Sunday, 25 January 2015

Herbal Theory and Practice - Skin, herbs for bruises and some herbal terms

As an apprentice herbwife I need to learn theory about the human body, conditions which affect it and the actions of herbs in order to understand what to use and why it works.   This month I have been set the task of researching the structure and function of skin, how bruises form and herbs that can help bruises. I was also asked to research the meaning of some terms describing the actions of herbs and a herb that uses these actions.

The skin

The skin is the largest organ of the human body, it is also known as the integumentary system.  The skin consists of the outer layer the Epidermis; the Dermis which contains structures such as capillary blood vessels, hair follicles, sebaceous glands which secrete protective oils, sweat glands, sensory nerve endings and elastic fibres; this is underlaid by Subcutaneous tissue including fat and blood vessels.

The skin has very important functions.  It is a protective boundary to our bodies, providing mechanical protection from injury & chemicals, protection from damaging ultra-violet light and protection from external micro-organisms.  It keeps essential water and nutrients inside.  Small molecules can be absorbed through the skin and pass into the body.  A way to demonstrate this is to rub a clove of garlic on the sole of your foot, half an hour later you can smell it on your breath.  The skin is one of our main organs of elimination, this is a very important part of its function to herbalists.  We regulate our temperature through blood vessels in the skin and through sweating.  The skin is a huge sensory organ, with many receptors for touch and other kinds of physical stimulation, which is essential to our proper development and our well-being.

Bruises & herbal remedies for bruises

Bruises are purple marks under the skin caused by capillary haemorrhage from an external injury or from an internal cause such as steroid therapy or haemophilia.  Surgery can cause extensive bruising.  Bruises cause localised pain & swelling and can take up to 2 weeks to heal.  Bruising can be very extensive and cause stiffness and pain in muscles and around joints.  Older people can be particularly prone to bruising due to capillary fragility.  Habitual bruising without injury can be a sign of a serious illness such as Leukaemia, so it is advisable to get a check-up by a doctor if this is the case.  The herbal approach to bruising aims to promote regeneration of circulation and to remove damaged blood & tissue quickly.

Elder bark bruise salve

One of my tasks this month was to harvest some elder bark by cutting elder twigs and stripping off the bark to make a salve for bruises.  The bark was used to make a double-infused oil by dividing the bark into 2 equally sized piles.  The first pile was put in a saucepan and covered with sunflower oil and heated inside another pan with gently boiling water for 2 hours.  The first lot of bark was strained out and the second lot of bark was put into the same oil to infuse for another 2 hours.  The infused oil was then strained through a sieve lined with a piece of muslin and then added back to the pan with beeswax (1/8 beeswax to oil eg 25g beeswax to 200ml oil), until the beeswax all melted.  The oil was then  poured into small jars, when cool it solidified into a salve to apply externally to bruises.  This is not a traditional use of elder bark, although there are references to using elder leaves for bruises.  Using elder bark was suggested by my herbal mentor Sarah Head.  My husband Barry bruised his hand recently, the bruise disappeared within 2 days so it definitely works.

 Elder bark

Elder bark being infused in oil

Elder bark bruise salve

Barry's bruise

Other herbs for bruises

 There are many other herbs that can be used in remedies for bruises.  
 The main herbs used for bruises are:
- Arnica - the best herb for bruises is Arnica, used as a compress of arnica tincture or as an ointment.  NB arnica should not be used on open wounds.
- Calendula (Marigold) - a major herb for use on wounds of all kinds including bruises, can be applied as a compress, gel, cream or salve.
- Comfrey - has a long history of use for wounds and injuries, it can be applied as a poultice with vinegar or as an ointment for bruises and other skin & musculo-skeletal conditions.
- Daisy - crushed daisies can be used as emergency first aid for bruises and sprains when out and about and in an ointment to help speed healing of bruises.
- St John's Wort infused oil is very good for injuries including bruises, but avoid exposure to the sun after use as it can cause skin to react to sunlight.
- Witch Hazel - apply distilled witch hazel to bruises to stop swelling.
- Yarrow - works to tone blood vessels, especially smaller blood vessels, it helps break up congealed blood.  It can be used to make an ointment for bruises.

