Sunday, 5 July 2015

What to do with St John’s Wort?

St John’ Wort is my ultimate summer herb. The date when my first yellow starflower opens tells me how the season fares. This year is was 21st June, Midsummer’s Day, so although the winter was long and spring cold and late, the plants are progressing as normal. When the last seed forms in late September I know summer is over and world is turning once more.

St John’s wort was once of the first herbs I grew. Everyone talked and wrote about it, embodying it with an air of mystery. It was deemed to be very powerful, copying the pharmaceutical drugs which tackled mild to moderate depression. There was also talk of it being used to treat burns arising from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. How could a herb have such widespread action?

I knew the active part of the plant was the flower and the tiny, perforated leaves which gave it its name “perforatum”. If you couldn’t see light coming through the tiny holes, then the plant would not be particularly active (much to the dismay of those with ornamental hypericums growing in their gardens!).

My first products were the flowers infused in sunflower oil on my kitchen windowsill. Christopher Hedley taught me to use a light oil since the plant was delicate, but I know others prefer olive oil if they are looking for something which penetrates the skin more easily and has medicinal effects of its own. I leave it alone all summer, adding to the jars every day or so and topping them up as needed until I have enough oil for the coming year.

One year I put a lid on the jar, thinking to deter insects but was taught a salutary lesson when I discovered mould growing on the top. Fresh plant material contains water and if you don’t allow it to evaporate you are likely to grow something you don’t want. Now, if I were to bother with a cover, I’d fashion something out of paper or cotton.

The development of St John’s Wort oil is an amazing spectacle. After only two days the oil begins to change colour and by the end of one or two weeks, the familiar crimson oil emerges. It must have sunlight to effect the change. If you stick your jar of oil in a dark cupboard for several weeks, it will remain yellow. (Ask me how I know!)

The oil can be used in so many different ways.
  • As a sunscreen
  • For general burn healing
  • With honey and calendula as a poultice for burns
  • For massage involving any kind of nerve pain
  • In a salve with calendula and chickweed for hot, infected eczema
  • With meadowsweet for anti-inflammatory pain such as arthritis
  • With agrimony for pain involving constriction
  • As a cream with marshmallow, calendula and aloe vera to prevent diabetic foot problems

The second product I made was a tincture but macerating the flowers in vodka for three weeks in a dark place. The red colouration begins to leach out after several hours.

The tincture had me in a quandary. I don’t like to give herbs to anyone with a serious mental health problem, especially if they are under the care of professionals and may be taking other psychotropic drugs. St John’s Wort has a tendency to exacerbate the side effects of any other medication, which is not something to be recommended.

St John’s Wort is also one of the few drugs to have been extensively “researched”, although the trials are rarely with the whole plant, only with those aspects which have been extracted and standardised. Hence the long list of contra-indications and warnings which the press are so pleased to report. If you do want to educate yourself about these reports, there are lots of references in medical journals.

Like the SSRI drugs, St John’s Wort doesn’t act immediately. You need to build up a concentration in the body before you start to notice changes. Henriette Kress described it, “You won’t notice any difference when you take it but the people around you will notice you are different.”

It was Henriette who gave me the confidence to start adding St John’s Wort to my bereavement tonics. All the herbs are nerviness and help to support the adrenal gland during times of stress. I use SJW with lemon balm, vervain and nettles in the early stages of bereavement and may continue to add it to the mix or leave it out in favour of oats and/or motherwort, depending on the person. I also give people skullcap or rose elixir in separate bottles to take as and when the screaming habdabs descend.

David Winston also reported success with a mixture of SJW and lemon balm for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This could be easily combined using tinctures but I have also made a syrup with extra lemons which proved far too delicious to be a medicine!

After several years of making oils and tinctures, I began to dry the herb for teas. A former apprentice reported great success in removing the pain of diabetic foot neuropathy in Asian elders by administering the tea as a footbath. This could also be used with any hand problems.   

My next experiment was with honey. SJW flowers in honey produces a pink honey with the characteristic SJW smell. You could use this in any drink as an added medicine to a herbal infusion. I’m now waiting for the evening primrose and bergamot to flower to make a “burns honey” together with apothecary’s rose petals. Having just treated a nasty burn on my leg, I want to be sure I’ve got a specific honey available just in case.

Every year I give away dozens of self seeded SJW plants. I believe every herb lover needs an SJW patch in their garden. I know I would be lost without mine.

I'll finish with a meditation I undertook recently with St John's Wort. This is what he said.

