Monday, 16 January 2023

A New Year and New Apprentices

 At the last festival in September, my arm was twisted to re-start the Springfield Sanctuary Apprenticeship. Eight people applied and we had our first workshop in my kitchen last Saturday. As always, it was great fun and the participants learned about five different barks, then went out into the garden, tasted chickweed and bittercress and dug up two mullein florets to make their own tinctures for straightening spines.

The wonderful thing about herbwifery is its intense practicality. There are books to read and issues to discuss, but it is all about getting out, digging and making herbal preparations from whatever it is you have harvested.

Mullein florets are a perfect example. Their leaves are so soft and beautifully coloured. It’s no wonder they were used as toilet paper in ancient times. They also absorb a lot of moisture, so several tea towels were used to dry them off.

The roots were scrubbed and chopped before being divided into five parts so everyone could make a mixed root and leaf tincture. It will be interesting to see what happens because, ordinarily, the leaves precipitate too much mucilage when alcohol is added, but I suspect these will be fine because of the amount of water they held which will dilute the vodka to a suitable level.

I thought I would share one of the tasks I set new apprentices each month. In January, they are asked to walk around their local area looking for certain trees/bushes to map – hawthorn, elder, wild cherry and dog rose.

The aim of the exercise is to become aware of your surroundings. Even in the middle of a city, there will still be plants and trees growing on the roadside or in the pavement cracks. When I had to walk through central Sheffield on a regular basis, I found an elder tree growing out of a derelict building and would monitor its growth cycles for six years.

If you look hard enough there will be fragments of field hedges and the odd ditch where hazel catkins are starting to wave in the breeze.

Maybe some of you reading this blog might like to map your locality along with the apprentices. Take pictures of what you find and make sure you know where the useful plants and trees can be found.

I have put the dates for all the monthly workshops on the relevant page and if anyone would like to join us, you'd be most welcome.


Thursday, 27 October 2022

What helps bruises?

Many years ago, I was talking to a family member about herbs which help with bruising when my husband’s nephew interjected, “Why do you bother, the body deals with bruising all by itself.”

Our nephew is a doctor and not interested in herbs. I’d forgotten he was nearby when I began the conversation but his question made me stop and think. Why would we intervene in a situation which will resolve itself given enough time?

Bruises happen. When we knock against something, fall over, damage to our skin or underlying tissue results in two major actions within the body. The damaged cells are removed and new cells are created to take their place. We can see this as the damaged area changes colour, becomes inflamed, maybe hot to the touch and/or swollen and we feel pain if we try to touch the damaged area.

Sometimes the trauma causes damage to underlying structures, not just soft tissue. Cartilage may be torn, ligaments damaged, bones broken or fractured or blood vessels severed. In such cases, trips to A&E are always advised to diagnose through x-ray, CT scan or MRI exactly what has occurred. Similarly, if there is any hint of abuse, professional help must be sought so accurate records and evidence can be acquired and the victim offered safety.

Head, neck and back injuries, especially those where spinal damage is suspected are other areas where expert advice must be sought since the first hour post event is the most crucial in preventing life-changing effects. The patient must not be moved except by experts.

Having said all this, bruises remain and there are several plants which can provide help and support to the body to assist in the healing process.

There are two herbs which stay at the top of my first aid provisions. Yarrow (achillea millefolium), because of its anti-inflammatory properties and, as Jim Macdonald said, “yarrow knows what to do with blood.” My other go-to is plantain, both narrow leaf and greater (plantago lanceolata and p. major). It’s drawing properties help to ensure the damaged area doesn’t have any foreign objects, it helps with cell production and has the ability to retain moisture in dry tissues.

These two herbs are usually given as a poultice or salve and also internally as part of a tincture or tea, depending on whether the patient can tolerate alcohol.

The third herb I use externally is comfrey. It’s speedy cell-rejuvenation means this is not one to be applied within the first 24-36 hours, as it can regrow skin cells over dirt or fuse bone before it has been correctly set. After that time, it is really useful.

These three herbs form my “old wound” salve because they will also deal with bruises which refuse to heal or leave unwelcomed scars. Their power has also been proved on the energetic level as one of my apprentices uses them as a tea and a smudge to help resolve/come to terms with emotional scars left from childhood abuse, especially when the abuser is no longer alive. She has also used them as a tea with hawthorn and linden when setting up or strengthening boundaries.

