Monday, 20 October 2014

How long will it last?

We are constantly bombarded with information about ‘shelf life’ and ‘sell by dates’. If we buy anything herbal it will come with a “Best before end” date which can range from three months to two years. Herbalists talk about plants which lose their efficacy quickly and those which are still being used decades later. For a newcomer to herbs it can be very confusing.

If you are reliant on other producers for all your herbal products then you are constrained by their printed labels saying how long something will last. You can make your own assessment of vibrancy by comparing what the colour, smell and taste of the product when you first purchased it compared with how it looks/smells/tastes now.  Be aware that once you expose the product to the air, it will start to denature. The more you use something, the sooner it will lose its potency.

This won’t be a problem if you’ve bought something to use regularly over a couple of weeks or months but it could be a disappointment if you open it and leave the lid off for a relatively long period of time, then seal it and go back to it a year or so later and discover it has “gone off”.

It’s helpful to look at each kind of herbal produce in turn.

Fresh Herbs
Wisdom passed down from ancient times exhorts us to pick herbs when they are dry but before the midday sun stresses the herb. If you want to experiment with timings, try picking late morning and late afternoon and see how the herb changes in those few hours. Once you have picked as much as you want, make sure your produce is not left exposed to bright sunshine or you may lose everything you have gathered. When you are picking don’t use plastic for storage of any length, cloth bags or wicker baskets are best. The plant will continue to respire even after you have cut it from its roots and the water vapour produced needs to be able to escape. Keeping it in a plastic bag overnight can mean you return to a wet, soggy mess.

You may want to use or process your fresh herb immediately or you can deliberately leave them to wilt for several days to remove excess water content before you process your harvest. Wilting time will vary depending on the amount of water present in the herb. I have seen watercress and milk thistle leaves reduce by ½ to 2/3rds of their volume in half an hour in warm weather or hot room. Most green, leafy herbs can be left to wilt for up to three days in a cool, shady, airy place.

Dried aerial parts should retain the vibrancy of colour once dried. Leaves and flowers should be removed from their stems once dry because the stem may not have dried completely but should be stored as completely as possible. Once you crush a leaf it releases its essential oil into the air and is lost, so if you crush or powder a dried herb it will not retain its potency for as long as the whole counterpart.

If you need to turn a herb into powder, do small amounts as and when needed. This is especially true of oil bearing seeds such as hemp or flax. Once ground the oil starts to turn rancid after three hours so should be consumed immediately.

If you don’t live in a climate where long periods of dry weather are possible then there will be times when you have to pick in the wet or lose your entire crop. If this happens you will have to use an external heat source to remove excess moisture. Rayburns (small agas) and hot water tanks/airing cupboards can be really useful for this but few people have access to them anymore. If you do need to dry in an oven, always dry on the lowest heat and leave the oven door open so the moisture can escape. NEVER dry in a microwave (unless you are only drying for culinary purposes and don’t care what is happening to the chemistry of the plant material) as you will end up cooking the plant, not drying it.

Seeds, roots and barks are different. You may find, if collected during autumn or winter, the increased moisture content of the seasonal air will make them prone to mould development if left in a cool place without washing and drying. Yeast spores present in the air can cause fermentation as part of the cycle of decay. This is especially true with elderberries and conkers will develop a surface mould if left untouched for a week. Smaller seeds such as fennel, dill or coriander should be picked dry and dried some more before storing but will last for several years.

Seeds, roots and barks do take more time to prepare before drying but if the preparation is done effectively so drying is complete, the finished product should last several years. The more time and effort you put in beforehand, the longer it will keep.

Dried herbs
Most dried herbs will keep their potency for twelve months and may start to lose colour and scent during their second or third year. It is colour, scent and taste which will alert you to the potency. Some herbs such as lemon balm, tarragon, dill, fennel and St John’s wort flowers are only supposed to have a shelf life of six months and people are advised to think of other ways of preserving them such as freeze drying, herbal ice cubes or frozen herbal butters.

Some herbs such as cleavers and chickweed have such high water content that they are not supposed to be effective if dried at all but herbalists in countries with very short growing seasons such as Finland have disproved this. If you are making oils or tinctures with these herbs you should use them fresh and not dried.

