Tuesday 23 June 2020

Natural and Effective Herbal Bug Repellents

Hartington, Derbyshire
Hartington, Derbyshire © Debs Cook

Out with Simon yesterday for a lovely walk along the Hartington stretch of the Tissington Trail, and we hadn't gone very far when Simon started swatting and flaying his arms about trying to deter some flying beastie from eating him. Luckily I was carrying some of my trusty home made Bug Busting Spray (recipe at end of this post) with me. Its one of those things I always carry in my bag in the warmer months of the year. A couple of squirts of the spray and he was no longer worried about the flying beasts that were troubling him moments before, after he'd been sprayed, you could visibly see the beasties flying away to avoid him, and he declared I 'rocked' lol!

Not everyone knows how to make their own bug busting spray, so they reach for sprays that contain things like DDT or other chemical nasties. All that you need is a few bottles of essential oils in your bug busting armoury and a carrier to ensure you get the irritating beasties to buzz off and leave you alone, so you can get on with enjoying the your summer walks, picnics or just sitting in the garden with a good book and a G&T!

Long before the advent of using man-made chemicals like DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) which was first synthesised in the late 19th century, to eradicate bugs, man was using plant based products to deter them, we have plants that have natural chemicals in them which can be used to get rid of pests: -

Pyrethrum derived from the Dalmatian chrysanthemum (Tanacetum cinerariifolium) which contains a series of constituents called pyrethrins that attack the nervous systems of all insects, and inhibit female mosquitoes from biting.

Derris there are several plants in the Derris family that contain a compound called rotenone including the Tuba Root (Derris elliptica), and other roots from members of the derris family. Rotenone is a powerful broad-spectrum insecticide and fish poison, however the use of derris as an insecticide was banned by the EU back in 2010 due to its potential neurotoxicity.

Quassia comes from a small evergreen tropical shrub known as Bitter Ash (Quassia amara) it is another plant that was utilised for its insecticidal properties having been particularly effective dealing with aphids and  the Colorado potato beetle, the plant contains the compounds quassin and neoquassin which both have insecticidal properties.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) was used to provide the compound nicotine to make an insecticide until the late 20th century, at the end of WWII around 2,500 tons of nicotine were being used on crops to eradicate pests, but the use declined in the late 20th century due to the discovery that the effects of nicotine on on humans and livestock were poisonous.

The four plants above being now know to contain toxic components that were shown to be do more harm than good, not only to the environment but to our health as well, have been replaced by more environmentally friendly products in more recent history. If you’re a gardener you may be interested in my article on Herbal First Aid for the Garden which looks at using herbs to eradicate pests and diseases in the garden, many of those same herbs can be used to help protect us.

Over the past 10 years research has been carried out on the ability of using ‘plant extracts as potential mosquito larvicides’. The plants being tested include to eradicate mosquito larvae include:- Ashwaghanda, Eucalyptus, Holy Basil, Moringa, Orange, Pepper and Turmeric. In 2011 researchers in Thailand looked at the ‘Efficacy of herbal Essential Oils as Insecticide’, focusing on Sweet Basil, Citronella, Clove, Eucalyptus, Lemongrass, Orange and Ylang-Ylang essential oils, as a means of using their insecticidal properties to control three different types of insects, the Anopheles dirus, the bug species which plays a major role in malaria transmission. Culex quinquefasciatus aka the Southern House Mosquito and Aedes aegypti aka the Yellow Fever Mosquito, of the oils studied, the study concluded that lemongrass oil had the most potential “to be used as an insecticide against 3 species of mosquitoes”.

Wild Bergamot is among two Monarda plants that are being studied to act as a mosquito repellents, especially on the Yellow Fever Mosquito, a study conducted by the Department of Pharmacognosy, at the University of Mississippi in 2013 concluded that: - "Systematic bioassay-guided fractionation of essential oils of both Monarda species was performed to identify the active repellent compounds, and isolated pure compounds were individually tested for repellency. Of the isolated compounds, carvacrol, thymol, eugenol, and carvacrol methyl ether were found to be the repellent compounds. Active repellent compounds were also tested for larvicidal activity against 1-day-old Aedes aegypti larvae. Thymol was the best larvicide among the tested individual compounds (LD50 of 13.9 ppm)."

Rose Geranium Flower

Essential Oils with Bug Busting Properties

Horse Flies MidgesMosquitoes
Rose Geranium
Tea Tree
Rose Geranium
Melissa (Lemon Balm)
Rose Geranium
Juniper Berry
Rose Geranium

Five of the Best Essential Oils that Naturally Repel Bugs

Scanning across the lists there are five oils common to eradicate all pests, these being Citronella, Eucalyptus, Geranium, Lavender and Peppermint oils, so having those 5 oils in your bug busting armoury will enable you to reduce the number of flying beasties that can make summer a misery.

1. Citronella – This oil is one of the most popular oils for keeping mosquitoes at bay because it has brilliant insect repelling properties, it contains citronellol, citral, citronellal, geraniol, nerol and the terpene ketone borneol which all add to the insect repelling properties of the oil. The geraniol in particular is a most effective plant-based mosquito repellent and is found in other oils including bergamot, jasmine, lemon, mandarin, melissa and rose. Oils like lemongrass and melissa can be used as a substitute if you don’t have any citronella oil, you can add citronella oil to candles and vaporisers’ outdoors to keep mosquitoes at bay, as well as using the oil is sprays for the body and surroundings.

2. Eucalyptus - Has natural insecticidal and anti-parasitic properties so can be added used in sprays to deter flying insects and pests, the oil has been studied as a repellent against the mosquito, in particular two of the constituents found in eucalyptus, namely p-menthane-3,8-diol and eucamol and whether they are as effective as DEET, in some cases the constituents found in eucalyptus were found to be more effective. The 1996 study conducted by the Department of Medical Parasitology, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that “Repellents, applied to the legs and feet at doses chosen as used in practice, gave complete protection from biting for between 6 and 7.75 h, depending upon the formulation type, with no significant difference between PMD and deet in terms of efficacy and duration of protection.

