Saturday, 28 February 2015

More signs of Spring and healing herbs for skin

Spring greens

On Friday I visited the allotment to see what is coming up and to harvest some fresh Nettles to make Nettle Pesto for dinner.  The uncultivated edges and wild end of the allotment have wild herbs that can be harvested such as Nettles and Cleavers, they will be useful to me and picking them will keep them from spreading where they are not wanted.  I have a designated bed to grow herbs in, this already has some herbs growing in it such as Sage and Mullein, but there is plenty of room to grow useful herbs that we don't already have growing in the allotment or the woods.

Allotment gateway

 Young Nettles coming up by the hedge

 Cleavers starting to come up

 My herb bed

 Sage in the herb bed

 Mullein rosette

I used the Nettles I harvested to make Nettle Pesto for dinner.

Recipe for Nettle Pesto

Wash a couple of big handfuls of spring Nettle tops, pick out dead leaves and roughly cut with scissors, discard the stalks.  Cook in boiling water for about 2 minutes.  Drain and add some freshly grated Parmesan, 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, a handful of pine nuts and about 80ml of olive oil.  Add salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste.  Blend in a blender or with a hand blender until smooth then spoon over pasta or gnocchi for a simple delicious nutritious meal.

Nettle Pesto with Gnocchetti

Healing herbs for skin

This month I have been tasked to research the function of blood and skin, in particular to look at why people develop acne and eczema and herbs that could be used to help control and alleviate these.

The blood transports oxygen,nutrients and hormones and removes waste products all round the body.  The skin works with the circulatory system to maintain body temperature by dilating or opening blood vessels and via sweating.  The skin is one of our main organs of elimination.  It is responsible for the excretion of about a quarter of the body's waste products.  The skin relies on nutrients brought to it by blood vessels.  Healthy skin needs a well-balanced diet including protein, essential fatty acids and anti-oxidants from fresh fruit & vegetables.   Nutritional deficiencies, toxins and allergies can cause and exacerbate skin conditions such as acne and eczema.

Acne is an inflammation of the sebaceous glands in the skin with inflamed pustules, infected cysts and scarring in severe cases.  It particularly affects teenagers, due to excess hormones which cause overactive sebaceous glands which make the skin oily.  This blocks hair follicles, causing inflammation and infection.  The body's ability to metabolise fats & carbohydrates is also a major factor.  Metabolic problems or an excess of these foods in the diet can cause or exacerbate acne so it is recommended to cut out or reduce foods containing dairy products, gluten, sugar & fat.  Nutritional deficiencies, toxicity, food allergies and stress are also factors in acne. 

Eczema is a common skin condition.  The term covers a range of skin conditions.  The symptoms are red inflamed skin patches, itchiness, oozing serum from raw patches and bleeding in severe cases.  From a holistic point of view it is an indication of deeper imbalances, both physical and psychological.  It is a systemic problem, not just an external irritation.  Allergic reactions to foods such as dairy products or external irritants such as dust mites and chemicals are often involved.  Problems with other eliminative pathways such as the bowels and kidneys can lead to problems with immune reactions in the skin.  The health of the skin can also be affected by dietary deficiencies, poor digestion and stress. For a detailed account of factors to consider with eczema and holistic approaches to treating the condition see this excellent post by my herbal mentor Sarah Head

Herbal treatment for these conditions needs to address the internal factors underlying the problem, not just the external irritation.  Antihistamine herbs such as Chamomile, Yarrow, Feverfew, Nettle or Lemon Balm can soothe allergic reactions.  Cleansing herbs such as Burdock, Red Clover, Cleavers, Nettle, Dandelion and Milk Thistle help to support the liver in detoxification which reduces skin inflammation.  Burdock root can be very effective in long-standing skin conditions, it enhances fat digestion and strengthens the liver and kidneys which purify the blood.  Dandelion roots help the body dispose of unwanted skin bacteria and also stimulates digestion.  Dandelion leaves are full of vitamins and minerals which help maintain healthy skin.  Nettle is particularly useful if eczema is associated with poor circulation and is also specifically recommended for children's eczema and nervous eczema as a tea drunk 3 times a day.  Liquorice has potent anti-inflammatory properties, it acts in a similar way to steroids but without the negative side effects.