Other herbs which can be used for bruises are:
- Agrimony - ointment is soothing and healing for bruises.
- Burdock - a hot burdock leaf poultice will draw blood to the area.
- Catnip - a hot compress of catnip leave can help bruises & other injuries.
- Cayenne pepper - can speed healing and reduce pain applied in an ointment.
- Chickweed - can be used in a poultice for bruises and other skin problems.
- Chives - leaves or juice from crushed plants can be applied to bruises, plus eaten to help speed healing.
- Echinacea - tea or tincture can be used to help heal bruises.
- Ground Ivy - a poultice of the fresh herb can be used to speed healing of bruises.
- Herb Robert - can be used to make a cream to soothe a variety of skin conditions including bruises.  There is a recipe in 'A year with James Wong'.
- Marshmallow root - can be used for a poultice or compress for bruises & other injuries.
- Mugwort - can be used to make moxa sticks to apply heat to old bruises & other injuries.
- Mullein - can be used in poultices for bruises, small wounds & painful joints.
- Peppermint - a bath with peppermint infusion enhances peripheral blood supply so can help with bruises and muscle & joint aches.
- Plantain - Poultices and ointments made with crushed leaves are useful for bruises & small wounds.
- Rose petal vinegar helps with bruises and other skin conditions.
- Speedwell - used externally can be helpful for bruises & wounds.
- Parsley - leaves can be crushed and applied to bruises, which helps speed the disappearance of black & blue marks.
- Wheat Grass - can be used as a poultice or the juice used as a compress for bruises.
- White deadnettle can be used as a fresh leaf poultice for bruises.
- Wood betony (Betony) can be used to make an ointment for bruises & other conditions.

Other things that can help bruises

A cold compress can help reduce swelling.  Use an ice pack or a bag of ice-cubes or frozen vegetables if you don't have an ice pack, for 10 minutes 3-4 times per day the first day of the injury.  Green and black tea contain tannins that help shrink swollen tissue and narrow blood vessels.  A simple home remedy for bruises is to moisten a tea bag and put it on your bruise, this is particularly useful for black eyes. Potato slices are an old home remedy for bruises including black eyes.  James Wong recommends a compress of vinegar combined with anti-inflammatory and healing plants such as sage & yarrow for bruises.  He gives a recipe for this in 'a Year with James Wong'.  For people who are prone to bruising without obvious external causes foods containing Vitamin C, Vitamin K and bioflavonoids can help.  An infusion of Horsechestnut & Yarrow drunk for a while will help strengthen blood vessels.

Herbal Terminology


To reduce cough severity, ease expectoration and clear the lungs.


Herbs that contract blood vessels and certain body tissues (mucous membranes) with the effect of reducing secretion and excretion. They are used for debility, internal and external bleeding, catarrhal discharges, etc, their action is due to the tannins they contain.


Bitters are stimulants to the autonomic nervous system. They stimulate 'bitter' taste buds in the mouth that initiate secretions of a hormone into the blood stream increasing production of stomach and pancreatic juices. Bitters increase acid production and are given about half an hour before meals. Bitters increase the appetite, assist assimilation, and are indicated for loss of the sense of taste. They reduce fermentation in the intestines and are of value in hypoglycaemia and diabetes mellitus.


Herbs that increase bronchial mucous secretion by promoting liquefaction of sticky mucus and its expulsion from the body. Their secondary action is that of a vaso-constrictor which, in the case of a stuffy nose, relieves by reducing the blood supply to the inflamed lining of the nasal passage. They improve the outlook for respiratory troubles.

Definitions taken from 'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.

I was asked how these words help us to understand the actions of one herb.  I identified Wild Cherry Bark as a herb that has all these properties.   It has a powerful sedative action on the cough reflex so helps with the treatment of irritating coughs. particularly when these affect sleep.  It is particularly useful for dry, unproductive coughs.  It softens up bronchial mucus making it easier to expectorate.   It can also help with sluggish digestion due to its action as a bitter.   It is also a useful astringent for diarrhea, also for indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome.  It is useful as an eyewash for eye inflammation.   There is lots more detail at