3. Geranium – The oil of geranium is a well-known tick repellent, studies have also found it to be effective at eradicating head lice, the oil contains four major constituents: - citronellol (38%), geraniol (16%), citronellyl formate (10.4%), and linalool (6.45%) which are all have natural insecticidal properties. A study on the Insecticidal and Biting Deterrent Activity of Rose Scented Geranium Oils concluded that “rose-scented geranium essential oils and pure compounds from this study have shown promising results as insecticides, which warrants further research to establish them as potential biopesticides. One of the pure compounds, geranic acid, showed highest biting deterrent activity, which was statistically similar to that of DEET. Further research, through intensive in vivo bioassays, is needed to explore the possibility of using this compound as a deterrent/repellent in human protection.” Geraniol is found in the five oils we’ve selected here and as well as being kryptonite for ticks, it’s also a very effective plant-based mosquito repellent.

4. Lavender – This fragrant essential oil is most often associated with its ability to relax the mind and help to de-stress the body, but lavender is also a good oil for helping to banish bugs like flies, moths and mosquitoes. Ketones in lavender oil include camphor which acts as an natural repellent, and the oil has been used for its insecticidal and vermifuge use for centuries, during the medieval period water made from lavender flowers was used as a hair rinse to help prevent head lice and the herb was often scattered around the floors to prevent pests in the home such as moths, fleas and lice.

5. Peppermint - Another useful oil to have on hand is peppermint oil, it’s the arch nemesis of all the biting beasties in our table above, it’s also on the fly exclusion zone for house flies and fleas hate it, as do ants. A few years ago on a holiday in France, the cottage we were staying in was plagued with ants. I always take a basic herbal kit with me that contains a variety of herbal products which includes some essential oils and peppermint is one of those oils. I smeared the peppermint oil around the doors, windows and any other places the ants were getting in to the cottage and within an hour we saw a decrease in ant numbers, by day 3 there were NO ants getting in anywhere, and you could see them taking a wide berth to avoid the peppermint, result!

You can chose also to make your own special blends targeted at one specific insect using theessential oils listed in the table above, or make my Bug Busting Spray.

Mrs Cook's Bug Busting Spray

100ml Distilled Witch Hazel, Perfumers Alcohol or Vodka
10 Drops Citronella Essential Oil
10 Drops Eucalyptus Essential Oil
10 Drops Lemongrass Essential Oil
10 Drops Lavender Essential Oil
5 Drops Geranium Essential Oil
5 Drops Tea Tree Essential Oil
120ml Glass or Plastic Spray Bottle with Cap

Method: The spray is simplicity in itself to make, simply take a clean glass or plastic spray bottle large enough to hold 110ml of liquid, you can use plastic but sometimes essential oils can eat away at the plastic if left long term. Add the witch hazel to the bottle and add the essential oils to this. To use shake the spray bottle to make sure that all the essential oils are mixed in with your carrier solution and spray the bug repellent on to the skin.

N.B. I use perfumers alcohol to make my spray but this isn't so easy to obtain, so use Distilled Witch Hazel which should be available at a local chemist or pharmacy or failing that use Vodka instead, try to get one that is 100 proof, standard 80 proof (40% alcohol) is fine.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to source the most up to date and accurate information, I cannot guarantee that remedies in my articles are effective, when in doubt, consult your GP or a qualified Medicinal Herbalist. Remember also that herbal remedies and essential oils can be dangerous under certain circumstances therefore you should always seek medical advice before self-treating with a home made remedy, especially if you are pregnant, breast feeding or suffer from any known illness which could be adversely affected by self-treatment.

Sunday 14 June 2020

Herbal Things To Do With Children

My stepson has grown in to a fine young man, he's now married with a young family, which now makes me a Nanna, I refuse to be a Grandma that would make me old(er) lol! When they were younger my nephews and niece would come to stay occasionally (the two youngest still do) and whilst they were here, I would share my love of all things herbal with them.

I enjoyed doing this and it seems they loved it to, after one stay several years ago my niece got taken around the school garden and she correctly identified the herb chives growing in their garden and proudly told the teacher all the things you could do with chives, including eating the flowers!

Hearing that news made me smile in a very proud auntie way then and it still makes me smile today, she's now a teenager and will most likely have forgotten that visit but I have the photos haha! My youngest nephew on his last visit took home with him lemon balm, chocolate mint and fennel plants and he uses them regularly as he's quite the budding young chef, its been a standard to teach all three of them how to make mint tea, make parsley sauce and bake a cake of some description with herbs in the ingredients. I can now look forward to teaching my grand children the wonder of herbs and show them how to identify wild herbs and flowers and I can't wait. Whilst I'm (im)patiently waiting for this covid thing to go away so I can once again spend time with them all, thought that it would be a good idea to share my tips with others so they can help turn the children they know into budding young herbaholic's to. If anybody is interested I can recommend a couple of books and resources to help, so leave me a comment below.

There are many ways to enhance the appreciation and understanding of herbs with children, you can engage children in a wide range of activities where they can use and explore herbs without really trying. If you're a teacher or volunteer at your local school, then you can organise school visits to herb gardens, add herbs to nature tables and involve children in class projects looking at growing herbs, their historical uses or using them in crafts, children can learn about wildlife that use herbs as a food source, create a garden to encourage beneficial insects into the area, a herbal butterfly garden can be a delight to children of all ages.

Local flora in your area can also be used as a resource, blackberries, elderberries, nettles and dandelions are also herbs and have had many uses historically in herbal medicine and as food. Some of them can also be used as dyes and to make clothing!