I am the sun and stars
I am strong
I travel along unseen pathways
I hide my scent
You will only know it if you work with me.
The more you work with me the less you will understand me
I comfort the vulnerable
Do not think to offer me on my own
I am not here to work your miracles
You will not notice how I change you until the change is past
Offer me humbly to your elders
On your knees let them bathe their feet in my waters
I will take away their pain, soothe the burning
I am strong
Trust me

Friday, 19 June 2015

Weeds – cultivating a different perspective

I've been thinking about weeds a great deal recently as I’ve been wielding my garden fork in the Cotswolds or running my fingers deep into my Warwickshire-garden raised beds to wrestle an errant root. I have a tendency towards deep despair whenever I return to my herb beds and see them covered in creeping buttercup once again and notice how high the hogweed and docks have grown in just a few weeks. Then there is the guilt when I remove plants growing amongst other plants which I know are useful but I don't have the time or inclination to do anything with at that point in time.

If left alone, ground will return to forest. We've seen trees self- seeding and growing in our fields when they were rented out and set aside for several years. My beds are always screaming “I’m a field, not a pampered garden” if I leave them alone for a month or more.

Becoming an emotional wreck over weeding is not terribly helpful, so I feel it's more productive to learn how to identify your "so-called weeds" as you come across them and ask yourself the following questions.

Can they go on the compost or should they be recycled in a green bin system? E.g. dock seeds and bindweed roots and bits of trees if you don't have a shredder.

Are they poisonous? E.g. buttercups are poisonous i.e can't be eaten by humans or made into anything medicinal but compost well

Can you use them for something? E.g. willowherb is good for prostate, dandelions have numerous uses, docks can be used as tonics and for other things if they have a golden root, chickweed can be eaten raw and is high in Vitamin C, nettles can be eaten when young etc. etc.

Can you make anything from them? E.g. dandelion syrup, dandelion flower salve, chickweed oil for itching)

Can you replant seedlings elsewhere or grow them for sale/barter/gifting? In my garden borage, marjoram, evening primrose, tree spinach, milk thistle, lemon balm, and other herbs self- seed everywhere and I’m constantly wondering if I should be relocating rather than composting

Obviously I only know my own weeds;  some I loathe (hogweed) and some I love and feel guilty removing.  I don't know the relationship you have with your local weeds. You can just hoe them from the plants you are trying to grow and never think about them but I find it helpful to ask one last question

What can your weeds teach you about your garden and yourself?

Monday, 8 June 2015

Springfield Sanctuary Festival Programme 2015 11-13 September

This year's programme for the Springfield Sanctuary Festival is now finalised. Lots of fun for everyone. Come and join us in the peace and quiet of the North Cotswold Hills at Wynyards Farm on the road between Lower Swell and Upper Slaughter.


9.00am-12.00pm Set up Marquees and stalls

1.00pm            Lunch

2.00pm – 5.00pm Natural Dyeing Workshop with Tina Blacklock    Springfield Sanctuary

6.00pm            Shared evening meal                                                   Main Marquee

7.30pm            Open Mic                                                                    Main Marquee

9.00am            Creating Herbal Poems and Stories    Sarah Head     Main Marquee

10.00am          Preparing for the unexpected  Lynne Tynan-Cashmore     Main Marquee

11.00am           Blending Herbal Teas                          Debs Cook      Main Marquee

12.00pm          Sky Symphony Kite Display Team                             Kite Arena

12.30pm          Gathering Herbal Allies                                         Springfield Sanctuary

1.00pm            Lunch                                                                    Main Marquee

1.30pm            Creating Scented Herbal Bags                                    Main Marquee

2.00pm            Capturing Images of Herbal Allies Trish Fearnley      Main Marquee

3.00pm            Tea and Kites  with Sky Symphony                           Kite Arena

3.30pm            Capturing Images of Herbal Allies continued            Main Marquee

4.30pm            Creating Herbal Stories and poems    Sarah Head     Under the Ash Tree

6.00pm            Shared evening meal                                                   Main Marquee

7.30pm            Open Mic                                                                    Main Marquee


9.00am            Creating your own medicines -Gathering Sarah Head   Springfield Sanctuary
10.00am          Medicine From Forgotten Herbs        Ali English                    Main Marquee

11.00am           Developing a Herbal Business            Penny Thompson        Main Marquee

12.00pm          Sky Symphony Kite Display Team                                         Kite Arena

12.30pm          Creating your own medicines – Macerating   Sarah Head     Main Marquee

1.00pm            Shared Lunch                                                                   Main Marquee

1.30pm            Creating Scented Herbal Bags                                          Main Marquee

2.00pm            Perils and Pitfalls in Beekeeping        Adele Fernandez         Main Marquee

3.00pm            Tea and Kites  with Sky Symphony                                       Kite Arena

3.30pm            Herb Walk with Sarah Head                                 Springfield Sanctuary

Pryce Watkins Woodturner

Raffle prize kindly donated by JustBotanics

Cost: The festival is completely funded by donations. We suggest a donation of £50 for attending the entire weekend or £25 per day.

Booking: Email:sarah at headology dot co dot uk or mobile 07920145639.

