Thursday, 30 July 2015

Treading in the footsteps of the ancestors

We spent last week in West Wales.  While we were there we visited a number of ancient sites including Castell Henllys which is an iron-age hill-fort settlement which contains several roundhouses which were reconstructed on their original foundations.   They have been kitted out with the sort of furnishings and tools that would have been used when the site was occupied over 2000 years ago.  There is a herb garden on the site which contains some of the herbs that would have been used by the people who lived there.  I also came across plants that would have been used by the ancestral people of the area when walking in the stunning landscape of the Pembrokeshire coast & hills.

Castell Henllys reconstructed iron-age settlement
 Inside a reconstructed roundhouse
Herb garden at Castell Henllys
 Musk Mallow in the herb garden

Burdock growing near the coast
Sea Plantain - a variety of Ribwort Plantain which grows on the coast
Hemp Agrimony growing by the path
 Betony growing by the coastal footpath

I bought a little book in the excellent shop at the visitor's centre called 'Welsh Herbal Medicine' by David Hoffman, who later went on to write 'The New Holistic Herbal', which was one of my first books on herbalism and which I still find an excellent resource.  'Welsh Herbal Medicine' gives an outline of the history of medicine in Wales.  Medicine was one of the arts taught and handed down in the oral traditions of the druids in ancient Wales.  The use of herbs for both physical and magical purposes was a central part of druidic medical practice, alongside guidelines for healthy living.

The traditions were passed down largely orally until the middle ages when they were written down by the famous Physicians of Myddfai, about whom there is a legend that their founders were the sons of a magical lady who appeared from a local lake who taught them the properties of plants.  Their descendants continued to practice medicine up until the 18th Century.  The original manuscript is now in the British Museum and refers to about 175 plants used for remedies, most of which were common wild plants, to be made into remedies with water, alcohol, honey etc as we still do today.

As an apprentice herbwife I am drawing on thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and experience in working with plants for health and wellbeing.  I feel drawn to reconnect with the down to earth approach of country people of using local plants rather than exotic plants and manufactured medicines.  This is what most people would have used right up until recent times, as documented in 'Memory, Wisdom and Healing, The History of Domestic Plant Medicine' by Gabrielle Hatfield and 'Green Pharmacy, The History and Evolution of Westerm Herbal Medicine' by Barbara Griggs.  In the terminology of another author I have been reading, Susun Weed, I am following the way of the Wise Woman, to nurture health & wellbeing through nourishment and working with plants as allies on the journey through the lifecycle.

It feels very personally nurturing and empowering to be able to go out and gather wild plants and to grow plants in the garden which provide nourishment and help maintain the healthy functioning of body and mind.  Modern medicine does not provide this, although it does have its place for diagnosing and treating some conditions which traditional approaches may not be effective for on their own.  I am not trying to turn back the clock, I am a twenty-first century apprentice herbwife who has the benefit of access to scientific knowledge as well as traditional knowledge.  But I honour the ancestors who first learned how to use plants for healing and passed those traditions down through the centuries right up until the present day.

Below there are just a few of the plants I have harvested and remedies I have made which have a history of use in traditional herbalism.


Nettles were a sacred herb to the Anglo-Saxons.  They enhance our immunity and help protect from infection.  They have an anti-histamine effect and can help reduce the severity of asthma attacks.   They reduce blood sugar levels and stimulate circulation.  They are a blood tonic as they are high in iron and chlorophyll and they help clear the blood of urates & toxins through stimulating the kidneys.  At this time of year the leaves are toxic to use but the seeds can be harvested by cutting nettle heads with green seeds, laying them on newspaper to dry, then stripping the seeds off the stems.   A teaspoon of seeds a day can be added to porridge or other dishes or mixed with runny honey to make an electuary which can be taken on its own.  