If the bruise is involved with connective tissue, Solomon seal (polygonatum multiflorum) is another herb to add to the mix. American herbalists David Winston, Matthew Wood and Jim MacDonald have written at length how helpful Solomon Seal can be with rejuvenating joints, cartilage, connective tissue and tendons in conjunction with agrimony. Agrimony (agrimonia eupatorium) is there not only because it has styptic qualities like yarrow, but also helps with pain due to constriction.

Dylan Warren-Davies, writing as “A Welsh Herbal” on Facebook says “Solomons Seal is traditionally ruled by Saturn, which like comfrey, makes the herb valuable in treating musculoskeletal injuries. In combination with other Saturnine herbs like horsetail and mullein root as an infusion it can speed recovery of sprains, strains and broken bones. It also has been used to apply topically to remove bruising.”

I thought this use of Solomon seal was relatively recent, so it came as quite a shock to read J Arthur Gibbs describing a visit to an old gentleman in his “A Cotswold Village” who reeled off a list of herbs for different ailments including “Solomon seal for bruising”. The book was published in 1898, it’s thirty year old author dying the next year following an unsuccessful hernia operation complicated by an undiagnosed heart condition.

Given that Solomon seal is a North American native, it made me wonder whether its properties were introduced to the UK along with other Thomsonian doctrines, but the UK usage was well-known to both Culpepper and Parkinson so would have been embedded in village herbal lore. Bruton-Seal also notes Gerard’s misogynistic comment that it was useful for bruising “from fals or women’s wilfulness in stumbling on their hastie husband’s fists”!

The other herb well-known for bruises is elder leaves (Sambucus niger) but I have been using the infused bark oil for the same purpose with very good results. This came about because I needed something for bruising in the middle of winter when no leaves of any plant were visible. It worked for me, so I added it to the apprentice tasks and they all reported how quickly the bark oil reduced bruising.

One of the forgotten herbs which I have been adding to my bruise and joint tinctures is bugle (Ajuga reptens). In Culpepper’s day it was well known for falls and inward bruises for dissolving congealed blood. Parkinson recommended it for broken bones and dislocated joints but by the late 19th century it had fallen out of favour.

My knowledge and use came from Julie Bruton Seal and Mathew Seal in their book, “Wayside Herbs”. I happened to be walking into the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for a Herbal History Society seminar some years ago and met Julie in the car park. She was telling me enthusiastically about bugle when we met up with one of the speakers, Christina Stapley.

Christina was in such pain from her shoulder that she didn’t think she would be able to deliver her presentation. Julie had a bottle of bugle tincture in her handbag and persuaded Christina to let her rub it on the affected area. Twenty minutes later, the pain was gone and Christina’s session was by far the best one of the whole day!

I made my first tincture that year from bugle harvested from Buckland churchyard, next to the manor house where my great-grandmother was brought up. The plant then emerged at the Sanctuary and has grown there energetically ever since. Julie notes its use for realigning joints, especially the spine and releasing trapped nerves. I’ve been adding it to all my joint tinctures and have noticed it has very positive effects in reducing “bile dumps”, which is an added digestive bonus.

When bruising is extensive and long-lasting, it is time to consider other plants to throw into the mix. Chilli, cayenne (capsicum sp.) gets blood moving at all levels. It can be very effective where bruising is deep down and can act to transport the active ingredients of other bruise herbs to help resolve the issue.

A chilli tincture is easy to make, but care must be taken to have the room well ventilated and wear gloves if possible. I made my tincture from Scotch Bonnets, chopping them in the processor before adding the vodka. When the top of the processor was removed, the airborne particle affected my eyes so badly, I had to open the kitchen window and then lie down for half an hour before I could carry on!

When I was treating my husband for extensive bruising and a swollen knee after an altercation with a ball during Walking Football, I only had chili in tincture form, so that went into his thrice daily medicine and ginger oil was added to his bruise salve.

A very effective herb for use with children and vulnerable elders is daisy. The flowers and leaves combine to make a double infused oil which can be made into a salve on its own or mixed with self-heal (prunella vulgaris) or mugwort (artemisia vulgaris).

Many people rely on homeopathic arnica for bruising. It is very effective and easily available from all chemists. You can make your own tincture if you have access to the arnica plant but remember it is poisonous and should only be applied externally in drop doses rubbed into the skin.

In conclusion, the body will heal any bruises it sustains but there are a number of plants which can help support and speed up the process.


