Sunday, 24 June 2012

Personal Herbalism: Doing my own thing (and sharing it!)

This blog post is part of the UK Herbarium June Blog Party hosted by Ali English on Eldrum Musings. You can find a list of other party entries on her blog. The theme is personal herbalism – what makes your herbalism personal to you and what is it that you do that makes your herbalism uniquely yours?

As with life itself, everyone’s herbal journey and identity is unique. We all start from a different place, learn similar things in a different way or learn different things in a similar way. It is a continuing journey which does not end. What we do affects others and this influence and legacy provides a never ending and evolving story.  

What you read below is part of my personal journey.

When I first wondered about herbs back in 1995, it was purely from a research perspective. The character I was writing about would only have herbs to heal her wounded warriors. I needed to know what she would have found and grown around her.

I joined the Herb Society as the organisation’s title seemed to imply I would find what I was looking for.  It didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t asking the right questions, but no-one else seemed interested in the medicinal uses. Such knowledge was for qualified herbalists who went to university or undertook distance learning. They talked to each other using Latin names and terms I only half understood. I can nod and smile with the best of them, but I felt a fraud. It reminded me of my day job where I translated between doctors and patients when things went wrong.

I started reading books and growing herbs at home. I understood a little more, but it was still very much looking at one herb for a particular condition. I read about making oils and tinctures and vinegars, but felt this wasn’t something I could do at home.  I mean, you don’t make medicines in your kitchen, do you? It has to be clean and sterile and titrated down to the nearest drop.

It was Judith Bergner in her book, Herbal Rituals (a Christmas present from my co-writer in Oregon) who gave me the confidence to make tinctures and vinegars.  I had a jam jar with a screw top lid and a chopstick in my kitchen drawer but, more importantly, I understood her instructions and when I carried them out, it worked. I knew what they looked like, smelled like and had an inkling of the taste.

I did try making herbal oils following David Hoffman’s pictures. I bought a double saucepan specially. Oils were fun. They were mostly green, but sometimes their colours and frangrances amazed me. Calendula gave me an essence of sunshine, friends who offered massage raved about angelica’s aroma and subtle healing skills and St John’s wort took my breath away. How could a yellow flower deliver a stunning crimson oil from immersion in sunflower oil on my kitchen windowsill?

My confidence was cemented by escaping to the Chelsea Physic Garden one Saturday on the train. Travelling to an unfamiliar part of London, I sat for three hours listening spellbound to the stories of Christopher Hedley as he made double infused rosemary oil as he talked about his past, his patients and his healing.

By this time I had more land on which to grow herbs thanks to my father. I spent long hours going through Poyntzfield Herb Nursery’s catalogue deciding what to buy and how much I could spend.  This was only a hobby and Chris was constantly telling me we didn’t have much spare cash. With three children and school fees to pay, there wasn’t much left over to fritter away.

I’d joined Henriette Kress’ email discussion list and was soon able to discern who knew what they were talking about and who knew less than I did. After several years of watching plant life cycles I knew what they looked like, where they liked to grow, which parts I needed and how long I had to wait until I could harvest.

Life sent me lessons; simple ones to begin with. Slowly I began to build up herbal stories of my own rather than relying on the stories others told. The most difficult lesson I learned was that everyone has their own journey. Even when I believed herbs could help and support them through difficult times, it was their decision whether or not to use them. It was not up to me.

I took the decision very early on not to train as a medical herbalist. It was too expensive both in time and money and I could not afford either. After much thought I realised I did not want to be totally responsible for a stranger’s care; friends and family yes, but others no. There was too much hassle involved with exams, insurance, setting up a practice and trying to make a living in a hostile world.

What I did want to do was share my passion for herbs. I wanted people to recognise the hedgerow and field plants growing all around them; to know what they could help with and how to prepare them safely. I wanted to encourage them to make their own remedies, to experiment and enjoy what they were playing with.

I came across other herbalists in distant countries who shared their knowledge freely and inspired me. Their passion re-ignited my own.

It was the plants themselves who shared the most complex knowledge. They taught me to be still, watch, smell and listen. They helped me to interpret concepts explained by others so in turn I could share this information with those around me. I learned to stop trying and to relax.

I began to have faith in the parcel of land gifted me by my parents. I called it Springfield Sanctuary after the three springs which flow there. The initial workshops I offered were prepared and structured around a single topic, but I was less successful in keeping to the subject at hand when it came to the actual day.