 Nettle seeds


Also called All-heal for its wide range of medicinal uses.  It has a long history of use in Western folk medicine used externally for wounds and internally for mouth & throat problems such as swollen glands, tonsillitis, laryngitis, mumps, mouth ulcers & healing after tooth extractions.  It is also useful for fevers, diarrhoea & internal bleeding.   It has recently been recognised as having anti-viral and anti-bacterial qualities and immune-stimulating effects so is helpful for colds & flu and could be useful for treating herpes & AIDS.  It has an affinity with the lymphatic system, helping the body to clear infection and toxins and to remove excess uric acid via the kidneys, which is helpful for treating gout.  It is also helpful for liver, gallbladder & thyroid problems.   

The 17th century herbalist John Parkinson suggested mixing the juice with rose oil for headaches for external use on the forehead & temples.  It has a relaxing effect on the nervous system and can help lower blood pressure.   Parkinson also recommended mixing Self-heal with rose honey for mouth ulcers & genital sores.  It is also helpful made into ointment for minor injuries, broken bones & dislocated joints.


Self-heal tincture 


Is an ancient herb of healing & magic.  It was a key Anglo-Saxon sacred herb and continued to be used magically in Christian times, such as the wearing of a mugwort garland on St John's day, the 24th of June, whilst dancing round the midsummer fire and casting the garland into the fire to ensure protection for the coming year.  It is still used in this way for the protection of people and animals in midsummer ceremonies in the Isle of Man to this day.  It has the power to influence dreams by being put under the pillow or made into a dream pillow or being drunk before bed.  It can stimulate vivid, even lucid dreams, which links to its associations with magic.   It can be used to make smudging sticks for energetic space clearing, on a practical level it has a history of use to dispel insects such as midges, moths & flies.  It was traditionally used as a herbal flavouring for ale before hops were used.  

It is strongly associated with women's natural cycles of menstruation, childbirth and menopause.  It can help regulate menstrual flow and the menstrual cycle.  It is an aromatic bitter which warms the digestion and stimulates the liver.  It has a calming effect on the nervous system, relieving stress, tension and mild depression.   It contains lots of minerals, so is a good herb to use to make herbal vinegar which is an effective way of extracting minerals to make a natural mineral supplement to be taken neat or diluted.  I like to take it neat as I really like the flavour.  Caution - it is contraindicated in pregnancy due to the stimulating effect on the uterus.  

Mugwort vinegar


was known as a cure-all plant in the past.  It is one of the best herbs to use for first-aid treatment of wounds & nosebleeds.  It staunches bleeding, breaks up congested blood and is anti-microbial.  It tones blood vessels so has a beneficial effect on the whole circulatory system for problems such as hypertension & thrombosis, it combines well with nettle & lime blossom for this.  It is also helpful for menstrual problems including painful periods, so is an important herb for women.  It is also a leading herb for use in feverish conditions such as flu by relaxing the skin to open the pores and allow sweating and the release of toxins.  It is traditionally combined with Elderflower & Peppermint in a tea for colds & flu.  It is safe for use for children.  It is also helpful for problems of the digestive system such as diarrhoea & stomach cramps and for cystitis & arthritic conditions.  Yarrow also had magical associations and was traditionally used for divination.  

The leaves can be harvested fresh at any time of year though are best gathered when the plant is in flower to make tincture or to be dried for use in tea.  The active constituents vary from plant to plant, some plants are a lot stronger than others.  Caution - it should be avoided in pregnancy due to stimulating effect on the uterus.  It can cause allergic rashes and make the skin sensitive to sunlight.  Large doses can cause headaches.  