'A year with James Wong: Grow your own drugs' James Wong.
'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.
'Healing with Whole Foods, Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition' Paul Pitchford.
'Hedgerow Medicine' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'Holistic Anatomy An Integrative Guide to the Human Body' Pip Waller.
'Practical Herbs 1 & 2' Henriette Kress.
'The Complete Book of Herbs' Lesley Bremness.
'The Complete Herbal Tutor' Anne McIntyre.
'The Herbal Drugstore, the best natural alternatives to over-the-counter and precription medicines' Dr Linda B White and Steven Foster.
'The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal' Penelope Ody.
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.
'Wild drugs, a forager's guide to healing plants' Zoe Hawes.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Kitchen Medicine - herbal goodness in your home

The theme for this week's post is kitchen medicine, using every day foods, herbs & spices for health and well-being.  I have had an interest in nutrition for health for a long time and have successfully eliminated conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Candidiasis by following dietary programmes.  I used to buy a lot of supplements in health-food shops but in recent years have moved away from this, preferring to get the benefits of food in its natural state.

A really nice book on this is 'the Green Pharmacy guide to Healing Foods' by James Duke which has some general sections on food as medicine and then specific section on foods for specific conditions.  For example the section on colds and flu recommends chicken soup, citrus fruits & other foods rich in vitamin C, elderberries, garlic, onions & leeks, ginger, honey, water & tea, yoghurt and brazil nuts & other foods rich in selenium for fighting colds and boosting immunity and gives reasons and evidence for why these work.

I have been making various remedies with common ingredients in my fridge and kitchen cupboards at home and at workshops run by my herbwife mentor Sarah Jane Head at her home in Solihull Here are some of them:

Cold Season Tea

Chop up about an inch-long piece of root ginger.

Squeeze half a lemon.

Pick a few fresh sage leaves.

Put in a cafetiere or tea-pot with boiled water & leave to brew for 10-15 minutes.  Use a cafetiere or tea-pot with a lid so you don't use any aromatic oils that might otherwise evaporate.

Pour into a mug with a teaspoon or two of honey - you could use a herbal honey such as rosehip honey if you have some - honey is anti-microbial and has lots of other healing properties.

Drink hot. 

You can use the same ingredients again during the day, just add more hot water.

This is my recipe, there are lots of variations on this.
 Sage growing in a pot in the patio outside the kitchen

Cold Season Tea brewing in cafetiere

Fire Cider Vinegar

Finely chop some horse-radish root.

Peel, chop & grate some root ginger.

Peel & finely chop half a bulb of garlic.

Chop some red chillies, keeping the seeds.

Turmeric powder.

A handful of rosehips.

Half fill a large jar with the solids, then fill with cider vinegar.

Steep in a warm dark place for 3 weeks, then strain off and bottle the vinegar.

You can do a second batch with the same ingredients, just add another lot of cider vinegar and leave to steep for another 3 weeks.

Take 2 teaspoon with 2 teaspoons of honey in a mug of boiling water if you feel you are coming down with something.  The ingredients really help the body to fight infection.

This is Sarah Head's recipe, again there are many variations on this.

Fire Cider Vinegar being steeped and the strained vinegar

Seville Orange Bitter

Chop the peel from 2 Seville oranges.

Put in a large empty jam jar with a tablespoon of cardamon pods and a few fennel or anise seeds.

Add a tablespoon of honey and top the jar with vodka, brandy, whisky or rum depending on preference.  I prefer the warm and palatability of brandy myself.

Keep in dark cupboard for a month shaking occasionally.

Strain off and bottle the liquid.

Take a teaspoon before meals to help digestion.

 This and other recipes for citric bitters can be found on Sarah Head's blog at

 Seville orange bitter being steeped

Herbal Deep Heat salve

25 g cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons mustard powder

5cm piece of fresh root ginger or 1 tablespoon of dried ginger

2 tablespoons of black pepper

300ml sunflower oil

Put the ingredients in a saucepan or heat-proof glass bowl inside a larger pan with gently boiling water to heat the pan containing the oil.

Cook for 2 hours, keep an eye on the pan, make sure it doesn't boil dry.

Strain the oil & discard the solid ingredients. 

Check the volume of the oil.  Put it in a pan with 1/8 beeswax to oil (eg 25g beeswax to 200 ml oil).  Heat gently in the water bath until the beeswax dissolves.

Pour into small jars and leave to cool. 