Bruton-Seal, J and Seal, M The Herbalist’s Bible Merlin Unwin Books 2014

Bruton-Seal, J and Seal, M Wayside Medicine Merlin Unwin Books 2017

Gibbs, J. A  A Cotswold Village Nonsuch Publishing 2005

Warren-Davis, D ‘Reflections on Solomon Seal’ from A Welsh Herbal | Facebook







Friday, 21 October 2022

Planning for the future

My blog has been quiet for a long time. With everything going on in my life it was hard to find the energy and enthusiasm to create new articles of interest to both me and my readership.

The pandemic affected everyone. Lockdown should have meant less responsibilities, less travelling around the country but it didn’t. We survived 2020 with all our families intact and new friendships forged through building our local community. 2021 was a different matter. We lost seven people dear to us, including my oldest friend, who spent her life fighting for the rights of asylum seekers.

My father-in-law also left us at the age of 94 after a short illness in January 2021. His death meant we had to clear his home in Surrey after a lifetime of living and travelling around the world. We sold the house in October but still have a number of items filling our house and a lock-up waiting for attention.

My father was slowly deteriorating over the two years and needed more care, mostly provided by my sister and myself plus three local carers. Staying at the farm for three days out of every fortnight plus extra visits during hospital appointments or emergencies ate into our time and energies.

My 88-year-old uncle left us in February this year and my father, now 93, followed him in July as the hay was being harvested in the fields around him. The world has changed forever and currently we are stuck in limbo until probate has been completed.

As if that weren’t enough, we also suffered a serious burglary at our house whilst we were away on holiday in Cornwall, four days after my father’s funeral. The added stress has not helped anything.

However, on the bright side, we envisage the Sanctuary staying with us for the foreseeable future. This year’s festival was small but enjoyable and my arm was twisted to begin the apprenticeship again next January. More details can be found on the apprenticeship page of this blog

Herbs have continued to be my lifeline. Without their support and calming effects, I doubt I could manage to achieve everything I do. We take a daily tonic, tweaked to address any current difficulties. Chris has hawthorn, dandelion, nettle root and willowherb/saw palmetto, while mine is vervain, lemon balm, SJW, motherwort, Solomon seal, agrimony, plantain and I’ve just added black cohosh to try and deal with solid hip muscles. Skullcap is my saviour when times are very hard.

Chris managed to fall onto the ball during walking football at the beginning of July resulting in a seriously swollen knee with bruising which reached first the top of his leg and then went down to his ankle. Luckily, nothing was torn or broken.

The swelling dissipated along with the bruising thanks to an arsenal of bruise and anti-inflammatory herbs (initially plantain, yarrow, comfrey, Solomon seal and agrimony, followed by chilli to address the deep internal bruising) delivered in tincture form three times a day and a salve rubbed on when needed. He lost no mobility, for which we were very grateful.

Thanks to help from friends over the summer, we were able to bring the Sanctuary back to life, planting calendula and ashwagandha beds and bringing in new respiratory herbs and nervines.

The autumn has been filled with harvesting and processing. All our apple, pear and quince trees produced bumper crops this year, resulting in many hours spent making jams, jellies, cordials, stewed fruits, puddings and liquors.

Pear cordial

An amount of pears, peeled and sliced

Spices (cinnamon, ginger, 3-6 cloves, star anise)

Zested lemon peel

Place the pears, spices and zest of the lemon in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil with the lid on and simmer until soft. Put all the contents of the pan through a sieve and measure the result. Clean the saucepan and return the seievd remains. For every pint(litre) of “stewed pear”, add 1lb(1kg) of sugar. Add heat and stir gently until the sugar is fully dissolved and the cordial has just come to the boil. Pour into sterilised bottles. Seal, label and date. Keep in the fridge once opened.

This cordial can be used as a hot drink with boiling water. I find all cordials too sweet so like to add the juice of half a lemon to the mixture. It can also be poured over ice cream or other desserts or used as a sweetener for porridge.

The hedgerows have also been offering abundant haws, sloes, conkers and enormous rosehips. The haws are steeping in brandy, sloes I left for the birds this year as my shelves are still full of sloe gin! I still have to make a double infused horse chestnut oil and the rosehips are sitting in the dehydrator waiting to be tested for moisture after several days drying.

Horse chestnut double infused oil

An amount of conkers

Sunflower oil

Double boiler.