If you grow and dry your own delicate herbs and keep them in glass jars away from the light (I put brown paper bags around my glass jars) you will find they are active well after their supposed use by date.  I’ve seen health food shops sell straw coloured calendula petals kept in clear glass near the shop window which are obviously useless yet my homegrown petals keep their orange vibrancy for longer than twelve months, as does my St John’s wort, red clover and bergamot.

Herbs don’t realise they have a use by date. They will continue to act many years after being dried. Henriette Kress had a case where she gave five year old St John’s wort dried flowers to a client which worked perfectly well and Jim Macdonald has some fourteen year old calamas root which he chews. He said there wasn’t quite as much “zing” in the old root as a freshly dried one but the essence of the plant was still there.

If you find yourself in a situation where you need a dried herb but only have something two or three years old which has lost most of its colour and smell then double the amount you would normally infuse to provide a medicinal product.

A “normal” herbal tea brewed for ten minutes should keep in the fridge for 24 hours. This is useful if you are brewing larger amounts to use throughout the day or for eye washes, antiseptic washes etc.

A cooled decoction should keep in a fridge for up to 48 hours.

Syrups and cordials
Concentrated (i.e. reduced by evaporation to 1/8th of its original volume) medicinal syrups made with 1:2 proportion of tea: sugar should keep indefinitely if placed in sterile bottles and lids. Syrups made with 1:1 proportions of tea: sugar or honey in a sterile bottle and lid should keep for at least a year unopened and possibly two. Once opened, they should be kept in a fridge and used within six months.

Cordials made with 1:1 proportions should have the same shelf life as a syrup. Anything made with reduced sugar content will have a much shorter shelf life.

Floral waters
Floral waters are used externally and normally have 1:0.25 decoction: alcohol proportion (i.e. ¼ of the volume of decoction of alcohol is added as a preservative). I have kept these for two years successfully without opening.

Decocted bitter
If you make a bitter by decocting the plant material and preserving this with alcohol measuring ¼ of the volume of the original decoction it should last for 18 months to 2 years before it starts to grow something when stored in a cool, dark place and unopened. If the mixture becomes cloudy, discard.

Flower essence
Flower essences made by sun infusion and preserved 1:1 with brandy should keep for up to two years if unopened. Once diluted with spring or distilled water, it should be used within a week or sooner.

One of the major factors in the shelf life of your tincture is how concentrated your extracting alcohol and how often you open the bottle/jar/container. Unopened, tinctures can last for ten years or more depending on which plant you have used. Tinctures should also be stored in brown or green glass bottles and kept away from heat or light.

If you leave plant matter in the alcohol for longer than the prescribed period (most people macerate for three weeks, some for six) you tend to extract extra tannins which you may not want. Certainly when I forgot to strain a jar of vervain and skullcap for over 12 months, the tinctures were both very dark brown and exceptionally bitter which meant I'd lost the beautiful shining aquamarine of the skullcap. I used them both but in formulae rather than alone.

Some herbalists have found that leaving the fresh herb in the tincture has increased the longevity and are now doing this as their practice. This works best when the herb restricts fungal and bacterial growth as part of its repertoire.

Elixirs are made with equal proportions of brandy and honey. As such they should last at least ten years and probably longer. I do leave fresh elderberries in elixirs and haven’t had a problem with fermentation as long as they are kept cool.

Honey has been found in 2,000 year old Egyptian tombs still smelling and tasting like honey. Infused honey made from watery plant material may only last a couple of years. I recently found a year old jar of rosehip honey with the chopped hips still in it starting to grow mould on the top but once this was scraped off the rest of it was fine. Electuaries made from dried, powdered herbs should keep for as long as it takes you to eat it. I have one jar I use for demonstrations which is over six years old and still tasting the same as it did when I first made it.

If you make sun infused oils and don’t keep the plant material submerged they will grow mould and the oil will have to be discarded immediately. If you make double infused heated oils from fresh plant matter, you need to pour off the water globules before storing or the oil will go off more quickly. Unopened jars of double infused oils should last two to three years. St John’s wort oil will keep much longer if kept unopened in wide necked jars.

If you keep opening jars of oils, they will go off sooner.

The shelf life of salves can be increased by adding Vitamin e capsules or essential oils. This is personal preference. I don’ t use any preservative and my salves, unopened will last up to two years and 8-12 months once opened.