Please bring
-        notebooks and something to write with for the creating writing slots and to take notes during the talks and workshops
-        vodka, cider vinegar, brandy, honey plus empty jam jars with lids for creating your own medicine session
-        food to share for lunches (3) and evening meals (2) plus saucepans to heat food in
-        cake/muffins/biscuits for tea
-        cameras to record different herbs
-        musical instruments, stories, poetry, songs and jokes for Open Mics
-        camping or caravanning equipment (water and toilets(portaloos) provided)
-        kites (only to be flown in the kite arena)

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Living with my gallbladder – some low fat recipes

One of the last things said to me by the discharging doctor last November, was, “I want you to see the dietician about a low fat diet.” Several hours later a smiling young woman appeared by my bed and handed over a leaflet. The first half was entitled, “Foods you can eat” and the second was “Forbidden foods”. The word, ‘forbidden’ had been crossed out and replaced with ‘foods to eat sparingly or avoid’.

So out of my life went cream, cheese, hummus, deep fried foods, nuts, seeds and most things containing fats. I could have half a pint of semi-skimmed milk or a pint of skimmed. Oily fish was a no-no but I could have salmon once a week.

I soon realised I was brought up on a low fat diet. My mother couldn’t tolerate fat with her duodenal ulcer, so we weren’t exposed to it. It’s probably why my gall bladder has never functioned properly and why I was ill every time I went away to a conference!

She never made a roux, she added a flour and milk paste to boiling milk to thicken a sauce, so that’s the way I’ve always done it. She taught me to remove all the fat from meat juices before making gravy so that’s what we do. The leaflet told me to make gravy from vegetable water, which I do, but to throw away meat juices. Blow that for a game of solders! (as my mother would say!)

I’ve always used good fats and know they’re important for my overall health. I don’t want my joints creaking because I’ve ceased to oil them! Now I just use less of them and notice when there are consequences to eating something which means I should pay attention.  I still spread butter on my toast or bread but in sparing amounts. There’s no way I’m using industrial low fat spreads, thank you very much!

Mushrooms cooked in milk and butter in the microwave, which used to be a staple lunch for us, is not a good idea but I can tolerate mushrooms fried in a small amount of sunflower oil with grilled bacon either for lunch or as part of a “full English” breakfast. I still fry onions and red peppers, garlic and ginger as the basis of most of my cooking (soups, stews, bolognaise sauce etc.). When you make ten pints of something at a time, a tablespoon of oil is not a huge amount and can easily be tolerated.

Spices are not a problem, so I’ve used them and low fat coconut milk or yoghurt and tomatoes to make tagines, curries or just to spice things up a bit. When you don’t have fat to provide flavour or umami, you have to search elsewhere. Now I’ve got access to fresh herbs in my garden again, I’m also throwing large amounts of marjoram, lovage and mint into most of my cooking when I want a lighter and delicious flavour.

Here are three recipes I’ve adapted to keep my gall bladder happy.

Nettle Impossible Quiche
1cup semi-skimmed milk
4 eggs
1/5cup flour
1 onion
1 red pepper
2/3 cloves garlic
1 drained small can of tuna or 2 slices of cooked ham cut into small cubes.
2 large handfuls of young nettle tops and leaves or spinach/kale/other greens
Large handful of herbs (parsley, basil or a mint/marjoram/lovage mix)
Grease a large round dish. Dice the onion, red pepper and garlic and sweat in a small amount of oil in a small frying pan. Wilt the nettles on top of the onion mix for about five minutes by putting a lid over the frying pan. Drain any liquid from the pan before adding to the batter. Dice the cooked ham or strain the tuna and break up into flakes. Whisk the eggs with the milk then add the flour and season well to make a batter consistency. Chop the herbs finely then add all the other ingredients to the egg batter so everything is well mixed. Pour into the prepared dish and cook in a moderately hot oven for around thirty minutes until well risen and set. It will flatten after you take it out of the oven. Serve with salad and crusty bread hot or cold or with vegetables for a main meal. This freezes really well and can be cut up into single portions before freezing.

Ham and Sweetcorn Soup
8oz cooked ham cut into small pieces
4 large potatoes peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, de-seeded and diced
2/3 garlic cloves crushed or peeled and sliced
1 small chilli or 1 inch root ginger, peeled and diced.
1 tin sweetcorn, drained
2 tblsps Worcestershire sauce
Handful of herbs (parsley or marjoram and lovage) finely chopped
Sweat the onions, red pepper, garlic and chilli or ginger until soft. Add the potatoes, herbs and ham and cover with water and season well. Bring to the boil and simmer until potatoes are cooked. Add the strained sweetcorn and heat through.
This is a substantial soup which can be enjoyed with or without bread.

Mushroom Soup
1lb mushrooms
2 large potatoes
2 carrots
2 celery stems
1 onion
Wash and slice the mushrooms. Peel and chop the potatoes, carrots and celery. Peel and dice the onion.
Sweat the onion in a small amount of oil until soft, add all the other ingredients and cover with water. Season well. Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour until everything is cooked. Blend and serve. This makes a delicious creamy soup without the need for a white sauce.