Place the conkers inside a robust bag and bash them with a large hammer on a suitable surface until smashed into small pieces. Divide your pieces into two piles. Place the first pile in the top of a double boiler and cover with sunflower oil. Fill the bottom saucepan with hot water and heat on your lowest heat for two hours after bringing the water to a boil. Make sure the saucepan doesn’t boil dry at any time.

After two hours, strain the oil and retain it. Compost the spent conkers. Place the second pile of conker pieces in the top of the double boiler and pour over the single infused oil. Heat for another two hours. Strain the oil into a container and leave it to sit for a while or overnight. Compost the spent conkers. Pour the double infused horse chestnut oil into a sterilised, wide mouthed jam jar, seal, label and date. Keep in a cool, dark place. It should keep for at least two years, if not longer. If you pour it into a bottle it will go off sooner.

Next week will see the root harvest. Solomon seal needs weeding and probably a few roots harvested for tincture and oil. Dandelions are definitely on my agenda as my stock of dried roots has diminished and some tincture is due. I’ll search for burdock but have already made some leaf tincture which should be sufficient this year. The weather has continued mild, so the ashwagandha may be left for another month and the first frost.

Life goes on. I’m still teaching piano to my ten pupils. The oldest have been passed to my daughter for the higher grades and new “tinys” have appeared to fill the gaps, with all the enthusiasm and exuberance five year olds bring to a new adventure!

Novel writing also continues. I’m now working on the third story about children in Roelswick set in 2007.

We continue to travel hopefully and look forward to meeting new herb lovers along the way. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

More quince recipes

Back in 2008, I wrote about my new quince tree and its first harvest of five large quinces. The tree is now established and after several lean years, it has gone back to its former munificence, providing us with two large pickings of fruit which weigh at least 1lb each. A mature tree can produce nearly one hundred fruit.

It’s hard to know what to make with such quantities, so I have been scouring the modern and ancient recipe books to discover new ways of preserving the delicious flavour.

 (I’m not American, so I don’t finish any of my jams or jellies in a water bath. There’s no need. The sugar acts as a preservative. If you reduce the amount of sugar, then you may need to use a different method to ensure the jelly will keep safely.)

Quince Chips (from the receipt book of Lady Anne Blencowe interpreted by Christina Stapley)


Golden castor sugar

Large ovenproof dish

Pan of boiling water

Place whole quinces into a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for one minute then remove. Peel, core and slice the quinces thinly. Scatter them with golden castor sugar one at a time so they don’t become discoloured as they are exposed to the air. Lay the quince slices onto a large, ovenproof dish, turn them and scatter with sugar again. Place the dish over a pan of boiling water until the sugar has melted. Spoon all the melted sugar and the quince slices into the centre of the dish and heat until the sugar forms thick, white foam. Having made sure the quince slices are covered with syrup, set them one at a time at the edge of the dish to dry a little, before dipping them again. When the slices have taken up all the syrup, remove the dish from the heat and set the quince chips in a warm place to dry before packing in boxes.


Quince jelly



Spices (Ginger, 3-6 cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon) optional

Muslin and either somewhere to hang it from or a large frame

Small, sterilised jam jars and lids

Remove any brown sections from the quinces and chop into small pieces. If you are just making jelly, you don’t need to peel and core the fruit. If you want the flesh to make membrillo, then do this first. Place the chopped fruit in a large stainless steel pan.

Cover the fruit with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer on the lowest heat for up to five hours. Place the muslin over a separate basin or large saucepan, making sure you can retrieve the four corners of the muslin. Lift up the muslin and either attach to a frame or suspend from a hook (I use the handle of the extractor fan above the hob). Tie the ends of the muslin securely and leave to drip overnight.

The next morning, either compost the spent quince flesh or set it aside to make the membrillo.

Measure the amount of liquid and return it to a suitably large saucepan. Add either one pound of sugar per pint of liquid or 1kg of sugar per litre of liquid. Bring to a rolling boil stirring continuously for at least ten minutes then test for a setting point every five minutes. Quince jelly can be cantankerous. Don’t be surprised if it takes at least half an hour to reach a set. Don’t walk away in despair and leave it on a high heat. It will boil over. (Ask me how I know this!) Once a set is reached, pour the jelly into small, sterilised jam jars and seal the lids.