It was pointed out to me by a friend that rigid structures were unnecessary. Visitors had their own agendas. If we could communicate and meet individual needs, this would constitute success. I learned to believe not in numbers attending, but that the people who needed to be there would arrive.

We always walk around the herb beds identifying a proportion of the herbs. I try not to do too many because there is only so long anyone can stand and listen, especially if there is a cold wind blowing. We always make something depending on what herb is available in suitable quantities in the correct season.  I encourage people to do it themselves. Newcomers collect easily identifiable herbs and make a tea, others might be sent to harvest blossom, while someone with limited mobility or energy might be invited to sieve nettle seed or transfer dried herbs into suitable containers.

What I have noticed is how people change during their herbal day with me. They may arrive bowed down with cares and worries but within a short time I watch them chat and smile and hug. They may ask questions for themselves, family members or friends and together we think about which plants might offer suitable support for different situations.

It is relatively easy to think of plantain if you have a splinter, but more challenging when a complex emotional situation has arisen. The energetic side of herbs was something which terrified me when I first started my journey. It seemed so complex and ethereal and I had no wish to complicate my studies when there was so much else to consider and absorb. 

Several years later, thanks to Non Shaw’s lovely book on Flower Remedies and my spiritual development as an energy healer, it seemed simple both to make my own and to sit with a plant and see what it might tell me. Recognising my initial reluctance helps me to understand when others find it difficult to walk along this path. Everyone sees things differently and has different skills and strengths which make them unique.

If I look back over the past seventeen years, I can see how herbs have become an integral part of my life. I think about them, touch them or use them every single day and I cannot imagine being without them. I know I share this passion with many people across the globe but I also realise others in my community and country have no interest or knowledge. They do not believe they have any part to play in their own health, nor any inkling of how much they could do to help themselves using the plants around them.

I want to offer them the opportunity to change.

You could say I am a herbal evangelist and I have been guilty of evangelising in my early years. I have been known to lecture complete strangers on the benefits of nettles without their consent but I hope I am learning a different way to pass on such knowledge. I aim to be a herbal facilitator, to ease the relationship between humans and plants so individuals can take back the knowledge which was so familiar to our ancestors and grow in confidence of their own herbal skills.

When I was very young I wanted to be a doctor, specifically to take away the dreadful pain my parents suffered from various conditions. That was not to be but I’ve been shown there are other ways to relieve pain. I am a healer and my relationship with herbs as a kitchen herbwife is what makes my herbalism unique.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Living with hope

Following a Pagan path is never easy. There is no-one to tell you what to do or interpret lore, it’s all up to you. What you do, how you do it and how you deal with the consequences of your actions.

This year is proving more difficult for me than most. My job disappeared last November, so incoming resources are tight. I’m trying to grow as much of my own food and medicines as I can while finding a useful way of filling my time.

The weather is not co-operating. “Flaming June” began with gales where we feared for our safety, slugs have devoured a large proportion of my seedlings and the ground is more waterlogged than I have ever known it.

It would be good to blame someone or something for all these challenges, but I suspect there would be a sound void on the receiving end. Corporations don’t care and Nature doesn’t either, it just is.

There are many scientific explanations for our weather over the past few years, many relating to the height of the jet stream in summer. For the past three years it has failed to reach its normal altitude, bringing us monsoons instead of sun while northern Canada suffers drought. It isn’t fair but it is what is currently happening.

How do we cope?

We could escape. A cosy bed, an alcoholic or drug induced stupor; all have their attractions but don’t seem to help in any major way if relied upon for too long. There are only so many cups of tea you can drink.

My refuge is the garden (or hedgerows if I am away from home). It has given me a plan comprising three simple words: notice, wonder, act.

It all started with bees. Watching them buzz around me I noticed how many different kinds were present. I wondered what they might be, so I started to learn about different kinds of bumblebees and habitats and what I could do to encourage them.

Then it was the apple tree. Both the news and my parents had been talking recently about the loss of fruit due to the bitter cold weather and high winds after early blossoms. All my parents’ fruit trees were bare. Last year I relied on those fruit trees to make puddings for my parents. I wondered what would be available to take their place.  

I was pondering all this while standing underneath my ancient cooking apple tree. It was here when my house was built in 1957 and could well have been part of the nursery beforehand. The sight of two tiny apples at my feet made me look up into the branches. There were many more apples growing amongst the leaves. 

There would be fruit this autumn. Not as much as last year, but there would be some.

