same as the seeds?

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Dyeing With Herbs


I love knitting and cross stitching and have wanted to have a go at dyeing my own wool or even silks for embroidery for a long time, but I didn't know enough on the subject to get any further, but I knew that I wanted to use natural dyes made from herbs, so I began to find out more on the subject.

The idea to dye with herbs really took hold when I visited Lavenham Guildhall a couple of years ago, there they have a small dyeing herbs garden and inside a small museum with examples of natural dyes and displays of age old techniques such as using a teasle brush to 'card' wool. The above photo was taken there and shows a basket of wools dyed with Cow Parsley, Beetroot, Woad, Field Poppy, Lady's Bedstraw, Weld, Walnut, Elderberry, Onion, Indigo and Blackberry.

Lavenham's dyer's garden contained a variety of herbs that have been used for dyeing since medieval times, herbs such as Weld, Rue, Dyer's Greenweed, Tansy, Madder, Woad, Golden Rod, Dyer's Chamomile, Yellow Flag Iris and Lily Of The Valley which apparently yields a soft apple green colour, until that point I'd never known that Lily Of The Valley had been used as a dye plant! After Lavenham I continued to learn about herbs that can be used for dyeing, although until now I've not taken things any further. I've picked up several books on the subject, sourced some mordants and even have a few dried herbs ready to have a go, but buying off the shelf dried herbs don't satisfy the herbaholic in me, and of course I have a desire to grow and process my own herbs for dyeing.

Last year with Simon's help we created two veg beds, but the slugs ate more of the veg than we did, so this year I'm turning one of the beds into a 'Dyeing Herbs Bed'. I've yesterday I sowed seeds of Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, which I know is notoriously difficult to grow in the UK, but I can at least try!), Dyer's Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), Dyer's Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), Hops (Humulus lupulus), and today I ordered some False Alkanet (Anchusa officinalis), Safflower (Carthamus tinctoria), Woad (Isatis tinctoria) and Weld (Reseda luteola). Already in the garden I have some St John's Wort that I can move to the Dye Bed and I have seeds for sowing French Marigolds (tagetes) and Purple Basil which can also be used as a dye. In the wild I can find Tansy and Yarrow, and I'm going to pick up some Dahlia tubers and some new Marjoram plants as well, apparently the flowers of Marjoram are used to dye fabric a lilacy purple.

There's so many other native herbs that can be used as dyes that are either in my garden, kitchen or available locally, such as; Rhubarb, Gorse, Stinging Nettle, Elderberry, Red Cabbage, Onion, Ivy, Bracken and Blackberry that it will certainly take a while to experiment with them all. My plan is to use only native herbs, so you won't find me using Brazilwood, Logwood or Cutch, the whole point is to use herbs that my ancestors would have used, yes I know that Ingido doesn't count, but I wanted the challenge of trying to raise that plant from seed.

Let's not forget the use of herbs as dyes to colour creams and balms when making natural cosmetics. I watched Christina Stapley do a workshop on making lotions and balms last September and she mentioned that you can use a variety of herbs to colour creams, balms and lotions for example you can add Alkanet (Alkana tinctoria) to achieve a pink colour, Calendula (Calendula officinalis) for a pale yellow to orange colour or Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) to colour green.

Once I have a feel for the dyes and I've grow some to use either fresh or dried I'll then dye some wool and fabric with them. I'm hoping that by this winter I'll have been able to have sown and grown the herbs, processed them, dyed the wool/fabric and finally used it to make a scarf or a patchwork bag! There's lots to discover along the way and a dye herb bed to create, and the historical aspect of the natural herb dyes to learn about as well as all the skills and techniques involved so it should be a fun project.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Secret Art of Podging!

Sarah demonstrating the secret art of Podging! 
Last Saturday I went along to my friend Sarah's workshop on Tinctures, and had a wonderful time, bare in mind that I only began to dabble in the art of making my own herbal kitchen remedies with Sarah's encouragement about the middle of 2007, so I have a lot to learn. That's what I most enjoy about her workshops, everything is so hands on and taught in easy terms that you can't help but learn from the experience. Sarah believes that people learn best when they're having fun and talking about their experiences and she's right.

After every workshop, I feel invigorated, de-stressed and happy because I've spent time with people who feel as enthusiastically about herbs as I do. I'm inspired to go home and try what I've learnt, or it gives me an idea to make something new and the Tincture workshop was no exception. After showing us how to make our own simple tincture, Sarah demonstrated a very technical technique (well as technical as Sarah's workshops get) the art of 'podging', Sarah is demonstrating how to 'podge' in the above photo, basically you need a chopstick and you podge (or stab) at the herb in the alcohol until all the air bubbles have gone, simple!

Sarah always make sure that everyone gets to take something home with them that they've made themselves, or had a hand in making. At the workshop I chopped fresh ginger root and made a ginger tincture with that, I'd put spices in other things I'd made such as the Elderberry Elixir Sarah taught me how to make at a previous workshop a year or so ago, but I'd never thought to make single tinctures of spices. What I found remarkable about chopping the ginger was the warming and softening effect it had on my hands. It made me think that I'd noticed some of the 'because you're worth it' type products lately are adding ginger extract for its 'stimulating qualities', so I wondered about making a ginger infused oil to make a cream to soften and warm cold hands? It's on the to do list!

I dabbled with making my own tinctures last year and I made calendula tincture from the fresh flowers from the garden and also peppermint tincture. All the recipes say to use dried marigold petals for the tincture, but I thought fresh would be better. It came out okay, but I'll dry the petals myself this year and make a tincture with the dried petals and compare the difference. I can probably read somewhere what the difference is, but I think I'll learn better from my own experiments?!

Which takes me back to what I said about being inspired at Sarah's workshops, for some reason whilst we were tincturing, the idea of a citrus tincture came to mind, okay some can argue that I was hankering for a vodka and orange with all the vodka on the table during the tincturing session lol! But my mind developed the idea of this citrusy tincture that I decided to call 'Opal fruits' those over 40 will know what I mean :) So, when I got home I took the zest off 1 lime, 2 lemons, 2 large oranges added the juice of the lime, 1 lemon and 1 orange and topped the lot up with vodka, it was all I could do to stop Simon drinking it lol! I'm going to see whether it will work as a digestive much like the grapefruit aperitif that Sarah showed us how to make last winter.

Opal Fruits & Ginger Tinctures
One of the other tinctures I made this week was Lavender Tincture, as there were 16 people this time, Sarah split us in to two groups, after the rosemary tincture/podging demo, my group tasted and 'experienced Uplifting tinctures, I was amazed at the colour of the Skullcap tincture, a beautiful amber colour and a fruity aroma that I didn't quite expect. I found my 'sunshine' though in the rose petal tincture, such a profound experience that brought happy memories of my Mum (not someone I associate with roses as she disliked them immensely!), I felt warm, happy and there was a peaceful calm that was really eye opening.

When the summer comes and the roses are in bloom again I'll be making a large batch of rose petal tincture just to recapture that feeling. I made the lavender tincture as that was one of the other uplifting tinctures that I tried that I connected with, no surprise really as lavender is one of my favourite herbs. Sarah told us that someone on one of the U.S. blogs had described lavender tincture as "a hug in a bottle", they weren't wrong! Calming, warming, de-stressed (it had been an emotional week), happy and invigorating were the things I experienced from the lavender tincture, all the things you get from a huge hug from someone who means the world to you, sheer bliss! I used dried culinary lavender that I had in, which is a deep purple, the tincture instantly went purple, its now so dark it almost looks black! Lavender tincture is another candidate for making with fresh flowers in the summer, just to compare the difference.