Apply small amounts of the salve for muscle aches, spasms and chillblains.  

The recipe come from 'Herbal Remedies' by Christopher Hedley and Non Shaw.
 The oil after infusing

 The oil with dissolved beeswax poured into jars - it is clear when hot

The finished salve, it goes opaque when it cools down

There are lots more ideas for remedies that can be made from things in your kitchen in the excellent book 'Kitchen Medicine' by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal

I hope this week's post will inspire you to discover the wealth of health benefits from the things that are in your fridge and kitchen cupboards.  Bon Appetit!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Learning the land & Winter's bounty

One of the tasks I have been set as a herbwife apprentice is to find and map all the Hawthorn & Elder trees and three species of Wild Rose (Dog Rose, Briar Rose and Rosa Rugosa) within a mile of my home.  These are all medicinal trees & bushes which can be identified in the winter and in some cases can still provide material which can be foraged at this time of year.

So I armed myself with some pages from some plant identification guides I found online:

I printed off zoomed in maps of my local green spaces from Google Maps and put them on a clipboard with the plant ID guides and headed out of my front door armed with my camera last Sunday to systematically explore a couple of my local green spaces for these particular plants.

I have lived here for over 20 years so I know my own local patch well, but it was interesting to explore with the eyes of a herbwife looking for local resources.  I found I got my eye in after spotting my first few hawthorns and elders, I became attuned to their shape and they jumped out of the background of other hedgerow and woodland plants.  The roses were few and far between, though some may have been hiding within the abundant brambles which covered much of the ground within the woods. 

 Hawthorn clumps on the local common

Hawthorn branch detail

Elder growing right next to an oak tree - we saw several like this in the local woods

 Elder detail - notice the warty texture of the bark

There were some elders with fresh leaves in sheltered spots in the woods

Roses with rosehips

Relationship to the natural world and local wild places has always been very important to me as a pagan.  My husband Barry, who performs as the Wild Man of the Woods has written a book called the Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci which is all about the different dimensions of the spirit of place and how we can build relationship with it

Taking this journey to learning the ways of the herbwife is helping me to deepen my relationship with the plants which live around me.  It will also help me develop my relationship with the seasonal changes of the year.  At this time of year the plant world seems dormant but there are still things that can be foraged.  James Wong gives a useful list of fresh plants which can be picked in winter in his book 'Grow your own drugs: A year with James Wong'.  He specifically mentions bletting which involves leaving some fruit on the tree to mature until after hard frosts, which starts a chemical process which breaks down the tannins and increases the sugars in the fruit.  Rosehips are a fruit that benefit from this.  So this time of year is a good time to pick rosehips, although if you pick them in the autumn you can put them in the freezer rather than waiting for a frost.

Rosehips are rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids which protect Vitamin C from oxidation.  Rosehips can be used in syrup or honey.   I was inspired to make a rosehip honey by reading about this in Glennie Kindred's book 'Letting in the Wild Edges'. 

Recipe for Rosehip Honey

Pick rosehips which have been softened by frost or put them in the freezer to soften.

Top and tail the hips and cut the hips in half and scoop out the seeds and hairs inside.  This is fiddly, the easiest way is to use a thumb to do this, wear gloves as the hairs are an irritant.  It is time-consuming but you do get to keep all the goodness of the hips rather than straining and discarding them after the honey has infused.

Put the hips in clean jars and cover with runny honey, ideally local organic honey, poke with a chopstick to ensure there are no air bubbles which could cause oxidation.

Leave for 4-6 weeks to infuse, stirring occasionally.

Add a teaspoon of the honey and rosehips to drinks, spread on toast or drizzled on fruit salad or yoghurt.  A great winter booster when we need plenty of Vitamin C to help keep colds and other bugs at bay.

Rosehip honey

Saturday, 3 January 2015

New Year's Day Wassail - a blessing on the land, a blessing on our lives

The first post of my new blog is about the Wassail Ceremony held by husband Barry and I on New Year's Day at our allotment in Coventry.   We have done this for several years inspired by the custom of wassailing, which we have adapted for our own ceremony with like-minded friends.