The third pointer came from a vegetable – a mangetout pea to be precise. In a solid mass of green a glorious purple and white flower emerged made radiant by warm sunshine. It was so beautiful. As I looked along the row I noticed a pea pod. The bees had done their work already, boring into the flower to drink nectar and pollinate the flower so the seed pod could grow.   

As I watched, the message appeared to be that whatever the circumstances, the plant would grow. It would follow the directions in its seed structure. It knew what to do. It might not produce the food I wanted, but it would do the best it could. I could help it by removing unwanted plants from about the base and provide a nutritious soil to grow in, but that was all.

There would be a harvest. Every year will be different because the weather and growing conditions will be different. It may meet our needs or it may not.  It is what it is.

There are many meanings to extract from my three messengers.  Bees are association with fertility and sexuality, without them our world would be sterile. Their aerodynamics remind us to follow our dreams because achieving the impossible can be accomplished. The Celts associated them with hidden wisdom, showing we must search and work before gaining knowledge and inspiration.

Apple is one of the twenty Ogham trees.  Its meaning is cornucopia or abundance. It gives us so much – food from its fruit, medicine from its bark, flower remedies from its blossom and warmth from its wood. It opens our awareness to just how much we have around us if we care to look and notice.

Peas are such interesting plants from a large family. They nourish both us and the soil and their relative, the ubiquitous cleaver, helps the lymph system to flow freely throughout our bodies.

We can gain so much by spending time with plants. Using all our senses, they will help us understand the present and retain hope for the future.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

June Blog Party

Ali English, the Lincolnshire Herbalist at Eldrum Herbs is hosting this month's blog party. She writes, 

"The topic this month is that of personal herbalism – what about herbalism is so personal to you?  What do you do that makes your herbalism uniquely yours?  This can be an experience, a subject close to your heart, even a herbal ally that you work with more closely than any others – whatever resonates most with you!

Email the links to entries to Ali at, and she will post them all on or around Monday 17th June – She’ll be updating that post til the end of the month, so late entries are very welcome 

Happy blogging, lovely herbal people!"

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The forgotten few – Speedwell

Each spring and early summer I am drawn to the carpet of speedwell on my parents' lawn, the stunningly blue flowers shining so brightly in warm sunshine. The variety of speedwell I know is veronica chamaedrys or germander speedwell (not to be confused with wall germander, teucrium chamaedrys, the gout herb).

Maud Grieve says that Germander was a corruption of the Latin chamaedrys which came from the Greek words, chami meaning ground and drus meaning oak. Gerard commented, 'The Germander from the form of the leaves like unto small oak leaves, has the name chamaedrys given it, which signifieth a dwarf oak'.

Germander speedwell is the commonest British species of Speedwell found everywhere, flowering in spring and early summer. I've certainly seen it growing wild in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Devon and Cornwall over the past month.

There are fourteen other varieties of speedwell in the UK according to Maud Grieve. The most well known is common speedwell, V.offinialis but there are also Buxbaum's Speedwell ( V. Buxbaumii ), V. Serpyllifolia (Thyme-leaved Speedwell); the Marsh Speedwell (V. scutellata); the Ivy-leaved Speedwell (V. hederifolia); the Procumbent Speedwell (V. agrestis); and the Wall Speedwell (V. arvensis).

Maud Grieve says Buxbaum's Speedwell is “a plant of cultivation, springing up in gardens and fields never far from human society and influence.” Although it is found throughout England and Southern Scotland, it prefers southern climes and she thinks it was probably introduced from elsewhere.