Quince cheese from ‘The Complete Book of Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit’ by Biggs, McVicar and Flowerdew

2lbs quince

2 lbs sugar

1 small unwaxed orange

1 or 2 drops orange flower or rose petal water (optional)

Roughly chop the quinces into pieces. Finely chop the orange and simmer both together with just enough water to cover them until they are a pulp. Strain the pulp and add its own weight in sugar. Bring to the boil and cook gently for approximately 1 ½ hrs. Add the orange or rose water if desired. Then pot into warm, oiled pots, seal and store for three months or more before using. Turn the cheese out of the bowl and slice for serving with cooked meats or savoury dishes.

Two recipes from the New Edition of Mrs Beeton’s Every Day Cookery given to my great-aunt for Christmas in 1931

Quince Blancmange

1lb ripe quinces

6 ozs castor sugar

¾ oz gelatine

¼ pt double cream

1pt water

Peel and core the quinces, simmer them in the water until quite soft and broken but not reduced to a pulp. Strain through a jelly bag. Replace the liquor in the pan, add the sugar and the gelatine previously soaked in a little cold water. Stir and boil gently until the gelatine is dissolved. When cool, add the cream, mix well and turn into a mould, rinsed with cold water. Serves 4-5.

Quince Marmalade

To each lb of quince pulp allow ¾ lb loaf sugar or preserving sugar. If making apple and quince marmalade, use equal parts of quince and apple puree.

Pare the fruit then place in a preserving pan with as much water as will just cover the bottom of the pan and stew gently until reduced to a pulp. Pass through a sieve. Weigh the pulp, put it back into the cleaned pan, add the sugar and cook very gently until the marmalade sets quickly when tested on a cold plate. Place in sterilised jam jars, seal and date.

When I made this, I failed to read the instructions correctly (always a good start!). I simmered the quince for one and a half hours until it was well stewed but didn’t pass it through a sieve. I added a heaped pint measure of quince to the same amount of apple, then brought it to a rolling boil for ten minutes and didn’t turn the heat off during the five minutes it took to cool and set like concrete on a cold saucer. It was beginning to catch on the bottom of the pan but didn’t ruin the marmalade. It tastes great!

Quince Vodka



Spices (optional)


Large clean glass jam jars with lids

Peel and core the quinces and chop or slice into small pieces suitable to fill the jam jar. Pour in some sugar depending how sweet you like your liqueur. Add spices. (I usually just add ginger and a few cloves so the flavour of the quince isn’t hidden.) Add vodka, removing any air bubbles and dissolving the sugar by podging with a chopstick. Seal, label and date. Keep in a cool dark place for three months or longer. This recipe can be made with layers of quince and pear or quince and apple.

Several family members and friends much prefer gin to vodka and several have diabetes so this year I have put up some Quince Gin without any sweetening.

Quince Gin

Peel, core and chop enough quinces to fill a large jam jar. Add chopped root ginger and a star anise plus 3-5 cloves. Fill the jar with gin, stirring well to remove air bubbles. Seal, label and date and leave in a cool, dark place until Christmas. Decant and serve.

Quince Ratafia (recipe provided by Jane Birkett)

1 large quince

1 large jam jar

Brown sugar

1/4tsp each cinnamon, ginger and mace

Vodka or brandy

Wash quince to remove fur. Grate quince without peeling or coring into a jar. Fill one third of the way up the jar with brown sugar. Add spices and spirit. Stir to remove air bubbles and dissolve sugar. Seal, label and date. Leave in a dark place for at least a month. 2-3 months is best.



Saturday, 27 November 2021

A week in the life of a Herbwife

Winter stores are hard to quantify. I know in my head what lies on each larder shelf. There are two for oils, one for infused honeys, four for dried herbs, two for vinegars, half a shelf for flower essences, and the rest are tinctures, elixirs and liqueurs. Once upon a time, everything was in alphabetical order but that disappeared when space was at a premium or others helpfully returned jars to gaps rather than their homes. Most bottles and jars are labelled with a date of production but there are still a couple I have yet to either identify or throw out.

Some herbalists were talking recently about using the quiet time of winter to catch up on their herbal inventories. This has been one of my goals for many years but I doubt if it will be crossed off the list any time soon. My larder is full. The only way a new jar finds a place on a shelf is if another is removed. Any new preparation takes twice as long because something else must either be emptied, amalgamated or thrown away.

Saturday and Sunday were spent digging more roots. My long-suffering husband volunteered to do battle with nettle roots, which seemed only right as the prostate support medicine is for him. I attacked the first year angelica plants, removing six and leaving others to grow for another season. Then I tackled Solomon seal, quite a feat when the whole neglected bed is covered with nettles, hogweed and other unmentionables. I unearthed six roots, leaving the rest for another year.