My experience with infused herbal vinegars is that, because of their acidic environment, they keep indefinitely. I have never had a herbal vinegar “go off”. Some vinegars, such as chive flower, will lose their colour after twelve months.

I don’t make glycerites so have no experience of their shelf life.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Crampbark, native or not?

Before the new owners of the farm next to my parents moved in, they decided to plant several acres of woodland. As the first triangle of arable field was transformed, I stopped to chat with the foresters’ foreman. He reeled off a list of “native English woodland trees” including hawthorn, blackthorn, wild cherry and Guelder rose (vibernum opulum).

“You’ll be able to come and harvest here if you like,” he offered but I told him I already had access to all his varieties on my own land. 

I took it for granted that his idea of native woodlands species really were indigenous plants. Guelder rose is one of my favourite Sanctuary trees. I was first introduced to it during a tour of a Birmingham herbalist’s garden back in the 1990s.

“Do you know crampbark?” she asked me and when I told her I had read about it, she remarked what a useful herb it was. “The bark is amazing,” she said. “When you tincture it, the maceration turns red.” She showed me the bark pigment and said no herbalist should be without it.

The following year I included a small crampbark bush in my order from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery in Scotland. It was quite small and delicate but grew well enough. The following year I was searching for short leave lime and spindle trees. The nearest nursery was in Northern Derbyshire so I added another crampbark and two red currant bushes to my collection. This bush, although the same age as my original, was twice the size and the branches were twice as thick, although everything else was the same.

They both flowered well in springtime. It was at this point I gathered the bark since I’d read that crampbark was the only tree where you harvested bark when the tree was flowering rather than during their dormant period. As my friend had promised, the tincture was deep red and proved very effective in reducing nocturnal leg cramps. In subsequent years I harvested bark in winter and there was no noticeable difference in the efficacy of the tincture.

My final Guelder rose came from a tree nursery in Kent and lives in the hedge in my Solihull garden. It is completely overshadowed by hawthorn trees above and gets a minimum of light but it is still growing albeit slowly. After two seasons it has yet to produce flowers or berries but I live in hope. The other two trees took several years before flowering but now they are prolific in both flowers and the bitter, crimson berries which appear to be eschewed by the local bird population as there were still berries left from 2013 when the flowers came out this spring.

If Guelder rose were indeed a native English species, its herbal use should be well documented. I decided to start my investigation with Culpepper but he was strangely silent. Anne MacIntyre only talked about Native American uses, which seemed strange if the tree had been growing in England for many centuries.

When I finally looked at the history of Guelder Rose, I discovered it was introduced to England from Dutch province of Guelderland, possibly in the sixteenth century when John Parkinson was writing his herbal encyclopedia. England was closely allied with Holland at this time as the nearest Protestant kingdom in Europe and new species of plants and trees were being introduced to aristocratic gardens from both Europe and the new world. Horse chestnuts were also imported during this century and both trees have been integrated into the British flora.

Bartram gives the keynote of the Guelder rose as cramp. He notes the actions as antispasmodic, astringent, nerve and muscle relaxant and sedative. He lists the uses as muscular cramps, pains in abdomen, womb, ovaries, back, stomach, intestines, bladder. Convulsions in children. Epididymitis. Painful menstruation, flooding menses of menopause. Polymyalgia. Nervous irritability, angina, intermittent claudication, arteritis, palpitation. Earache. Acute bronchitis, asthma. Muscular rheumatism. Bedwetting.

Anne MacIntyre tells us that crampbark’s active constituents are coumarins, catechin, epicatechin, bitters (Viburnin) arbutin, valeric acid, salicylates, tannins and resin. She also warns that raw berries are poisonous but can be eaten if cooked and any plant extract should be avoided if you take anticoagulant drugs.

Bartram’s list of crampbark uses are impressive Annie makes them more understandable by breaking them down into parts of the body. She also expands their uses based on Native American and other cultures.

Digestion: Relaxes tension and spasm. Relieves stress related disorders such as colic, nausea, wind, abdominal cramps and IBS.

These uses mirror that of chamomile and it makes me wonder whether early English herbalists would have used chamomile where Native Americans would use crampbark because each were easily available in their locality. I’m currently about to purchase my copy of John Parkinson’s Encyclopaedia and I’m hoping to discover what he wrote about the tree.