The Spiked Speedwell (V. spicata) is rare. The Rock Veronica (V. saxatilis), has few flowers and is found mainly in the highlands of Scotland. Three other extremely rare species are V. verna (Vernal Speedwell), V. alpina (Alpine Speedwell) and V. triphyllos (The Finger Speedwell).
The germander speedwell benefits from both cross and self fertilization. Maud Grieve describes how the drone fly is responsible for cross pollination. “On either side of the big, double, top petal, a little stamen stretches outward like a horn. When an insect approaches, it grasps the stamens with its front legs and they are thus drawn forwards and onwards, so that they dust the under-side of the insect with their pollen. He steadies himself for a moment, probing the flower for the nectar round the ovary and then flies away.”
Both germander and common speedwell were used in folk medicine. Studies of plant uses in Scotland noted that common germander was one of the plants used for general ailments as a tea. Maud Grieve says “Old writers of all countries speak highly of the virtues of the Speedwell as a vulnerary, a purifier of the blood, and a remedy in various skin diseases, ... It was also believed to cure smallpox and measles, and to be a panacea for many ills.”
Gerard recommended it for cancer, 'given in good broth of a hen,' and advocated the use of the root as a specific against pestilential fevers.
In 1887, Lady Francesca Speranza wrote, “There are seven herbs that nothing natural or supernatural can injure; they are vervain, John's-wort, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow, and self-help. But they must be pulled at noon on a bright day, near the full of the moon, to have full power”
Maud Grieve writes “Among the Welsh peasantry, great virtues are attributed to the Speedwell. The plant has diaphoretic, alterative, diuretic, expectorant and tonic properties, and was formerly employed in pectoral and nephritic complaints, haemorrhages, diseases of the skin and in the treatment of wounds.”
MatthewWood has also researched the use of common speedwell. His earliest quote comes from Salmon writing in 1710, who says, “Speedwell is commended by Crato as specifick in the colick” recommending that speedwell be made into a clyster (enema) using a decoction of speedwell with sugar as this was found to be more effective than any other medicinal form.
Fernie, writing two hundred years later, says that “It has long been held famous amongst country folk as an excellent plant for coughs, asthma and pulmonary consumption. The leaves are bitter with a rough [astringent] taste and a decoction of the whole plant stimulates the kidneys.”
This mention of kidney stimulation reminded me of a time when I was giving healing to a colleague. I had no idea what condition he was suffering from before the healing session apart from a back problem. After settling him in a chair in the lounge, I went in search of some music on CD and was drawn to some blue quartz crystals from my altar. I rarely use crystals when healing, but something told me to use these with my friend, so I placed them on a table close to him. When the session was over, he told me his back problem had originated with issues with his kidneys. When I checked what blue quartz was useful for, it was for kidneys.
I suppose if you consider that the main function of the kidneys is fluid regulation within the body and water is associated with blue when the sun shines, then speedwell's blue flowers could be seen as a sign of their positive effect on the kidneys.
Fernie also talked about the infusion of speedwell promoting perspiration and feverishness, while the juice could be boiled with honey to make a syrup for asthma and catarrgh. He noted that an external application of the infusion could cure “the itch” and that some herbalists believed that drinking the tea every day could cure sterility.
When Matthew Wood was researching speedwell, he found that its use had almost completely dropped from modern Western herbal materia medica. He did find two herbalists who had written about it, the American, Ben Charles Harris in 1972 and Harald Tietze, an Australian herbalist in 1996.
Harris gathered it as a culinary substitute for watercress in salads. He described its action as “solvent-eliminator” acting on stones, toxins and mucous. He felt it was also useful in cases where throats were irritated or for respiratory organs. He also used it to remove hardened mucus in coughs, bronchitis and asthma.
Tietze had a completely different set of uses for speedwell. He used it for skin conditions, saying “The fresh plant juice has proved itself best for disorders of the skin.” He used the tincture rubbed into skin for conditions of rheumatism and gout. He recommended that “unlike other herbs which are taken in the morning, speedwell should be taken in the evening to calm the nerves and give a peaceful sleep.”
MariaTrebens, the Austrian Herbalist writing in 1984 recommends speedwell for “nervousness caused by mental exhaustion” which made Lucinda Warner wonder whether this was due to the presence of glycoside, scutellarin, which is named after the herb, scullcap. Scullcap, both the native and Virginian varieties, is an exceptionally useful nervine for anyone experiencing the “screaming habdabs”.
For such a beautiful flowering plant with such a wealth of historical uses, it is sad speedwell has fallen out of favour with most modern western herbalists. Lucinda Warner (who will be speaking at this year's Springfield Sanctuary Festival in September) is the only person I know of who has recently taken the time to experiment with speedwell.
After drinking a cup of speedwell tea Lucinda wrote, “The first sip had an immediate mental clearing effect and I felt soothed but not sedated, the effect being both relaxing and clarifying. I became very aware of the area around my head and I felt my meditative abilities heighten and my third eye and crown chakras open. My breathing deepened and I felt both more grounded and more connected. The key things that came through for me were mental clarity and sense of peacefulness.
This subtle medicine from the plant working on both mind and body led Lucinda to make a flower essence with her local speedwell, V. filiformis or slender speedwell. After taking the remedy she reported, “Both the colour of the flower and the signature of the central white and gold eye, seem to confirm my original feeling that this was a remedy which resonates with the third eye and crown chakras. I’ve only been taking the remedy a few days now but my initial feelings are that this is a flower to help us in seeing deeply, being conscious and aware and deepening our meditation.” 

This positive experience makes me want to know speedwell at a deeper level, something I plan to make time for in the near future.