One thing you notice when harvesting roots is the condition of the soil. The angelica was covered in a sticky, wet, dark brown, not surprising when the bed is below the spring line where clay meets limestone. The horseradish was in a completely different medium, the dry, light brown particles falling away from the stones as I dug down beside the wall.

Two hours spent removing four kinds of roots followed by another two on Monday scrubbing horseradish, Solomon seal and angelica before leaving it to air dry overnight.

The plan was to make tinctures with angelica, Solomon seal and nettle and a new batch of fire cider vinegar with the horseradish. I’d forgotten angelica needs overproof rum for its menstruum but luckily two bottles arrived back with the Monday shopping alongside more vodka. Anyone who didn’t know me would think I had a problem…!

Tuesday morning began with decanting two jars of hawthorn berry brandy and last year’s angelica root harvest. One of the  hawthorn jars contained quite a lot of gelatinous precipitate which I wasn’t expecting as the haws had been harvested before any whiff of frost. After discussion, it appears that hawthorn contains more pectin than either apples or lemons. So much so, the scientists are preparing to use it in developing new food preparations and drugs. (Take a look at the article here.)

To alleviate the problem, I washed the haws with extra brandy and added it to the tincture, which seems to have settled into liquid form. Hawthorn jelly is now on my list to make.

Every decanted tincture needs to be tasted. When you first start making medicines, this really helps to identify new tastes but it’s also helpful in deciding whether the season is a good one for that plant. This was my first ever batch of angelica root. It was possibly the worst tincture I’d ever tasted, probably not helped by leaving the roots in alcohol for a year. (We weren’t ill last year so I didn’t need it.) It was bitter, incredibly strong and tasted “black” with no discernible sweetness from the rum and not a great deal of the expected angelica scent. Interestingly, half an hour after swallowing the disgusting liquid, I realised my mouth was no longer burning and I really felt quite well!

A spare half-hour between piano lessons found me desperately scrubbing nettle roots in failing light wishing I could see better! Nevertheless, the amount I laid out to air dry on the kitchen table overnight was just enough to fill two large jars the following morning.

The final preparation from the weekend haul on Wednesday was a nasturtium leaf tincture, from a chance visit to my aunt and uncle the previous Friday. Nasturtiums have been very late growing this year and I only had one plant self-seed, which wasn’t enough to do anything with. Nasturtiums not only provide colour in a garden, peppery leaves for salads and seeds for false capers, they are a powerful anti-viral and have a special affinity for respiratory issues. My aunt had two plants curling their way along her beech hedge. She had no objections to my harvesting the hand-sized leaves which yielded enough to make a small jar of tincture.

Next on the list were ashwagandha roots from the garden. The forecast for the end of the week was very cold with the possibility of snow as well as frosts. Thursday sunshine dried the washing and threats of overnight rain decided me to grab a thick coat and wellingtons as light faded. The ashwagandha plants were happy to be removed. Those planted late into the middle raised bed were already leafless with small roots. They never grow as well in this cooler environment but even an inch of root provides a useful yield from thirty plants.

Most leaves of the plants in the large pots on the patio were still vibrantly green with secondary leaves already growing. Their roots were at least two inches long with a frenzy of rootlets. The cherry shells were nowhere near ripe, so those stems were cut to live in the kitchen window sill until they transform. Friends came to play with the model trains in the loft on Friday and they were more than happy to take part of the root harvest home with them.

A busy week beginning with roots and ending with spices when I prepared two curries from scratch for our Friday night meal. They all provide harvests to sustain us through the winter and hope to see us through the long, cold months ahead.


Monday, 8 November 2021

Digging for winter health

“What can I forage now?” someone asked recently.

My response was all about roots. This time of year, dandelions tubers swell from seasonal photosynthesis, summer sweetness locked within their fibres. First year burdock, mullein and angelica can be harvested for drying or tincturing. It’s too late if you gather the remains of plants which have already flowered, the roots have sent up all their “goodness/virtue” into flowers and seeds.

Seeds can be gathered as long as they are black and ripe. Mullein seeds are tiny. It’s best to put the whole flowering stalk inside a paper bag and shake vigorously if you want to keep them or maybe spread them on the ground to encourage another harvest in two years’ time.