Various herbs can be used to make an infusion (made as a tea then left to cool and strained) to rinse the skin when suffering from acne such as Chamomile, which is purifying, Yarrow which helps eliminate toxins, Catnip which is antiseptic, Lavender which is calming and anti-septic and Thyme which is a strong anti-microbial.  Spots can be dabbed with neat lemon juice to kill germs, soothe inflammation and improve circulation.  Rosewater made with rose essential oil is very soothing and has a natural antiseptic action.  Witch Hazel extract is useful for cleaning affected skin.   Lukewarm Yarrow tea can be used as a wash for acne, it also helps dissolve scars.  Anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory herbs such as Echinacea and Turmeric help to clear the skin.   Garlic has antibacterial & antiseptic action, rub the affected area with a cut clove. 

Oils or creams of herbs such as Chamomile, Evening Primrose Oil, Marigold, Chickweed, Comfrey, Lavender, Viola or Aloe Vera gel can soothe inflammation.   There are various oils that can be used as carrier oils - see for oils that are good for eczema.  Some recipes for creams and gels can be found in 'Grow your own drugs' by James Wong.  A poultice or compress of Mallow calms irritated skin.  Freshly crushed plantain leaf is soothing for acne.  Chickweed is particularly known for easing irritation and healing lesions, applied as expressed juice or as an ointment or cream or as an infused oil added to bath water.  Comfrey soothes the skin and speeds healing by promoting skin cell growth.  Cucumber oil or salve is soothing for aggressive red eczema.  Oats soothe and moisten skin, a sock containing oatmeal can be put in  bathwater and used as a sponge on itchy areas, this can be combined with Chickweed or Chamomile.  Chamomile flowerheads can be added straight to bathwater to soothe eczema.


'Grow Your Own Drugs' James Wong.
'Holistic Anatomy' Pip Waller.
'Practical Herbs 1 & 2' Henriette Kress.
'The Complete Book of Herbs' Lesley Bremness.
'The Complete Herbal Tutor' Anne McIntyre.
'The Herbal Drugstore' Linda B White and Steven Foster.
'The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal' Penelope Ody
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Spotting signs of Spring and Spring tonics

On Sunday I paid a flying visit to the woods to look for signs of spring growth starting to come up from the woodland floor.  I foraged a bagful of fresh young nettle shoots and a small handful of cleavers to take home to make various nourishing things with.  I also spent a few moments communing with my herbal ally, Hawthorn.  I held 2 thick branches in my hands and put my forehead against the trunk.  I had a feeling of being held in the arms of a woman, who I will call Hawthorn Lady, it felt peaceful and comforting.  I cut a few small branches to strip bark for tincture and offered some Hawthorn Berry tincture in water as a gift in return.

 Hawthorn Lady

  Young plants coming up - not sure what yet


 A young Stinging Nettle

A young Hedge Woundwort

Very small Cleavers 

 Herb Robert coming into leaf

Hazel catkins

Once back home I processed what I had foraged.  I washed the nettles to rinse off soil and picked out dead leaves, bits of grass and other unwanted matter.  I wore gloves for this to avoid getting stung while doing it.  A handful of nettles plus the small amount of cleavers I had picked went into a cafetiere with just boiled water to infuse for tea.  Some of the nettles went into a jar with apricots, Seville orange peel and red wine to make a restorative tonic.  The remaining nettles went into soup.  I scraped the bark off the hawthorn twigs and put the scraped bark into a jar covered in vodka to make a tincture, this is an experiment as there is very little documented use of hawthorn bark in the herbal literature.  