Aside from the child friendly herbal projects that I will be adding to this section, I plan to write a series of information sheets aimed at children that will include general information about the herb, historical information and uses and suggestions to make or do something with each herb. Whilst I work on adding all this, here is a list of ten things you can do with your child to help them explore the fascinating world of herbs.

1. Plan, design and plant a herb garden. If you don't have the space for a outdoor garden, consider growing herbs on the classroom windowsill or on a table close to a window and make a table herb garden.

2. Take a herb Survey. Get your child to do a 'herb survey' of the herbs and spices in the home, once you have a list, get them to look where the herbs and spices come from and what they can be used for.

3. Go on a herb walk. Most local councils offer guided herb walks of some description, not all are suitable for children, but most are. Ask in your local area and see what is on offer, then take the child on a herbal field trip.

4. Make herbal crafts. Pick herb leaves and make decorated paper items, in the same way that potato prints are produced, or press herbs and use them to create decorated items. You can produce gift tags, cards and calenders using both these methods. Make herb pot pourri, herbal vinegar or grow fresh herb plants and give them as gifts.

5. Start a child's herbal or journal. Let the children browse some old herb books online to give them an idea of what they look like, then ask them which herbs they'd like to include, get them to find out as much as they can about the herb in question, write a poem or story, draw the herb and learn its uses, if you have more than 1 child get them to do a herb each and share what they learn. If you're doing this with a class of children, assign each child a herb and get them to draw the herb they've been assigned and write some facts and information about the herb. When all the assignments are complete, put them all together as 'Class 2c's Herbal'.

6. Discover some old herbal uses and folklore. Older children may enjoy interviewing grandparents or other elderly people and asking them if they have any stories about herbs or ways that herbs were used.

7. Compile a child friendly herb recipe book. Pick a variety of favourite culinary herbs and get children to research recipes containing these herbs. If facilities allow make up some of the recipes and get the child to pick the top 10 and produce a small herbal recipe book of their favourite recipes. For younger children this can just be simple things like chives in scrambled eggs. I'll be adding recipes for making herb teas, parsley sauce, herb cakes and biscuits and other items that you can try.

8. Take an historical look at herbs. Get your child to look at the way the Romans, Tudors, Elizabethans or Victorians used herbs, what did they use them for? How does it differ to the way we use them today? Maybe they can drawer these uses or think of ways the herbs could still be used today?

9. Research the way herbs were used. Herbs have been used in many different ways through the ages, to dye cloth, scent the home, preserve food, used to prevent pests and diseases. Get your child to discover these uses and then experiment in the kitchen or classroom with herbal dyes, make lavender wands, tussie mussies and pot pourri. Again I'll be adding posts with information on making all these things, plus a simple salve and other items that older children can make and use.

10. Take a look at herbs as medicine. How has medicine changed over the years? Did we use herbs more in history than we do now? If so what herbs were used and what remedies did our grandparents and great grandparents use? Did they really rub their chests with goose fat? What were mustard plasters? Check your local museum to see if they have any herbal medicine displays. The Old Herb Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret in London covers the history of medicine and medicinal use of herbs, they also have a resource pack available to purchase.

That should keep you going for a while, if you have any ideas for things to include or topics you'd like to see added to the Herbal Haven Herbs for Children section then leave me a message. I look forward to watching this resource grow.

Herbs Through the Ages: Elecampane

Elecampane Flowers
Elecampane Flowers © Debs Cook

I'm patiently waiting for this perennial beauty to flower in my garden and whilst I do I thought I'd write a little about its use through the ages. Elecampane (Inula helenium) is said to get the Helenium part of its name to honour Helen of Troy, the Ancient Greeks believed that it was from her tears that the first elecampane plants sprang. It is an herbaceous, perennial plant, native to central and northern Europe and north-west Asia, now found growing in North America which grows to a height of 1.5 metres. It has an erect, stout, furrowed stem, which branches near the top. The leaves are alternate, ovate, pointed, and serrated along the edges, mid-green in colour on the upper surface, the under surface is covered in a velvety coating of fine white hairs, upper leaves are veined and 15-45cm in length. The flowers are borne as terminal heads of deep yellow rayed flowers with many fine petals which look similar to sunflowers and are 5-9cm in diameter. Other names that elecampane has been referred to include: - Inula, Wild Sunflower, Horseheal, Yellow Starwort, Scabwort, Velvet Dock, Elfdock, Elfwort, Enule Campagne, Enula Campana, Echter Alant, Grande Aunée, Helenio, Inule Aunée and Inule Hélénie.

The Greeks used elecampane root to aid digestion and considered it to have a particular affinity with the stomach, but it was also used for a variety of other uses. Dioscorides in the 1st century A.D. administered a drink to patients made from a decoction of elecampane sweetened with a little honey to help to promote urine and menstrual flow. The root he once again mixed with honey and turned it into a syrup which was used to help ease “coughs, asthma, hernias, convulsions, gaseousness, and the bites of venomous creatures, being generally warming.” Dioscorides also liked to use the leaves boiled in wine, which he then strained and applied as a fomentation to help ease sciatica, he also described how it was preserved, it was first dried “and afterwards boiled, then steeped in cold water and put into a decoction and kept in jars for use. Pounded and taken in a drink it is good for bloody excretions.

The 11th century Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen described elecampane as being warm and dry in nature, she employed the root to help ease lung complaints and to relieve migraines, she infused the root in wine and gave the infusion to her patients to drink. If wine wasn’t available she counselled that an infusion could instead be made in a hydromel (honey and water).

Elecampane has long been valued as a healing herb for external wounds, the Spanish conquistadors employed used elecampane to make surgical dressings and poultices for wounds; the powerful antiseptic and antibacterial properties of the root helped to heal putrefying wounds. 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended elecampane to guard against putrefaction and as a means of helping to “remove cramps or convulsions, the pains of gout, [and] the sciatica”.