Yarrow tincture


The name comes from the word febrifuge as it was traditionally used to reduce fevers.  It was often planted round houses to purify the air & ward off disease in the past.  It was historically used as a women's herb for problems of the uterus and menstruation.  It was also used externally as a poultice for insect bites & stings.  The Physicians of Myddfai used it with Plantain, Bugle & Sage to make an ointment for bruises & sores.  Research has found it has anti-histamine & anti-inflammatory effects.  It is now most commonly used as a remedy for headaches and modern research has found it to be an effective remedy for migraine symptoms, reducing the frequency & intensity of attacks.  It is helpful for nervousness, low spirits and as a general tonic.  It has been used to help relieve withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.  It is also helpful for attacks of vertigo and for fevers.  It also has a pain-relieving & anti-inflammatory action which is helpful for arthritis.   It has a stimulant effect on the digestion & liver and is helpful for colic & flatulence.

The leaves should be eaten fresh or made into tincture as they lose most of their properties on drying.  The tincture can be taken for a few days before menstruation to reduce period pains.  It should be taken at the first sign of a migraine starting.  A fresh leaf can be taken every day as a prophylactic to prevent or reduce migraine attacks.  It combines well with Betony for headaches and with Cramp bark for period pains.  Caution - it should be avoided in pregnancy and if on blood-thinning medication.  Handling the leaves can cause contact dermatitis & eating the leaves may cause mouth ulcers in some people.   
Feverfew tincture

White Horehound, Sage & Thyme elixir

This elixir combines White Horehound, Sage & Thyme chopped in a jar which is then half-filled with honey and filled to the top with brandy and left to steep for about a month then strained and bottled to make an excellent traditional remedy for respiratory conditions.  

White Horehound is one of the best known chest remedies.  It is very effective for all coughs, colds & respiratory conditions.  It is expectorant & anti-spasmodic.  It is used in acute & chronic bronchitis, particularly bronchitis with a non-productive cough.  It is also used for whooping cough.  

Sage is particularly good for sore throats & phlegmy coughs.  It helps dry up excess mucous in the respiratory tract.  It has a stimulating effect on the immune system.  

Thyme has a cleansing and anti-septic effect.  It is best known as a respiratory herb which helps expectoration and relieves coughs and asthma.  It supports the immune system and has anti-inflammatory effects.   
White Horehound 

 White Horehound, Sage & Thyme elixir

'Green Pharmacy, The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine' Barbara Griggs. 
'Hedgerow Medicine' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'Memory, Wisdom and Healing, The History of Domestic Plant Medicine' Gabrielle Hatfield. 
'The Herbalist's Bible' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.
'Welsh Herbal Medicine' David Hoffmann.
'Wild Drugs' Zoe Hawes.
'Wise Woman Herbal Healing Wise' Susun Weed.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Harvesting flowers at the Herb Sanctuary

Last Saturday I spent the day at Springfield Herb Sanctuary in the Cotswolds at one of my herbwife mentor Sarah's monthly workshops.  She showed us round the herb beds which are now full of plants in flower.  We picked Calendula flowers to make a double-infused oil to take home with us.  We were each invited to see which flower we felt drawn to and to make a flower essence with it.  In the afternoon we harvested lots of the flowering herbs for drying and making remedies with.  For details of the workshops at the Herb Sanctuary see 
 Chamomile, Calendula & Lavender in flower


 Meadowsweet in flower

 Motherwort & St John's Wort

St John's Wort

Wormwood & Catmint

Wood Betony flowers
Shakespeare's Rose

 Harvest of flowers

I was drawn to the beautiful Apothecary's Rose which was in full bloom next to the summer house and picked a few petals to make a flower essence with spring water from the natural spring at the Sanctuary.  The jar of water & petals was left next to the Rose bush in the sun to infuse for a few hours, then the petals were removed and the water decanted to half fill a clean jar, then the other half was filled with brandy to preserve the essence.  This is the mother essence, to be used diluted 9:1 in small doses for subtle energetic effects to uplift and renew interest in life when feeling stressed and bogged down.  Rose petals are calming & uplifting, they help with anger & frustration & give courage to defend your boundaries.
 Apothecary's Rose 

Making Rose flower essence

 Rose flower essence

We picked all the Calendula flowers and used these to make double-infused oil.  This was made by dividing the flowers into two lots and putting the first lot in a bowl with sunflower oil which was then put in a slow cooker filled with water up to the level of the oil to infuse for 2 hours.  The oil was strained and the first lot of flowers was discarded then the second lot of flowers was put in the bowl with the oil and infused for another 2 hours.  The oil was strained then carefully poured into jars, taking care to leave the cloudy aqueous layer at the bottom of the jug as this could make the oil go bad. 