 Hawthorn Bark Tincture

 The nettles I collected in the woods
Nettles are very nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals.  Spring is the time to eat them when the tops are fresh.  They are a spring tonic, some of the first fresh greens available.   They are a tonic for the blood, as they are high in iron in chlorophyll, in a form that is easily absorbed.  They stimulate the kidneys and help clear the blood of toxins. They have an anti-histamine effect which can help hayfever and other allergies.  They enhance immunity and help protect us from infections.  They reduce blood sugar levels and stimulate circulation, which is helpful for diabetics.  They are helpful in treating gout and arthritis.  Nettle roots are used to treat enlarged prostate.  So when you see nettles in the future put on some gloves and gather up a fantastic source of nourishment and support for good health.

Cleavers, often known as Goose-grass, is another great spring tonic plant.  Spring is the best time to eat it before it gets too tough and hairy.  Cleavers cleanses the lymphatic system, so is helpful for swollen glands, adenoid problems, tonsillitis and earache.  Cleavers is also known for helping to shrink tumours.  Cleavers is helpful for urinary irritation and infection such as cystitis.  As cleavers cleanse the body internally this helps clear and nourish the skin.  It is most effective used fresh.  So keep an eye out for cleavers and pick some when you find it for an internal spring clean.

There is lots more information about both these plants in 'Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. 

 Nettle & Cleavers infusion

Recipe for Restorative Nettle Tonic
- Half fill a jar with fresh nettle shoots.
- Fill most of the rest of the jar with chopped dried stoned apricots.
- Add the peel of 2 Seville oranges.
- Fill the jar with red wine.
- Poke the contents with a chopstick to make sure there are no air bubbles.
- Leave in a dark place for 2 weeks.
- Strain through a muslin bag, squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
- Decant into sterilised glass bottles & keep in the fridge.
- Take 2 teaspoons once or twice a day when you need a pick-me-up.

Recipe from 'A Year with James Wong: Grow Your Own Drugs' James Wong.
Restorative Nettle Tonic

Recipe for Nourishing Nettle Soup

- 1 Medium onion - chopped.
- 3 Cloves of garlic - finely chopped.
- Saute in about 25g of butter.
- Add 8 carrots, 3 parsnips & 2 sticks of celery chopped with leaves.
- Sweat in pan on low heat with lid on.
- Wash nettle tops and pick out dead leaves etc, roughly cut up with scissors.
- Add nettle tops to vegetables.
- Add a chopped orange with pips removed.
- Add about 1 litre of vegetable stock, to cover vegetables.
- Bring to boil, then simmer till vegetables very soft.
- Blend in liquidiser or with hand blender.
- Add 150ml double cream and stir in.
- Season with freshly grated nutmeg and salt & pepper to taste.
- Serve with fresh bread and butter.

My own recipe, adapted from a recipe of Sarah Head's at and a recipe in 'Grow Your Own Drugs' James Wong

 Nourishing Nettle Soup

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Herbal help for the digestive system and working to protect the land from fracking

This weekend I was involved in the Warrior's Wyrd, a planning day for the Warrior's Call, Pagans United Against Fracking.  I am a core member of the Warrior's Call which was created in 2013 to answer the need of our land and water for protection from fracking and other highly polluting gas and oil extraction techniques such as coal-bed methane and underground coal gasification which have been used on a large scale elsewhere in the world, particularly in the USA and Australia and which the UK Government and drilling companies are trying to develop here in Britain.  See for information about this. As a pagan I felt I had to answer the call to protect our land and water.  I have sworn an oath to work magically and practically to protection Albion from fracking.