Whilst 18th century herbalist William Salmon in his book the ‘Botanologia’ published in 1710, gave a list of 22 herbal preparations that could be made from elecampane root. Salmon wrote “From the Root of this Herb you, may make the following Preparations, viz. I. A juice. 2. An Essence. 3. A Syrup. 4. A Decoction or Infusion. 5. A Powder. 6. An Electuary 7. An Ointment. 8. A Balsam 9. A Cataplasm. 10. A Distilled Water. 11. A Spirituous Tincture. 12. An Acid Tincture. 13. An Oily Tincture. 14. A Saline Tincture. 15. A Spirit. 16. A Distilled Oil. 17. Potentiates or Powers [A potentiate was a substance used to augment the activity of a remedy, synergistically.] 18. An Elixir. 19. A Fixed Salt. 20. Sanguis or Blood. 21. The Preserve or Conserve. 22. Enulamel or Honey of Elecampane.” Salmon described the root as being “hot and dry in the third degree” and considered it to be a specific for “old Coughs, Catarrhs, and tartarous matter obstructing the Lungs.

It wasn’t just humans that elecampane's wound healing properties were used, the root got one of its common names of Horse-heal due to the fact that farriers often used elecampane to heal scabs and sores on the heels of horses to help prevent them going lame, the bruised roots were mixed with hog fat to make a salve for applying to horses suffering from the scab. Decoctions and infusions of the root were added to washes for inflamed skin, and used to make poultices and fomentations, the tincture and infusions was also be added to balms and salves to help wounds to heal.

In the 16th century John Gerard recommended using Elecampane for treating shortness of breath, writing that “[elecampane] is good for the shortnesse of breath and an old cough, and for such as cannot breathe unlesse they hold their neckes upright”, there was also a belief that sucking on a piece of elecampane root could protect a person from poisonous vapours and foul air. The Elizabethan’s were rather fond of candied elecampane root, it was a popular sweetmeat of the time, and the roots were also used to make teas and tisanes or lozenges for sore throats, coughs and were used to treat whooping cough. Sir John Hill in the 18th century recommended that the best way of taking elecampane root for coughs was to take a little of the candied root and to hold it “almost continually in the mouth, swallowed gently, so that it will take effect much better than by a larger dose swallowed at once”.

Elecampane Leaf & Bud
Elecampane Leaf & Bud
The medical botanists of the 19th century used a tincture of elecampane as part of a wash to clean wounds and help them to heal. Throughout historical herbal texts you can find references to elecampane being used to help ease asthma and chest complaints, candied elecampane root was once sold in England as a means of treating asthmatic conditions; where it remained a popular sweetmeat in London for easing asthma and chest complaints right up to the mid-19th century. An old recipe involved pounding the root together with sugar, and boiling it up with water to which a little cochineal colouring was added, the resultant mix was then stamped out into rounds and consumed when a person suffered from coughs or asthma.

Elecampane root is one of the ingredients alongside wormwood that goes to make the famous French liqueur Absinthe. The root wasn’t just drunk for pleasure, a decoction was used as a gargle in the way we use mouthwash today, which was believed to strengthen the gums so that teeth that were loose would once again become ‘fast’ in the mouth and prevent the teeth from falling out. The root was chewed to help fix the teeth back into the gums, after Pliny the Elder back in the 1st century A.D. wrote that “being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth”, the root was also believed to help stop tooth decay and to prevent teeth from going bad and putrefying.

Saturday 13 June 2020

10 Universally Useful Herbs

Mint and Lavender two perennial favourites.

I often get asked what herbs I would recommend for someone new to herb gardening or for someone with a small garden? Before I recommend any herbs I always ask, ‘what do you want to do with them?’ I get blank looks sometimes because people haven’t fully decided what they want to do with the herbs other than grow them; they may cook with them, use them in crafts or have a go at making their own beauty treatments, some may even wish to make some simple home remedies with the herbs they grow, but if they haven’t found their ‘herbal feet’, advising what they’d be best growing can be a little difficult.

To help in this situation I developed my list of 10 ‘Multi-Purpose Herbs’ for beginners, the 10 that I wouldn't be without, and in fact couldn't be without, and the ones I feel should be the skeleton of every herb garden, the ones used to build the bones that the rest of the herb garden can grow around.

These bones can be used for all the main areas that gardeners usually cultivate herbs, and all but two of them are perennial, they’d also fit nicely into cottage style gardens and can be added to allotment gardens to help bring in wildlife and add some seasoning to your fruit and veg!

Growing them will enable you to add flavour to your cooking, make simple remedies, make your own face creams and herbal gifts and use them around the home for cleaning. The bonus is they’re all relatively easy to grow and don’t need you to do that much to them once established, beyond a haircut and some division every so often.

Below is my guide to 10 universally useful herbs for the garden each entry includes my favourite seed and plant varieties to grow, please take in to account that I'm recommending seeds and plants available in the UK, that I have direct knowledge of from a growing and using point of view, some varieties may be available in other countries, but not all will be.

Herbaholic's 10 Universally Useful Herbs

– Easy to grow and the varieties and ‘flavours’ are endless, I cook with it, make herb teas my favourite is fresh basil with added orange peel and juice, yum! I add basil to herbal bath sachets, it goes in to lots of recipes in the kitchen both sweet and savoury. Basil is really easy to grow from seed, sow in early spring on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse then transplant out when all signs of frost have gone. Taking care not to disturb the roots, this is the most common cause of basil casualties, they don’t like having their roots messed with. You can also sow seeds direct into the place you want the seeds to grow in late spring.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Sweet Genovese’, ‘Aristotle’ & ‘Pluto’.

