Two days ago I received an email from one of my new apprentices asking what I would recommend as a tonic she could give to her patients. Her question inspired me to write a blog post which I began yesterday.
Tonic is one of those words which you think you know, but when you take time to consider its meaning, the totality escapes you.
When I’m confused I usually turn to Jim MacDonald’s website because he has such a wealth of information and he puts things in ways which can be easily understood.
Browsing through his terms, I found he had written, “"Tonic" is a dreadfully problematic term, because it has so many meanings and can be applied in so many different ways. Really, without using an adjective to qualify what kind of tonic it is, the noun "tonic" is close to useless. To be practical, most people intend to convey that a tonic is an herb that builds up your energy and health and is good for you.”
Jim then went on to quote from a draft copy of Matthew Wood’s Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, saying that it offered one of the better definitions of the word “tonic”, in that it allowed for all the different manifestations this vague category may take. I looked through my copy of Wood’s book, but I couldn’t find the definition, so I was especially grateful for Jim’s note.
Matt Woods wrote, “A tonic is usually an herb or food that acts on the body in a slow, nutritive fashion to build up the substance of the body. In this sense, the term "tonic" might be considered synonymous with "trophorestorative". It can also be defined as a substance which (like an astringent) restrains loss from the body by "toning" tissues.”
He offers the following categories tonics may fall into: Bitter tonics are used to strengthen and nourish the liver and metabolism (mostly alteratives,), Sweet tonics act primarily on the immune system and adrenals (adaptogens). Oily tonics supply fixed oils and essential fatty acids to tissues to ensure hydration, cell permeability and to prevent atrophy. Mineral tonics provide essential minerals, and sour tonics are rich in bioflavinoids. Protein tonics are rich in protein.
I then turned to Kiva Rose Hardin’s blog and searched for tonics. The first articles offered two tonics, one for the heart made from Choke Cherries and another made from the wild rose.
Chokecherry Heart Tonic
1/4 C Chokecherry bark or bark/flower tincture
1/2 C Chokecherry fruit concentrate or syrup (possibly more if your concentrate isn’t strong tasting, ours is very intense and flavourful but the stuff you get from stores is often tasteless and terribly sweet and just don’t work for this)
1 C Brandy
Sugar/honey to taste (very optional, just depends on your syrup and sense of taste)
1/4 tsp of Cinnamon tincture (or a good pinch of powdered cinnamon)
1 tsp Ginger infused honey (or just add a good pinch of fresh grated ginger)
Generous splash of Merlot or Elderberry mead (optional)
Mix together in pint jar and shake well, allow to age for at least a month. This stuff is strong and somewhat mind-altering (in a relaxing kind of way), so use in small doses. It’s an excellent heart strengthener for people with signs of inflammation, high blood pressure, heart palpitations and general heat symptoms.
Choke cherries don’t grow over here and I’ve never seen them in the shops, which is disappointing because the recipe looks delicious. I’m wondering if I could substitute hawthorn instead or if my hawthorn berry brandy liqueur would be a good alternative.
To a jar full of infused hawthorn berry brandy, add 1 grated nutmeg, one cinnamon stick (crumbled), the chopped peel of one orange, 4 cloves and ½-1 cup full of sugar or honey. Seal the jar with a screw top lid, place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly, then strain and pour into a sterile bottle. Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years).
Wild Rose Tonic
First, make a half pint of infused honey with finely chopped, de-seeded fresh wild rose hips, plus 1 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1 tsp. grated fresh orange peel and 1/4 tsp cardamom. Let infuse for one month, do not strain.
1 C spiced Wild Rose hip honey (as seen above)
3 Tbs Wild Rose petal tincture (or more, as desired for flavour)
1 C Brandy or Cognac
Mix together in a pint jar and shake well, allow to age for at least one month. This cordial/tonic is relaxing, uplifting and wonderful as a heart tonic, nervine, anti-inflammatory and bioflavanoid rich blood tonic. For a real treat, make a small cup of half Chokecherry Heart Tonic and half Wild Rose Tonic.
When I read through the Wild Rose Tonic, something strange happened. I knew I needed to make the spiced rosehip honey. I made rosehip honey nearly three years ago by liquidising freshly gathered rosehips with runny honey. It tasted delicious, but the seeds were a pain. I wanted to make the honey this year using de-seeded rosehips, but when I gathered my hips from the Sanctuary rosebush after the festival, I didn’t have the energy to sit down and de-seed, so everything ended up in some glorious spiced rosehip and sloe cordial.
(Just a small aside, if you ask an American what they mean by a cordial, they will describe it as fruit preserved in alcohol and a small amount of sugar to be used in drinks or poured over other fruit/ice cream. If you ask me what I mean by a cordial, I will tell you it is made using the same method as a syrup, but a cordial is made for diluting and drinking either hot or cold, whereas a syrup is thicker and can be medicinal or eaten by the spoonful. No alcohol is involved.)
The sun was shining accompanied by an icy wind, so armed with a basket, secuteurs, gloves and wellies I set off for the Friary field around the corner from our house. The original four acres owned by the Friary was half developed for housing on the understanding that the remainder was available for the public. I go there to harvest elderflowers in May/June, horsechestnut in August, late nettle seed and sloes in the winter.
The sloes were abundant. I spent a long time looking at them and was asked by a dog walker if I made sloe gin. It didn’t feel right to collect them, so I left them for the birds, thinking that if I want to make more spiced sloe cordial I can always come back in the new year.
There was only one dog rose bush I knew about and when I climbed to the top of the bank where it grows, there were no rosehips to be seen. Undismayed, I walked around the site noting the catkins of the hazel bushes, the tree still full of eating apples and the dessicated blackberries which no-one had picked. Next year I shall be taking my new herb group, Wolf’s Meadow, to learn the art of wildcrafting in season, so hopefully the blackberries won’t go to waste again.
Looking up into the hazel trees of an original hedge, I found my first rosehips. Only a few, but it was enough to make me trust I would find the amount I needed.
As I wandered through woodland, I found myself singing carols to the holly trees while I gathered some berry-bright twigs to grace my Solstice willow garland before I headed off into bramble strewn wilderness exploring parts I’d never visited before.
If you are constantly seeking a safe way through brambles, your eyes are on the ground. I saw some dead rose briars in my path and followed them to a large bush. I talked to the bush for a few minutes, noting the thickness of the briars and the unusual red hue of the bark. I couldn’t see any rosehips, but was told to go around the other side and keep looking up.
It wasn’t a large harvest, but it was sufficient. The rosehips were huge – three times the size of the tiny hips on my Sanctuary bush. There was even a dogrose flower blooming in the bitter cold – a remnant from the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having recently.
Back home in the warm, the large hips were easy to slice in half and de-seed, but it did take a long time. I learned why it is better to delay harvesting until the hips are soft – if you squeeze the hip carefully, the entire ball of seeds and hairs can be removed through the end of the hip, leaving only the soft casing behind.
I chopped the rosehips in my grinder as I wanted them small enough to enrich the honey. The cardamoms were ground there too, but I suspect I added a whole teaspoonful rather than one quarter! I wasn’t sure how much a teaspoonful of orange peel might be so I grated a whole orange peel and nearly an inch of root ginger.
When the honey was poured on and the mixture stirred, I have to admit to licking the spoon. The taste was divine and I can’t wait until four weeks’ time when I can start making up the tonic with dog rose petal tincture and brandy.
Later yesterday evening as I sat knitting small presents for my children, I thought back on what I’d done during the day. I realised how grateful I was to be no longer working for an employer, giving me time to follow my instincts which let me trust I would find what was needed in the place I’d chosen to visit.