Circulation: Dilates the arteries, reduces blood pressure. Used for palpitations and angina. Releases tension in arteries, relieves leg cramps, helpful in Reynaud’s syndrome.

This makes me wonder how motherwort and crampbark would work together to alleviate the palpitations felt by menopausal women.

Musculoskeletal system: Used as a general music relaxant for voluntary and involuntary muscular cramp and tension. Used for tension headaches.

These uses encourage me to try making a crampbark oil this winter. After the success of the St John’s wort and agrimony salve for relieving arm muscle tension, knee pain and period pain, I’m wondering if the addition of crampbark or even a crampbark salve on its own would be even more effective. This might be really helpful for children and adults with problems of limb spasticity where tremors and spasms are a constant challenge.

Reproductive system: This was the major use for Native American and pioneer women. Crampbark can be used as a both a uterine sedative and tonic. Annie writes that aesculetin and scopoletin have a powerful antispasmodic action relieving cramps. Salicin is also a good pain reliever but should be avoided by anyone who is allergic to aspirin. Crampbark can be used in spasmodic dysmenorrhea for bearing-down pain, back and thigh pain, heavy bleeding, endometriosis, threatened/repeated miscarriage and to prepare for labour. It helps to prevent uterine irritability, over-strong contractions, false labour pains and afterpains. It also prevents excessive flow during menopause.

Crampbark is also used as an antispasmodic for benign prostatic hypertrophy. Its astringent actions is also helpful in prolapse.

Respiratory system: Crampbark relaxes spasm in bronchi and can be useful for soothing harsh irritating coughs and asthma as an adjuvant/aid to other medication.

My crampbark trees are currently providing a glorious autumn feast of colour in the Cotswolds.  I had cause to be grateful to them back in the early summer when I inadvertently stepped into a rabbit hole whilst picking elderflowers. I thought I must have been electrocuted from the searing pain at the top of my calf but I guess that’s what it feels like if you hyper-extend a muscle without warning. When it became almost impossible to walk, I set about collecting some crampbark leaves and flowers and made myself a tea. I drank half and put a fomentation around my leg. I repeated both several times during the evening.

The next morning I was able to move slowly and the pain had diminished. By the afternoon I was able to stand and dig. The following day I was walking normally. This, to me, seemed like a miraculous recovery due entirely to the crampbark. Now I know so much more about this plant I shall be using it in many different situations.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Springfield Sanctuary Festival 29-31 August 2014

Only seven weeks to go until we welcome everyone to the Springfield Sanctuary Celebration from 1pm on Friday 29 August until 4pm on Sunday 31 August.

The festival is open to everyone who would like to come and share the weekend with us. Although the majority of talks are around using herbs, we are delighted to welcome the former Birmingham poet laureate and broadcaster, Charlie Jordan, who will lead a creative writing workshop on Friday afternoon from 1pm-5pm.

The theme is "Inspiration from Nature" so herby people can be inspired by a herbal ally and others can commune with the 400 year old oak trees, the babbling spring, the incredible view or talk to next door's Jacob sheep or the busy bees. Bring a packed lunch with you and there will be homemade drinks and cake available throughout the afternoon.

On Friday night there will be a shared evening meal (Please bring something to share in a suitable cooking pot and bring along a portable burner although we will have some to heat things up on.) followed by an open mic where authors can share what has inspired them during the workshop and/or bring along something they wrote earlier or a song or a tune to play on a musical instrument.

There's usually an acoustic jam at the end of each night's open mic. Please bring an instrument or something to beat time on.

Sky Symphony Kite Team, will be performing twice on Saturday and Sunday. When they're not performing, they are more than happy to teach people how to fly single line or stunt kites and if they ask nicely, Roy may even let them play with his four-line Revolution

Adele Rodriquez from Stow-on-the-Wold is now keeping bees at the Sanctuary and is going to talk about bees and has offered to show the beehives. There will also be herb walks to identify plants growing in the two fields and the herb beds around the Sanctuary. We've just had a wildflower meadow survey undertaken by  Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust so I'm hoping there will be feedback from that at the festival.

Over Saturday and Sunday there will be talks about various aspects of herbs including female contraception through the ages, male fertility, bitters, herbs for children and pelvic massage. There will be opportunities to pick herbs and make your own medicines during practical workshop sessions.