2) Bergamot – I use this herb for teas, the leaves go into salads, the flowers into fruit salads, dried for pot pourri and it gets added to various body pampering recipes. It’s colourful and the bees and hoverflies love it! Sow seeds on the surface of your compost and give a light covering of vermiculite, the seed grows better in a heated propagator. Bergamot loves to grow in light soil that can retain a little moisture.

The flowers of bergamot will last longer if you grow the plants where they only get sun in the morning.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Bergamot’ aka Red Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) and ‘Wild Bee Balm’ aka Lemon Bergamot (Monarda citriodora).

– I add it to home made sleep pillows, bath bags, make sprays to protect seedlings from damping off, and planting it near other herbs and plants can help to strengthen them. There are two types of chamomile grown commonly in herb gardens, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) which is perennial and German chamomile (Matricaria recutia) an annual, I grow both as they have slightly different uses but for a beginner I’d recommend going with the perennial variety. That said if you want to grow chamomile for adding to teas and tisanes then grow German Chamomile as it has a slightly sweeter flavour and isn't as bitter. Grow Chamomile seeds as per Bergamot minus the heat.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Flore Pleno’ (Chamaemelum nobile) a pretty double flowered variety.

4) Lavender – I’d be lost without this herb! I grow purple, pink and white varieties with a mix of scents, the bees and butterflies love lavender so much as well, nothing beats an afternoon in the garden on a Summer's day smelling the scent of this herb gently wafting upwards listening to the soft buzz of the bees gathering its nectar, bliss. I cook sweet and savoury dishes with it; I dry the flowers and use them along with the chamomile in sleep pillows and bath bags. I infused them with beeswax and other ingredients to make my own furniture polish and the flowers get added to a bath soaks for when I’ve been doing too much in the garden. Grow from seed in a heated propagator, or from cuttings taken in the autumn.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Hidcote’, ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Rosea’ (pink) & ‘Ellagance Ice’ (white).

10 Universal Herbs
Image © Debs Cook

 5) Lemon Balm – This is the herb that tells me that spring is finally here, it’s one of the first to emerge in my garden and gets used in a myriad of ways, lemon balm pesto is my favourite recipe, the leaves are full of a citronella like substance which can help deter pests, try rubbing some on your arms and head if you get bitten by midges, the infused oil can be used to make a rather beneficial salve for cold sores. Lemon balm tea is very refreshing hot or cold, I have found that warm lemon balm tea, made from fresh lemon balm to be wonderfully soothing for toothache, fresh lemon balm leaves can also be used to polish wood leaving behind their delightful fragrance. Sow seed under glass in early spring with a light covering of vermiculite; pot the seedlings on and once established plant out into the garden.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘All Gold’ & ‘Citronella’.

6) Marigold/Calendula – Such a useful herb, the petals can be used as a saffron substitute, the flowers can make home remedies, be sprinkled on salads, they can be dried and used in crafts and they’re yet another herb that will bring the bees, hover flies and lacewings into your garden. I make tincture from the flower heads that I use when making my gardeners hand cream. It’s an annual herb but it will readily and easily self-seed, you can sow in modules at the beginning of spring or in late spring sow directly where you want them to grow. Slugs do love feasting on newly emerged calendula so make sure you give them some slug proofing! There are many varieties of calendula, if you want to use them in home remedies ensure that your chosen seeds are C. officinalis.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Orange King’ & ‘Calendula Long Flowering Mix’.

7) Mint – You can’t beat fresh mint tea, it’s something I’m very fond of, my favourite mint is Chocolate Mint but that's not exactly an all-rounder, if you have the space though it's one I'd highly recommend for teas and for adding to cakes! You can use this wonderfully aromatic herb in herbal beauty products, in sachets to deter pests, in culinary recipes from dips to ice cream and planted near doors and windows it will help to keep ants at bay, it really does work! It’s easy enough to grow from seed, sow the seeds under glass, a gentle heat will help them germinate quicker. Transplant seedlings into large pots though, unless you want a garden full of mint, never plant directly into the ground or you will have a mint garden and not a herb garden!

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties: ‘Moroccan Mint’, ‘Tashkent’ & ‘Spearmint’ (M. spicata).

8) Rosemary – Is a perfect herb to add as a focal point to your herb garden or bed, its perennial and hardy down to 9.4°C (15°F). Here roasted veggies get sprinkled with freshly chopped rosemary, I make shortbread with it, I make infusions that get turned into creams and shampoos, the dried leaves go in pot pourri and scented sachets to deter moths, and I make herb vinegar that get used to clean work surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom. Don’t use the vinegar on marble surfaces, they will disintegrate due to the acid in the vinegar! Sow rosemary in spring using a part vermiculite part seed compost mix, and give the pots some bottom heat, rosemary can very easily fall prey to damping off disease so give them a spray of chamomile infusion to help prevent this.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Miss Jessops Upright’ & ‘Beneden Blue’ AGM.

9) Sage – A terrific companion plant, when planted next to cabbages and brassicas, it can help deter cabbage white butterflies. The variegated varieties make terrific plants for tubs and baskets but for medicinal use plant purple sage, other sages will work, but for infusions and mouthwashes purple or English sage is best. Sage makes a lovely herbal rinse of dark hair, leaves scattered in hot water can be used as a facial steam. Fresh leaves can be used in the kitchen, and they make a nice addition to a foot bath to help ease tired aching feet that have been doing lots of gardening. Sow the seed in small pots with a covering of vermiculite on a sunny windowsill, once the seedlings are big enough to handle pot on or plant out where you want them to grow. Note that the variegated varieties are perennial, but will need protecting from frost or they will die!

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Purpurascens’, ‘Tricolor’ & ‘Icterina’.

