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.


  1. Thank you for this blog. I am a novice in herbal lore and healing and found it very intresting and helpful

    1. Glad you have found my blog helpful, I've got lots more to write about so keep reading in the future.