The Warrior's Call works to raise awareness in the pagan community about the threat of fracking, to encourage and empower pagans to become involved in community campaigning and front-line resistance to fracking, bringing our spirituality and our magic to help defend the land and assist those who are working to protect it.  We work with the Warrior's Sigil, a magical sigil which protects and empowers us.  There is lots of information on our website and on our Facebook page and Facebook Group

Members of the Warrior's Call have taken the lead in setting up community campaigns, protection camps and awareness-raising events in areas threatened by extreme gas extraction developments such as Cheshire, South Wales, Somerset and Sussex.   In my part of the country I set up and co-ordinate Gasfield-free Coventry to raise awareness and campaign against extreme gas extraction in Coventry & Warwickshire Since the group was formed in the spring of 2014 a proposal for Underground Coal Gasification which covered 40 square miles of Warwickshire countryside has been withdrawn due to opposition by the local council.  Which shows we can make a difference if we stand up to do our bit to protect the land and people where we live.

The Warrior's Wyrd Day was a gathering of core Warrior's Call organisers and others who were interested in getting involved in planning our activities for 2015.  We kicked off the day discussing why it is difficult to involve pagans and people generally in activism and how to raise awareness of the threat of fracking and what pagans can do about it in their local communities.  In the afternoon we focused on planning the Morrighan Encampment, a national pagan anti-fracking camp to be held in the late summer of 2015 at which there will be lots of workshops on campaigning and front-line action as well as ritual and entertainments.  We also discussed other plans for the year including developing an Action Pack for pagan anti-fracking activists, awareness raising at Summer Solstice celebrations round the country and doing presentations and stalls at pagan camps over the summer.  It was a tiring but very productive day.

The Warrior's Call banner with the Warrior's Sigil

 The altar with Sigil Chalice and Oak piece from an oak felled at a drilling site in Sussex

 The Warrior's Call Display

Me presenting Warrior's Call event plans to the group

I have also been active on the herbalism front.  For this month I was set the task of researching the meaning of the terms astringent and carminative.  

Astringents are herbs that contract blood vessels and mucous membranes to reduce secretions, they help stop internal and external bleeding, catarrhal discharges etc.  The action is due to tannins in the herbs.  Astringent herbs include agrimony, elecampane, ground ivy, meadowsweet, mullein, oak bark, plantain, raspberry, red sage, rhubarb root, rosemary, wild cherry, witch hazel and yarrow.

Carminatives are anti-flatulence herbs.  They help to expel wind from the stomach and intestines.  They contain volatile oils which help to tone mucous surfaces in the digestive tract and increase peristaltic action.  They relieve wind and bloating, improve digestion and absorption and reduce inflammation and dysbiosis, when pathogenic yeasts and bacteria get out of balance with healthy intestinal flora.  Carminative herbs include angelica, aniseed, caraway, cardamon, cayenne, cinnamom, chamomile, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, juniper, mustard, peppermint, sage and thyme.  

A herbal remedy using some of these herbs is the digestive elixir I made at a workshop with Sarah Head my herbwife mentor in January I decanted the elixir this week and have found it be helpful in soothing bloating, wind and digestive discomfort I had been experiencing.

Digestive Elixir recipe

Peel from 1/2 a fresh orange or 3-4 pieces of dried orange peel.
Tablespoon of fennel seeds.
Tablespoon of cardamon pod.
Crush seeds & pods with pestle & mortar or with the end of a rolling pin.
2-3" chunk of ginger peeled & grated.
Put the ingredients in a jar and half fill with honey, then fill the rest of the jar with brandy. 
Leave in a cool place for 4-6 weeks.
Strain through a sieve then through muslin or a tea-towel into a clean bottle.

Take a half teaspoon neat after a meal.  This gets sluggish digestion moving and calms wind and bloating.