10) Thyme – Every gardener should have more thyme, the flowers are edible, the bees love them and it has so many uses. I grow several varieties but I’d never be without common garden thyme and lemon scented, both get used an awful lot in my house. Herb butters, herbal shampoos, dried leaves go in sleep sachets and bath herb blends and they get turned into vinegar used in the same way as the rosemary vinegars. Sow seeds in mid to late spring, they are very delicate so sprinkle them lightly on the surface of your compost and do not cover, and they’ll need a little gentle heat to help them along. Once the seedlings are big enough to handle pot on or plant out.

Herbaholic's Favourite Varieties:
‘Orange Scented Thyme’, ‘Doone Valley’, ‘Silver Queen’, ‘Porlock’ & ‘Common Thyme’.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Old Proprietary Remedies and Curatives

Old patented remedies
A few years ago we took a trip to the Black Country Museum with my young nephew, taking in the chemist shop full of its old proprietary remedies and curatives, rows and rows of bottles of syrups, tinctures, salves, ointments and jars of herbs (more of that in another post soon!) The trip rekindled my fascination with old 19th and early-20th century remedies, so much so, I decided to take a closer look at some of the everyday remedies used by our Great Grandmothers and Grandmothers.

The type of things that they would have been able to purchase in the local chemist and apothecary shops, what they contained and whether they were viable cures, or of little use and in future articles look at the herbs they could have used instead. I began looking at the subject of old herbal remedies several years ago when I focused on Composition Powders, so I thought it was about time that I look at more of the old remedies for blood tonics, consumption cures, diabetes, epilepsy and medicines that even claimed to cure baldness amongst other things and see what they contained, if they worked and whether anything like it still survives.

A while back I came across the story of a Norfolk lady known as Elizabeth Freke who in the early 18th century made an inventory of all the herbal remedies that she had in her medicine chest which totalled a staggering 200+ home made medicines and tonics, all based on knowledge she had gleaned from reading Gerard's Herbal. Amongst her remeedies there was a wide variety of cordials, syrups and potions, including Elixir Salutis sold as a general health tonic which is believed to have contained senna pods, jalap root, anise and caraway seeds, and juniper berries amongst its ingredients, all macerated in alcohol, which was then strained and mixed with equal parts treacle and water. Mrs Freke’s medicine chest also contained Aqua Mirabilis, a distilled water made from spirits of herbs such as betony, lemon balm, mint and sage, and other aromatic ingredients including cardamom, cloves, cubebs, galangal, ginger and mace.

An example of a recipe for making Aqua Mirabilis from the era can be found in ‘The Complete Family-Piece and Country Gentleman and Farmer's Best Guide’ published in 1736 “To make Aqua Mirabilis Take Cloves Mace Cinnamon Nutmegs Cardamum Cubebs Galangal and Melilot Flowers of each 2 Ounces Cowslip Flowers, Spear mint and Rosemary Flowers of each 4 Handfuls, 1 Gallon of the Juice of Celandine, a Gallon of White wine, a Gallon of Canary [wine] and a Gallon of Brandy, let them be infused for twelve Hours and distil them off in a gentle sand heat.” Elizabeth Freke’s medicine chest also including aromatic waters of rosemary, tinctures of lavender and nutmeg, syrup of saffron and a variety of chaffing dishes, distillation apparatus and a pestle and mortar to grind and mix together herbs, spices and resins to make her remedies.

Back in the 18th century over 80% of medicines were derived from herbs in one form or another, and like Mrs Freke, every housewife was schooled in the basics that were required to keep her family healthy using herbs as remedies and preventatives. She used recipes that would have been passed down from her mother, and her grandmother as well as remedies that she learnt from her friends and neighbours, the basics would come from what they could grow or what they could source growing locally in fields and hedgerows, from gardens if they were lucky enough to have one, ingredients she couldn’t find would come from the local apothecary or even the local grocers shop.

In 1769 Scottish doctor William Buchan published his book ‘Domestic Medicine: or, A treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases, by regimen and simple medicines: with an appendix, containing a dispensatory for the use of private practitioners’ which become the standard work of reference for family medicine enjoying 22 reprints. Very much like Culpeper in the 17th century Buchan’s sole aim in the 18th century was to empower the lay person to be able to look after their own health and that of their families. In the preface he wrote that his friends cautioned him that if he published the book, "...it would draw on me the resentment of the whole faculty" and that "By the more selfish and narrow minded part of the Faculty, the performance was condemned; while many ... received it in a manner which at once showed their indulgence, and the falsehood of the common opinion, that all physicians wish to conceal their art..."

Box for Beecham's pills, St Helens, England, 1859-1924.
Beecham's Pills, St Helens, England, 1859-1924.
Credit: Science Museum
By in the 19th century things began to change, the population boom coupled with environmental problems like the smog that resulted from the industrial revolution, and health epidemics like cholera and typhoid fever all took their toll. The 19th century housewife came less to rely on her own skills to heal her family, instead turning to the physicians and the medical profession. The number of qualified doctors in England and Wales rose from 14,415 in 1861, to 22,698 by 1901 and by 1911 free medical treatment was being given to workers who fell ill as a result of industrial accident and pollution. Families came to rely more on the doctors and less on the herbal remedies that had been part of their heritage.

However the cost of seeing a doctor was beyond the means of most working class people, so invariably the sick of the poorer classes couldn't afford to see a doctor, so large companies stepped in offering cheap over the counter ‘patent medicines’ some of which contained antimony, lead and mercury which caused more harm than they cured. Some, all though not all, of these remedies were produced by an assortment of quacks and charlatan's, who offered 'secret' and ‘patented’ remedies and 'cures' for illnesses that were less herbal and more chemical in nature, and in some instances the cures were just plain dangerous.

Our ancestors would never have known just how dangerous some of the medicines they took were as they paid for 'secret formulas' that cost pennies to manufacture believing that it was made by a doctor and would therefore help them, but most of the remedies were not very useful. The poor trusted their health to the 'man' albeit a company, who had doctor or M.D. in his title believing because it was being sold by a doctor that bogus remedy would be better equipped to cure their families ills than they were, all that changed in 1948 when the NHS started offering free health care for everyone, but as the NHS took over health and medicine stepped further and further away from herbal remedies and took the path of manufactured and synthetic drugs.