Burdock seeds are an investment. The seed pods are guarded by sharp thorns. They are best approached with heavy gloves and when you’ve gathered enough, find a sheltered place out of the wind, a sharp stick or chopstick to poke inside the large pod and a bowl to pour the seeds into. The seeds are both nutritional and medicinal. They are best ground daily if you’re intending to eat them or used whole  in a decoction which can be divided in three parts and drunk during the day.

Burdock, like nettles, is a blood cleanser. It can be used for eczema, psoriasis, gout, liver and kidney support etc. The root is the only part not bitter, but it is diuretic. If you chew a piece of root, be prepared to find a toilet within twenty minutes. The root is also helpful in exciting a lethargic appetite, especially one dulled by a long-lasting virus. Chop the clean root into small pieces, possibly inside a muslin bag and cook it as part of a stock, soup or stew. Remove before serving.

My next planned harvest will be nettle roots. I don’t gather the golden goodness very often, but searching the larder shelves this week for another bottle of tincture to add to my husband’s daily tonic proved fruitless, so this month I shall be attacking several clumps with a garden fork. The roots are stunning. I would never have guessed their colour. It glows in autumn sunlight, providing another aspect to nettle’s cornucopia.

I learned from a former apprentice about nettle root as a powder providing extra nutritional oomph to a diet. I’ve always used it to support the prostate gland. There have been studies undertaken which show that nettle root can keep the prostate stable for many years. It seems a useful ally for all men, especially those in middle age.

Prostate cancer is as widespread as lung and breast, so every man and women who care for them need to be alert for any danger signals and seek medical advice as soon as possible.

My other root harvests are from my garden rather than the field or hedgerow. Elecampane flowers are long gone, their long stalks brown and brittle, the huge green leaves mere husks of their former green profusion. I removed all the aerial parts yesterday to fill my green bin but their roots are safe for the moment. I still have large amounts of infused honey and tincture from last year and I suspect, if I search, there will be another full jar of dried root slices to add to cough elixirs or syrups.

The honey can be given to children over two years as a prophylactic to prevent constant winter coughing. The root smells and tastes of commercial scent but it is one of the most effective cough remedy. Like mullein leaf, it drags up debris from the depths, resolving deep rooted lung infections.

Although the frost whispered on the fringes of the lawn last week, there has been nothing to prompt me to dig up the ashwagandha roots. I’m still holding on to a vain hope there may be ripe cherries in the future but I’m not holding my breath.

Roots mean hard work scrubbing with lots of water changes. I never powder them until the time that powder is needed. Powders go off quicker than anything else but properly dried and sliced roots will last for more than two years if stored in a dark place.

Although I grow marshmallow, I don’t harvest the root. The leaves are sufficient for my needs and I value my plants. The downy stems are almost bare now so I may cut them down before the solstice, rather than afterwards.

There is one root I buy. Astralagus (astralagus membranaceous) has been on my list of immune-enhancing herbs for a very long time but I’ve only been working with it for the past five or so years. It’s a native of Mongolia and China and has been used in Chinese Traditional Medicine for centuries. I’ve never seen a plant growing so I guess it may be on my list to try one of these years.

The commercial packs are full of tiny discs with an earthy smell which is not endearing but the taste doesn’t adversely affect anything to which it is added. The roots are well known immune enhancers, antiviral and antibacterial. They can be used prophylactically against colds and upper respiratory infections.

For the past few winters, I have been adding a tablespoon of it to all my stocks, soups and stews along with homemade green powder to bring our immune systems to the maximum efficiency. Along with other herbal roots, astralagus roots need to be removed before serving as they don’t break down and can’t be chewed as part of the meal. I usually place them inside a large muslin teabag which is easy take out of the liquid.

My friend, Lynne Tynan Cashmore gave me a recipe for immune-enhancing tea which is very pleasant.

1tsp dried haws

1tsp dried hips

1-2tsps dried astralagus root

Infuse for 15-20 minutes then drink.

Lynne recommends drinking a mugful of tea every day during the winter to ward off the lurgies. If you were using fresh hips and haws then you would need 1 tablespoons of each, so it is probably more efficient to dry them before use as tea, depending on how much you have been able to forage and store. 

Monday, 25 October 2021

Combing the hedgerows


My favourite place to forage in autumn is amongst the hedgerows. Whilst horse chestnuts and some of the elders are already losing leaves, other trees are turning beautiful shades of red, yellow, and purple. Garlands of crimson woody nightshade berries adorn their branches but must never be picked or tasted.