 Digestive Elixir

'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.
'The Complete Herbal Tutor' Anne MacIntyre.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A winter wander and cooking with carrots

Today I went out to explore more of my patch, the bits of Stivichall Common I hadn't yet explored and a wander around the War Memorial park in search of useful trees and plants.  I didn't find much although did come across a fine Rosa Rugosa I had previously missed.  I didn't find any horse chestnut trees, which is a tree I need to find this month in order to harvest buds for chestnut bud flower essence.  However I did meet a man who saw me wandering around with my clipboard and camera who asked me what I was looking for, who gave me a tip where to find some horse chestnut trees locally as he used to pick the conkers when he was little.  So it just shows it is worth chatting to the people you meet around your patch, they may well know where to find what you are seeking.

 Surveying my patch

Rosa Rugosa

 Hazel catkins

 Twisty hawthorn trunk

 Ivy berries

Yesterday I made a soup and a cake to take to my local Grove's Imbolc celebration.  I had brought back lots of carrots and parsnips which were left over from Imbolc Camp so I wanted to make things using them.  I made carrot & parsnip soup and carrot cake.  The carrot cake recipe came from Nigel Slater the soup recipe I created myself, with some ideas from Nigel Slater's tender a great book about growing and cooking vegetables, which gives ideas about what goes well with each vegetable as well as specific recipes.

Carrot & parsnip soup recipe - for 4

125g onion - chopped
2 large cloves garlic - finely chopped
400g carrots - chopped
400g parsnips - chopped
100g celery - chopped
4 teaspoons sunflower oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons English mustard
bay leaf
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of caraway seeds 
Vegetable stock powder
1 litre water
salt & pepper to taste

Heat oil, toast the cumin
Add onion and saute till soft
Add the carrots, parsnips, celery & garlic, sweat until softening
Add stock powder, seasonings & water, bring to boil & cook till soft
Remove the bayleaf and check & adjust seasoning
Blend in blender or with hand blender, if you don't have one use a potato masher
Serve with fresh bread

Carrot & parsnip soup

 Carrot cake

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Celebrating the beginning of Spring

Over the last few days I have been celebrating Imbolc, the Celtic festival of the beginnings of Spring, at the wonderful Wildways in Shropshire with White Horse Camps a community of like-minded druid folk.

The lawn at Wildways

 Snowdrops at Wildways

Imbolc is the very beginning of Spring, when the returning light begins to call forth new growth from the earth.  The first flowers of the year, the snowdrops, poke their delicate heads from the frosty ground to delight us with their gentle beauty.  The forest floor is beginning to turn green as the ground-level plants need to get in their growth before the trees come into leaf and shade out the plants beneath them.  Catkins on hazel trees are starting to come into flower in sunny spots.  Birds are singing and claiming their territories in preparation for nesting.  The sheep are beginning to lamb starting in the sheltered south and progressing up the country as a tide of new life.

Imbolc is the festival of the Celtic Goddess and Christian saint Brigid.  She is particularly associated with poetry, smithcraft and healing.  At the camp we honoured her by sharing poetry and song in our camp Eistedfodd.  We crafted images from clay and carved wands from wood.  I had taken a piece of hawthorn from my woods to carve into a wand, to act as an aid to focus energy in ritual and magical work.  We experienced the healing peace of meditation and ritual infused with the presence of Brigid standing round a candle-lit sacred pool hearing the voices of priestesses singing and reciting words of beauty and deep power.  I dedicated my intent to learn the ways of the herbwife at Brigid's sacred fire.

The three-fold aspect of Brigid

 The hawthorn wand I carved

During the camp I drew a card from the Druid Animal Oracle The card I drew was the Bee, which has the meaning of community, celebration and organisation.  This was very appropriate for the occasion of celebrating with my druid community.   Words from the Animal Oracle book that particularly spoke to me are "The bee tells us we can live together in harmony, however impossible this may sometimes seem.  By being at one with the natural world, by paying homage to the sun, by centering our lives around Spirit or the Goddess, we can work together in community".  The bee also brings the gift of honey, a wonderful substance filled with healing power used in many herbal remedies.  

The Bee from the Druid Animal Oracle

I hope all who read this also find inspiration and healing as the returning light brings forth new life.