Used externally Calendula speeds the healing of wounds, it is also useful for minor burns, eczema and psoriasis.  It stops bleeding so can be applied as a styptic.  Deep wounds should be left to heal before using Calendula as the outer skin healing before the deeper layers could seal in infection.  It is good for bruises & sprains as it enhances local blood circulation.

I also picked the Calendula flowers from my small patch in the allotment and used these to make a tincture with vodka, which will be left to macerate for a few weeks then strained, dosage 5-30 drops 1-4 times a day.  Taken internally it treats a variety of problems with mucous membranes such as intestinal or bladder problems.  It also helps broken bones heal faster.  It helps regulate menstruation and prevent menstrual cramps.  

 Picked Calendula flowers 

Making double-infused Calendula oil

 Calendula oil

Calendula flower tincture

The St John's Wort flowers were painstakingly all picked from the large patch at the Herb Sanctuary.  These were divided between us to put in jars and fill with oil, to be left on the windowsill in the sun for a few weeks.  I have covered mine with muslin to protect it whilst letting water vapour evaporate.  I also picked the few St John's Wort flowers on the small patch in my allotment to make a small jar of tincture with vodka, to be left in a dark cupboard for a month then strained and bottled.  This can then be taken in doses of 1-4ml three times a day.

St John's Wort is the herb of Midsummer, it begins flowering on or around the Summer Solstice.  The flowers should be picked on a sunny day around midday, this is when the active constituents are at their strongest.  It traditionally has powers of protection against evil and unseen forces.  

St John's Wort oil is excellent for the skin, particularly burns and hot infected eczema.  It is a natural mild sunscreen & is helpful for sunburn.  It has anti-bacterial & anti-viral properties.  It also relieves pain, particularly nerve pain such as that caused by shingles and can be combined with other pain-relieving oils such as Meadowsweet & Agrimony to make a healing & pain-relieving salve.  It can be taken internally as a tincture at the same time.  St John's Wort helps with digestive problems such as difficulties absorbing nutrients, ulcers, heartburn & bloating.  It has a decongesting & strengthening effect on the liver & gallbladder.  St John's Wort has become well known in recent decades as a natural treatment for depression, particularly Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It is officially recognised as a treatment for mild to moderate depression in Germany.  Taken as a tincture or flower essence it will help improve sleep quality.  
Caution - if taking anti-depressant medication or any other medication including the contraceptive pill or you are pregnant St John's Wort should not be taken internally without supervision of a qualified herbalist or medical practitioner as it can lower the level of some medication in the body due to it's action in helping the liver break down & eliminate toxins.  Another caution is that St John's Wort can increase the photosensitivity of the skin and increase risk of burning particularly for fair skinned people, so it should be avoided if you burn easily or are out in the sun a lot.

St John's Wort oil
St John's Wort tincture
I took a couple of cloth bags of Rose petals from the Apothecary's Rose and the Shakespeare's Rose home to make into various remedies.  These are two traditional Rose varieties used in herbalism.  I made a double-infused oil, using the same method as for the Calendula oil using a small pan inside a slightly larger pan with water simmering on a low heat.   I put Rose petals to steep in vodka to make a tincture.  This will be strained in about a month's time and combined with the Rose oil with beeswax to make a moisturising, soothing skin cream.  I made Rosewater by simmering a pan of Rose petals in water for 20 minutes.   This was then left overnight then strained.  The strained water was measured and 1/3 of the volume added as vodka to preserve it.  This can be used as a cooling astringent on the skin.  The remaining Rose petals were put in a jar with brandy to make Rose petal brandy. 