Rowan/Mountain Ash and crampbark/Guelder Rose are still holding on to their glorious red berries alongside the pink and orange clusters of the spindle tree. The first two can be made into jellies with crab-apples. Both berries are nontoxic if cooked before eating.

Rowan jelly is sometimes offered as an accompaniment to game. I have only tried the jelly once. It was too bitter for me. One of my apprentices experimented with a crampbark and crabapple jelly which was declared delicious by everyone who tasted it. It is on my list of future experiments.

Never pick spindle berries. They are poisonous.

Rowan is known for its protective properties. Crosses made from the wood are fixed with red ribbons and hung on cradles to stop the fairies from stealing or exchanging babies. The berries can also be threaded into necklaces or onto pieces of wire to strengthen the cross. They need to be dried once threaded for preservation. Strings of dried berries can also be hung on cradles, out of reach of tiny, enquiring fingers and mouths!

I have been wanting to make a rowan berry string for the past ten years, ever since Charlie Farrow first showed us how to make the rowan cross during a festival workshop. There were no berries available that year, so we made do with haws. When I finally foraged some late hanging rowan berries this weekend, I was delighted to find how easy it was to push a sharp needle through the berry and draw the thread through. My string is now hanging against a hot water tank to dry over the next few weeks.

Each autumn, I harvest rosehips, haws and purple sloes. The rosehips are full of vitamin C, their bright, scarlet clusters shine in a tantalizing glow amidst the briars. Like blackberry brambles, you forage carefully. If you don’t pay great attention, the backward thorns will extract their drop of blood or threads of fabric when you least expect it. Once caught, you cannot wrench yourself free, but must work backwards to remove the thorns before they claim a larger price.

Some of the rosehip harvest will be dried for use throughout the year. I’m not making rosehip honey this year as I haven’t started the honey I made two years ago. I am going to make some rosehip syrup and maybe add sloes to the mixture.

This is a good year for sloes. Some people like to harvest after the first frost, but you can easily mimic the cold by placing your harvest in the freezer before processing, ensuring the skins are split. Like rosehips, sloes are full of vitamin C. Their astringent nature can also help with loose stools.

Haws have become increasingly important to me over the years. Dried, they make a pleasant tea, boosting the immune system if a handful of astralagus root and rosehips are added.

Hawthorn vinegar is one of the easiest products to make, stuffing a jam jar full of haws, covering it with cider vinegar and watching the berries turn white while the vinegar takes on the soft, rose-tinged hue. It’s one of the tastier vinegars, ideal for salad dressings or as an unusual starter with crusty bread.

One of my most well-used preparations is haw brandy. I use it daily with motherwort tincture to strengthen my heart and prevent palpitations. It can also be added to tinctures made from hawthorn leaves and flowers to produce a full-spectrum medicine.

Hawthorn is all about the heart, managing fluid levels, helping the raise or lower the heart rate depending on what is needed. It can be given by a qualified herbalist to those who already take allopathic medicine for their heart condition. Offering hawthorn to lean, tall, elderly men with low blood pressure may not be a good idea. (Don’t ask them to do breathing exercises as part of relaxation techniques either – ask me how I know!)

Hawthorn has been part of our landscape for centuries. Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “hedge thorn.” The thorns are not as long and dangerous as the blackthorn, but trees have the ability to grow close to one another to provide both a barrier and shelter from strong winds.

On an energetic level, hawthorn opens the heart to the possibility of spiritual development. Its most powerful gift is the opportunity for forgiveness, both of self and others. This is especially useful during a time of grieving, where the bereaved is completely immersed in a cycle of “if only…” Spending time with a hawthorn tree can be useful but if something material is needed, then regular doses of hawthorn flower essence (4 drops under the tongue or in water three times a day or when needed) or drop doses of hawthorn flower tincture can be helpful.

An alternative point of comfort might be to offer a piece of hawthorn twig, sanded smooth and finished with a smear of salve or sunflower oil for the grieving person to use as a “meditation aid” or “worry stick.” The precise term is immaterial, whatever enables the individual to accept the gift or maybe make one for themselves.

Berries are not the only harvest from the hedgerows. On my way out of a nearby stand of trees, I noticed dogwood and crampbark leaves colouring the grass alongside two rowan trees. The leaves found their way into my basket, together with several bunches of rowan berries. These have been used to create two colourful plates for Samhain. It feels good to be inspired after such a long absence!