Monday 8 June 2020

Herbs for Summer Salads

Herbs for Summer Salads

Some of what I've written here appeared in an article I wrote for Garden News in 2012, in it I looked at some of the tasty herbs we can use to make salads to add new textures and flavours to the summer salad bowl. Salads aren't modern, they've been served up on creative cooks for centuries, in the 14th Century Richard II's head chefs documented on a scroll what turns out to be one of the first dedicated cookery books The Forme of Cury (c. 1390) and salads are included but known then as salet or sallet, based on a selection of leafy edibles and were used to accompany meat and poultry.

In The Forme of Cury on such recipe includes Parsley, Sage, Garlic, Chives, Onions, Leeks, Borage, Mint, Cress, Fennel, Rue, Rosemary and Purslane. The Tudors liked their sallets to include flowers, dried and fresh fruit in particular lemons and oranges which they preserved and presented them studded with almonds, citrus fruits were first imported into England in the 13th century and were very expensive so they were pickled and preserved to ensure they lasted a long time.

John Gerard's Herball (1597) mentions many herbs 'sallet' uses including rocket and parsley. By the late 17th century the grand sallet had multiple ingredients, including Borage, Capers, Cowslips, Currants, marigold, Primrose and Violets. John Evelyn's Acetaria (1699) was the first salad book published in the English language. Evelyn defined sallet as "a particular Composition of certain Crude and fresh herbs, such as usually are, or may safely be eaten with some Acetous Juice, Oyl, Salt, &c. to give them a grateful Gust and Vehicle." He included roots, stalks, leaves and flower but strangely excluded fruit, although the juice and the grated rind of oranges and lemons were listed among the herbs. Evelyn's recipe for salad dressing says, "Take of clear, and perfectly good Oyl-Olive, three Parts; of sharpest Vinegar... Limon, or Juice of Orange, one Part; and therein let steep some Slices of Horse-Radish, with a little Salt".

Since then the salad has been in and out of vogue, but its a dish that most of us eat in the Summer because it means we don't need to but the oven on. Did you know that most of the standard salad ingredients double up as herbs? Lettuce, cucumber, radish, celery and tomato the ‘classic’ salad base all have medicinal properties so eating salads is not only good for the waistline they can boost your health to boot. Now that Summer is finally here and salads are something that become part of the daily menu for many of us when it’s too hot to cook, its time to redress the issue and show that salads that are often thought of as boring and 'green', can actually be colourful! Ideas for leafy herbs to grow that can add colour to salads include: -

Herbs for Summer Salads
A selection of salad herbs including: -
Red Orach, Nasturtium, Pineapple Sage
and Red Shiso.
Red Orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra), orach has been on the salad menu since Tudor times, the younger leaves are best in salads.

Red Veined Sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) has a mild lemony-apple flavour, which isn’t too lip pursing unlike other members of the sorrel family.

Red Mustard (Brassica juncea 'Rubra') when I was younger it was white mustard leaf (Sinapis alba) that was grown for throwing in the salad bowl, these red leaves have the same mild yet pungent flavour.

Tree Spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) eat the young leaves, older ones are great cooked like spinach. Be warned, if you let this one flower and set seed it’ll be part of the garden for a very long time to come!

To the reds you can add a selection of the following: - Salad Burnet with its delicate feathery leaves that taste mildy of cucumber, peppery Rocket, Mizuna, Nasturtium leaves and Watercress can add a peppery twist.

Lettuce Leaf Basil is also a winner with a mild clove taste, and adding Chervil, Dill, Fennel, Sweet Cicely or Tarragon leaves to your salad bowl will add varying degrees of aniseed flavours that will go exceptionally well with chicken or fish dishes. Broad Leaf Sorrel adds a sharp and refreshing lemony twist to salads, whilst young Lemon Balm leaves give a fresh lemony zing.

Green Salad Herbs
Green salad herbs including Salad Burnet,
Rocket and Sorrel.

John Evelyn listed over 50 herbs for using in salads, some of which have since fallen out of favour, including Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) and Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which were both very popular 17th century salad ingredients, both can be grown from seed and make interesting additions to any salad.

Once you have the leafy ‘bones’ of the salad, you can add smaller leaved herbs for flavour and fragrance. Many delicious combinations can be put together, be creative and experiment with combinations of herbs which enhance your main ingredients. Try to use flavours that compliment each other, too many flavours can confuse the palate.

Don’t forget to feed the eye as well as the palate by adding herb flowers to the salad. Sprinkle the flowers of Basil, Chives, Calendula, Mint, Nasturtium, Marjoram, Rose or Thyme to enhance the presentation of your dish as well as adding subtle flavour.

More Salad Herbs:- Borage (the young leaves, older leaves are hairy and not so kind to the palette), Buckler Leaf Sorrel, Celery Leaf, Chicory (the leaves, root & flowers), Chives, Coriander Leaf, Corn Salad (aka Lamb's Lettuce), Endive, Good King Henry, Hyssop, Land Cress, Lovage, Marjoram, Mint, Parsley, Summer Savory (very good with bean based salads) and Welsh Onion.

Herbs don't have to be just added to the salad as leaves,  they can be chopped, juiced and pounded used to make delicious dressings to drizzle over your salad. Note that dressings should always be added just before serving a leaf based salad, especially if they contain salt and vinegar, these two elements cause the leaves to 'wilt' and look tired.