The tradition of wassailing is thought to date back to Anglo-Saxon times.  The word wassail comes from the old english 'waes tu hael' meaning good health.  Wassailing traditionally takes place in early January, often on Twelfth Night (5th January or the old Twelfth Night date of 17th January), although has been recorded as being held on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve in some locations.  Toast dipped in the wassail brew would be hung in apple trees as an offering, a wassail song would be sung and a toast drunk to the trees of the wassail brew and guns were fired to scare evil spirits.  See for more information on wassailing customs.

We invited friends to join us for a wassail ceremony in our allotment, as a way to celebrate the New Year.  We held a short simple druidic ceremony standing in a circle to honour the spirits of place and the elements and to call in inspiration and blessing by singing Awen together.  We spent a few minutes in meditation about our personal year gone and year to come then gathered round and sang our Wassail song to two of our apple trees.  The version we sing is a slightly adapted form of a traditional Wassail song. 

Wassail song

We wassail thee old apple tree and hoping though wilt bear,
The Lord alone knows where we'll be to make merry another year,
So bear well and blow well and merry let us be,
Let everyone drink up their cup, here's a health to the old apple tree

We sang the song three times, then banged drums, shook rattles and blew horns to make a noise and shouted Wassail! three times loudly.  We then passed a drinking horn of wassail brew for everyone to make their own blessings and dedications.   After the ceremony we returned to our house to partake of homemade vegetable soup, sourdough bread and apple cake.  We have done this for several years now, it is an excellent way to celebrate the New Year.

There are a couple of public wassailing ceremonies coming up in the Warwickshire area you could attend if this post has inspired you to have a go at this custom.

Brandon Marsh nature centre is having a wassailing event on Sunday 11th January 11-2.30 with performances by local Morris sides, crafts & refreshments for sale - see for more details.

Plum Jerkum are hosting the annual Long Itchington wassail on Saturday 17th January from 11am, see for details.

Wassail brew on the fire in our allotment

 Blessing one of our apple trees for the coming year
 Wassail! a blessing on our young Wyken Pippin tree and my future herb bed

 Offerings of toast and wassail brew were made

 Home-made vegetable soup

 Sourdough bread made by my husband

Cut and come again apple cake


Warming vegetable soup - for 4

This is my own recipe.

200g chopped onion
100g chopped leeks
200g carrots chopped into rounds
250g parsnips chopped into chunks
200g potatoes chopped into chunks
180g celery chopped including leaves
100g mushrooms chopped into chunks
4 cloves garlic finely chopped
Approx 2cm cube root ginger finely chopped
25g vegetable bouillon powder
4 teaspoons olive oil
1 bayleaf
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Saute the onion on a medium heat till softened.
  • Add the leeks, carrots, parsnips, potatotes, celery, mushroom, garlic & ginger in that order.
  • Saute the vegetables till softened.
  • Add the stock powder & bayleaf.
  • Add water to desired consistency.
  • Bring to boil and simmer until vegetables tender but not disintegrated.
  • Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Serve with fresh bread. 

This soup is great for after being out for a winter walk or if you have a cold.  The onions, garlic, ginger, pepper & vegetables all have fortifying and healing properties helping strengthen your system and fight off infection.

Cut and come again apple cake with cinnamon sugar - for 12

115g butter diced plus extra for greasing cake tin
200g plain flour
3 large cooking apples
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 eggs
250g caster sugar
6 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoon single cream
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.  Grease a large baking tin about 24x20x5cm.
  • Core and slice the apples into thick slices, put in bowl of water with the lemon juice added to prevent browning.
  • Whisk the eggs and 225g of the sugar until thick and pale and the whisk leaves a trail when lifted out of the mixture.
  • Put the butter, milk and cream in a pan and heat until the butter melts, then bring to the boil.  Stir into the egg mixture.  Sift the flour and baking powder over the surface and fold in with a metal spoon.  Pour into the prepared tin.
  • Drain the apples and arrange in three rows over the batter.  Mix the remaining sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle over the top.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden and cooked through.  Leave to cool in the tin then cut into squares. 
Serve with cream or ice-cream.

For a vegan & gluten-free alternative you can make baked apples with fruit & nut stuffing by coring large cooking apples with an apple corer then filling the hole with dried fruit & nut mix and baking in a dish in the oven.

May all who read this have happiness and good health in the year to come.  Wassail!