Making double-infused Rose oil

 Rose petal oil

Making Rose water

Rose water after straining


Rose petal tincture
Rose petal brandy

I picked some Meadowsweet flower heads in the allotment.  Some of these were cut up with scissors and put in a jar which was filled up with 60% vegetable glycerine and 40% water to make glycerite for internal use, 1 teaspoon three times a day when needed.  The rest was used to make a double-infused oil for external use for muscle aches & pains, backache, sciatica, painful joints & arthritis.   

Meadowsweet was a sacred herb of the druids and was used in the past to treat malaria & fevers.  Meadowsweet contains salicylic acid which is the active ingredient in aspirin so it is very helpful for aches and pains used externally in oil or salve.  Taken internally it is helpful for pain, particularly due to arthritis and rheumatism.  It is also excellent for stomach problems such as indigestion, heartburn, gastritis & hiatus hernia and does not damage the stomach in the way aspirin does.  It is soothing for stomach upsets including children's diarrhoea.  It is also helpful for cystitis & urethritis, kidney stones & gravel.  It helps to eliminate toxins & urea.  Caution - if you are allergic to aspirin you may also react to Meadowsweet.

 Meadowsweet Glycerite

Meadowsweet oil

I took home a large bunch of Catmint, otherwise known as Catnip.  Some of the Catnip was put in a jar with honey to make Catnip honey.   Some of it is being dried to use for tea. The rest of the Catnip leaves & flowers were put in a jar with vodka to make Catnip tincture, dosage 10-60 drops 1-3 times a day or 1-3 drops as needed, such as before meals or before bed.    

Catnip has a pleasant mild minty flavour.  It is a gentle nervine, good for relieving the effects of stress and anxiety, insomnia & restlessness.  It is also useful for stress-related stomach upsets, headaches & irritability.  It is helpful for toothache, including for teething infants, who can be given a cloth dipped in cooled catnip tea and frozen to chew on.  It is also useful for colds and fevers.  It is also helpful for mild gut or menstrual cramps.  Caution - it can cause heavier menstrual flow.  It is slightly bitter so helps promote digestion.  It has a gentle action and is suitable for infants, it has calming effect and promotes sleep and relives colic & diarrhoea. 
 Catnip tincture

Catnip in honey
I took some Wood Betony flowers home to make into tincture with vodka to be used in doses of 5-10 drops three times a day as a treatment or a teaspoon three times a day as a tonic.  I have also dried some for use in teas & infusions.  Wood Betony was highly regarded in ancient times and was regarded as having powers of protection against evil.  In modern times it has been recognised as a nerve tonic, it helps to calm & relax, to relieve stress on the mind & body.   It is an excellent remedy for insomnia caused by nervous tension.  A cup of tea or a few drops of tincture in the evening are useful for this.

It is helpful for headaches including tension, migraine & liver headaches.  It also helps to improve concentration and memory, so is helpful for exams and similar situations.  Betony acts on the solar plexus and is helpful for a range of digestive problems as it harmonises the actions of the whole digestive system.  It stimulates the appetite & improves weak digestion but also soothes & calms the digestion and is helpful for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis & colitis.  It is an excellent tonic herb for older people and people recovering from long-term illness or people who just feel run-down generally.  Caution - do not take during pregnancy.

Wood Betony tincture

Dried Wood Betony
I picked a small amount of Chamomile flowers, leaves & stalks, these were chopped up and put in a jar with vodka to make a tincture, dosage 15-30 drops three times a day.  The tincture is calming and helps sleep.   It calms the stomach and is helpful for mild gut cramps & digestive upsets, including for colic in infants.  
Chamomile tincture


'Hedgerow Medicine' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'Practical Herbs 1 & 2' Henriette Kress.
'Wild Drugs' Zoe Hawes.