We run a single session programme with plenty of down time so people have a chance to make friends, try out some herbal crafts, browse the craft stalls or generally chill out.

On Saturday night we have another shared meal to which we ask people to contribute. We provide tea and cake throughout the festival so everyone who attends is asked to bring cake with them. After the meal there will be another open mic, so bring your party piece/instrument/voice etc.

Camping is available in the field next to the main marquee so feel free to bring your tent, campervan or caravan. We offer a pickup from Kingham station for anyone coming by train. (You need to let us know your arrival time.)

The festival is funded by donations to cover the costs of hiring marquees, toilets etc. We suggest a donation of £50 per adult if you are staying for the whole weekend and £25 if you visit for one day. Children under sixteen are free.

We look forward to seeing you at the Sanctuary soon!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Which salve should I make?

When a herbwife first starts infusing oils, it is tempting to turn every herb into a double infused or sun infused oil just to know what it looks like, how it smells and experiment with use.  After a couple of years when your shelves are groaning with oils you thought might be a good idea, the reality hits that actually there are several which aren’t really doing anything except be handed round for people to sniff during talks and demonstrations.  

My unused oils were mugwort, tansy, southernwood and vervain. They could be used as an anointing oil during ceremonies or in ritual bathing. Mugwort, tansy and southernwood have a strong, pleasant scent, so I might try using them in a future experimental lotion.

Every household is different, so the oils you find useful will probably differ from those I love and use regularly. Even so, the following list may help you think about the oils you wish to create. If you’ve never made a herbal oil before then go and read this post first.

Single oils to have within easy reach

For skin and internal tissues
Calendula – this oil goes in most of my skin preparations
Plantain – can be used in any hand or skin lotion, can also replace comfrey in any formula
Yarrow – wonderful healing oil for anything to do with blood
Chickweed – anti-itch, soothing and moisturising, lovely as a bath lotion
Elder bark or leaves – really good for bruising
Comfrey – for broken bones, bruises, varicose veins
Nettles – anti-inflammatory and anti-itching/irritation, moisturising
Horsechestnut – good for strengthening artery/vein walls

For hair and scalp
Rosemary – promotes good blood flow, anti-fungal, moisturising
Thyme – anti-fungal, anti-bacterial
Nettle – promotes hair growth, so useful for alopecia

For ears
Mullein – very good for children’s earache
St John’s wort – there are “scientific studies” which show this oil is as effective as antibiotics for ear infections.
Garlic oil – often combined with mullein to give maximum anti-viral and anti-bacterial effect.

Marshmallow – my favourite moisturising agent
Violet or heartsease – my second favourite moisturiser

St John’s wort – I tend to add this oil to any combination “just because”. It’s specific for nerve pain and anti-bacterial
Meadowsweet – for all kinds of pain, contains salicylic acid
Agrimony – for pain caused by constriction
Solomon’s seal – for joint pain
Dandelion flower – light muscle pain, breast massage
Goldenrod – for deep muscle pain
Violet leaf – for breast tissue pain, breaking up fibrous tissue lumps NB Always get any lumps or bumps medically checked out first!


Angelica – lovely massage oil for tight muscles
Ginger – gives a gentle, warming oil
Chilli – use in small amounts as this will heat quickly

Salve combinations
Basic hand salve – plantain, calendula and violet or marshmallow
Old wound salve – comfrey, plantain and yarrow
Eczema preventive salve – calendula and chickweed
Eczema breakout – calendula, chickweed and St John’s wort
Diabetic foot salve – St John’s wort, plantain and marshmallow
Tight muscle pain salve – St John’s wort and agrimony
Varicose veins – horsechestnut and calendula
Joint pain – Solomon’s seal and agrimony
General pain – meadowsweet and St John’s wort
Winter heating oil – Non Shaw's’s hot oil recipe can be found here

Simple Creams
If you want to learn how to make a simple cream which doesn’t separate, read this post.
Aftersun soother – St John’s wort oil plus marshmallow with aloe vera gel and elderflower tincture
Rose moisturising cream – equal parts rose oil and rose tincture
Elderflower face and body cream – elderflower oil and elderflower tincture.

There are innumerable combinations of herbs to provide the perfect salve for the person, condition or moment. What is your favourite?