Basic Herb Salad

80-100g fresh herb salad leaves such as Rocket, Watercress, Baby Spinach, Sorrel, Salad Burnet and Nasturtium leaves. Add a handful of chopped or shredded herb leaves such as basil, flat leaf parsley, coriander, chervil or marjoram. Throw in a few chive and nasturtium flowers and finish with my favourite salad dressing below.

Citrus Herb Dressing

100ml Orange Juice
50ml Lemon Juice
100ml Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp Chopped Lemon Thyme
2 Tbsp Chopped Lemon Verbena (if you can't find lemon verbena, lemon balm can be used instead).
1 Clove Garlic, crushed
Pinch Sugar
Sea Salt & Black Pepper to taste

Method - Make the dressing a few hours in advance for the flavours to infuse, if you can make it and leave it in the fridge overnight it will taste better. Finely chop the herbs, peel and crush the garlic and juice the citrus fruit. In a bowl, combine all the dressing ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour over your salad just before serving.

On a final note, there is a good choice of seasonal wild herbs that can be harvested from the hedgerow to add to your salads such as the young leaves of Dandelion, Chickweed, Garlic Mustard and Wild Garlic. N.B. DO NOT pick and eat any herb or plant that you are not 100% certain of, the mantra here should be "If in doubt, don’t!"

Sunday 7 June 2020

Soapwort: A Natural Herbal Alternative to Soap

Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)
Soapwort Flowers

When it comes to cleaning, some of us get into rather a lather over what can be used instead of chemical detergents to clean clothes and fabrics in the home. Nature and the world of herbs can help; there are a variety of herbs that have naturally occurring compounds that will generate a lather for cleaning. Soapwort with its Latin name of Saponaria officinalis is one of these herbs, which can be used as a mild detergent for fine fabrics or upholstery.

It is especially effective as a mild cleanser for old or antique fabrics, including rugs and tapestries and has been used to clean fabrics since the late middle-ages, the ancient Greeks and Romans are said to have used it for cleaning wool, although some believe soapworts use then was misidentified and the roots of Gypsophila (Gypsophila paniculata) better known to florists today as “Baby’s Breath” was the herb used.

John Gerard in his 16th century herbal wrote that soapwort ‘is used in baths to beautifie and cleanse the skin’ whilst Nicolas Culpeper in his 17th century herbal remarked that soapwort ‘easily washes greasy spots out of clothes’. So gentle and effective is it, that soapwort root is still used today to clean old tapestries and textiles such as the Bayeaux Tapestry.

It’s been used by the National Trust on delicate fabrics and textiles since the root was famously used to restore the curtains which dated back to 1746 that hung in Uppark House in Sussex by the then owner Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh. Seeing that the curtains needed some TLC, she consulted her friend, Hilda Leyel who was also a well-known herbalist and author of the time for advice. Hilda was founder of the Society of herbalists, later to become the Herb Society and did much for the rights of people to be able to consult a herbalist and have access to herbal medicine.

Together Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh and Mrs Leyel investigated herbs that could be used to clean textiles and decided that soapwort best suited the job, so they used the leaves and roots of soapwort to make a natural cleaning solution. Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh was so impressed with the results of the soapwort cleaning solution that she remarked 'It is a miracle process which not only cleans but heals the material by feeding and strengthening the threads of the textile'.

Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh believed that the soapwort worked best with spring water or what she called ‘living water’, I wonder if she knew that as a cleaning agent, soapwort works most efficiently if the water used is natural spring water or water with a pH of 5.7 or greater, or whether she just preferred to use natural spring water as she believed it to be purer than tap water?

Whatever the reason, Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh became an expert restorer of fabrics and textiles, the curtains she restored were hanging in strips when she arrived at the house in the 1930’s, with stitching, and cleaning with her soapwort solution they were restored to look almost like new. She also used the soapwort solution to clean and restore bed hangings on the state bed at Uppark, and two chairs covered in the same cherry red brocade fabric were also restored, one with soapwort and one without, the difference in the restoration of the one treated with soapwort was said to be an ‘amazing contrast’.

If you’d like to test out soapwort as a natural cleaner for yourself, here’s an easy recipe and method to try.

Easy Soapwort Fabric Shampoo


25g Dried Soapwort Root
1 Litre Water

Note: Always test on a small piece of fabric first or on an area that cannot be seen if the solution does not work. Consider using distilled or spring water if you live in hard water areas. Remember Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh believed spring water to be the best choice for the cleaning solution.


Crush the roots with a rolling pin and leave to soak in the water overnight, this will allow the dried root to soften and make it easier for the saponins to be released. Place the soapwort and water in an enamel pan, bring to a boil, cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Allow to stand until cool, then strain. To use the soapwort shampoo on upholstery, lightly dampen a sponge or soft brush with the cooled solution, rub lightly and allow to dry, use a soft brush to bring back the ‘pile’ in the fabric. Apply again if necessary.

To use with fragile or delicate fabrics, allow the item to soak in cool water until thoroughly moistened, then soak in the cool Soapwort solution, then rinse again in cool fresh water.

Soapwort is such a good natural cleaning agent because it is rich in mucilaginous saponins which aid the plant to produce a rich lather when agitated in warm water. As well as cleaning fabric and textiles, soapwort root can also be used as a shampoo to ease a dry itchy scalp, although try to avoid getting shampoo in the eyes as it can irritate them. To make a hair shampoo, boil the root for 20 minutes to release the saponins into the water, you can use a floral/herbal water or decoction as a base to improve the ‘earthy’ aroma that soapwort root gives off, or add a few drops of your favourite essential oil. Unlike man made shampoos, soapwort shampoo does not give a rich, creamy lather, it is mild and gentle, and leaves the hair feeling soft and smooth with no need for conditioner. Another benefit of using soapwort shampoo is it can help reduce the amount of hair that falls out of the head when brushing.

NB: Before you try any alternatives to soap, especially if you’re using them to wash clothes, or as a shampoo make sure you do a skin test to check for possible allergic reaction to the herb.