Tuesday 29 April 2008

Developing relationships

Getting to know a plant is a continuing joy. It doesn’t happen quickly, but over a period of several years, circumstances enable you to meet them in many different guises.

Last year, nettle was the herb which really showed me a wealth of different perspectives. Nettle has always been the first fresh herb tea I make each year. When March arrives it is the only green growth with sufficient profusion to gather for tea. It tastes wonderful, freshly brewed and hot, to be sipped and savoured with your hands cupped around the mug to gather warmth into yourself.

Nettle soup is always a favourite and this year I experimented with adding it to sweet potatoes and cardamom pods which was a great hit with everyone.

1 large sweet potato (peeled and sliced)
One colander full of fresh nettle tops
1 onion (peeled and chopped)
2 leeks (washed and sliced)
3 carrots (scraped and sliced)
6 green cardamom seeds
1 inch of root ginger (peeled and chopped) (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste.
1oz butter

Sweat the onion and leeks in the butter in a large (5pint) saucepan until soft. Add the rest of the vegetables and cover with either cold or boiling water. Season. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. When the vegetables are soft, remove the cardamom seeds and liquidise. Serve with fresh, granary bread.

So far this year I have put up nettle tincture and nettle vinegar which are awaiting decanting. On Saturday night I picked a whole basket of nettles from the bottom of the garden and tonight I shall put them into a paper bag to sit in the hot cupboard in the kitchen until they are dry. I’m looking forward to the summer when I shall try tincturing some fresh nettle seeds and drying others, to add to my porridge and yoghurt when I feel especially run down.

In the autumn I shall dig more nettle roots to make tincture for Chris.

Dandelion is another plant which has thrust itself into my notice over the past few months. I have always eaten the leaves in salads and sandwiches during the spring and summer, but I’ve not prepared a great deal of dried root or fresh leaf tincture.

In January, I braved the biting winds to dig plump roots to make tincture. It had a definite, sweet aftertaste. Easter saw me picking young, fresh leaves for drying in the bitter winds and snow. I’m now using these in my daily work tea alongside other, nourishing and soothing herbs. I shall need to pick more to both dry and tincture, to add to the jar which is already macerating in the larder.

Eating dandelion flowers has been another first for me this year. I’ve also made a beautiful, yellow mixed flower and leaf oil and salve and a subtle flower, sweet Cecily and cardomon syrup which is great on my morning porridge. I want to repeat both oil and syrup using just dandelion flowers which will mean a significant picking foray in the field this weekend.

Dandelion Flower Salve
4oz fresh dandelion flowers
Enough sunflower oil to cover 2oz of flowers (around 8 fluid ounces)
Either a double saucepan or a stainless steel pot with a lid small enough to place inside another saucepan.
1.25oz beeswax (sufficient to thicken 8 fl ozs of infused herbal oil)

Place half of the flowers in the inner pan and cover with sunflower oil. Replace the lid firmly and place inside the other saucepan which is about half filled with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for two hours. Do not let the pan boil dry! Remove the inner pan and strain off the oil through a sieve, squeezing the flowers with a wooden spoon to remove as much oil as possible. Place the remainder of the dandelion flowers in the inner pan and pour over the oil from the first infusion. Replace the lid firmly and heat the oil in the outer pan for a further two hours. Strain the oil into a clean glass jar and cap with a screw top lid. Label and date. Let the infused oil sit for about three days to make sure any water content separates out. Decant oil, discarding the oil/water mixture at the bottom of the jar. If water drops are left in the infused oil it will go off more quickly.

To make the oil into a salve, pour 8 oz oil into the inner pan of the double saucepan. and heat. Grate the beeswax into the hot infused oil and stir with a wooden spoon until it melts. Test the thickness of the salve by dropping a few drops into a small cup of cold water then rubbing it between your thumb and fingers. If it is not thick enough, add more wax. When it reaches a suitable consistency, pour into small jars and seal. The salve will thicken and change colour on cooling. Use dandelion flower salve to nourish breast tissue.

The third herb which has been attracting my attention this year has been bramble. I’ve known for some time that bramble leaves could help stomach upsets, but apart from the odd tea with leaves or blackberries, I’ve never paid the plant much heed. Bramble briars have been something to attack and remove from my gardens before they take over any available space. I leave any briars which flower in the hope I’ll benefit from the resulting blackberries in the autumn.

It was Joyce Wardwell’s book, “The Herbal Home Remedy Book: Simple Recipes for Tinctures, Teas, Salves, Wines and Syrups” which gave me confidence to get to know bramble at a deeper level. She has a recipe for bramble root vinegar, which is apparently a well-known American home recipe for diarrhoea. Someone else on Henriette’s herblist recently posted that she tried the vinegar for her IBS flare up and found immediate relief from the pain.

It seemed strange making a root tincture at the Spring Equinox, when it is an activity I usually keep for the Autumn Equinox. Studying roots always seems to me to provide an opportunity for considering wholeness and balance because you are considering the entire plant, not just the aerial parts, which is often the case during the rest of the year.

It was such a privilege handling the spring roots of bramble. You could see the old, hard wood of the previous year and the new, red-tinged shoots of new growth. It gave me a totally new perspective on Spring and on this plant.

The original jar of vinegar was ready to decant on Sunday. I’d added the shell of a hard boiled egg to increase the mineral content. It completely disappeared and I forgot I’d added it to the roots until I read the label! The vinegar is very dark and earthy. I strained it carefully because there was still soil on the roots despite all my scrubbing! It tasted rich with a sweet afternote which was not unpleasant. Normally, tasting neat herbal vinegar makes your mouth pucker, but this one didn’t, which surprised me, especially as I was expecting a degree of astringency!

There were more stray brambles in the garden, so I decided to dig them up and make another vinegar using both the new leaves and the roots. Again, it was an amazing experience sitting on the warm patio in the sunshine stroking the velvet softness of the new leaves and combing my fingers through the root hairs before I scrubbed them.

Bramble vinegar
Dig up at least six bramble roots. Cut the new leaves from any briars before discarding. Remove excess soil from roots then scrub in cold water until all soil is removed. Rinse roots in fresh water and chop into small, 1 inch pieces with secuteurs. Place bramble leaves in a large glass jar (2lbs) and snip with long scissors. Add the root pieces and cover with cider vinegar. Poke well with a chopstick to remove air bubbles and fill the jar again so no part of the root or leaf is exposed to the air. Label and date. Place in a warm, dark place for three weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain off all the roots and leaves, squeezing leaves to remove excess vinegar. Strain the vinegar again through a fine sieve or kitchen paper to remove any soil. Pour into clean bottle with screw top lid. Label and date. Use in salad dressings or with honey and boiling water to make a soothing drink.

Someone on the Herbwifery Forum recently said they believed brambles to be vicious and unforgiving. I know that’s true, but on Sunday I was able to experience a more gentle side to the plant which David Attenborough highlighted in his “Secret life of plants” as the most efficient and aggressive coloniser of any free space.

Friday 25 April 2008

When the river disappears

It’s been a difficult week.

I could blame exhaustion from four weeks preparing for and rushing around the country – two conferences in London and Coventry, followed by presenting four bereavement workshops in Birmingham, Grimsby, Brigg and Goole, a training session on NHS complaints in London then a meeting with my boss in Sheffield. Out of work has been just as busy with three healer teaching/supervision/demonstration sessions, a weekend digging my herb garden in the Cotswolds followed by a family party in Surrey last weekend.

I could also blame my hormones, which were supposed to have settled into their new, lower levels, but my body decided otherwise, leaving me weeping in the toilets yesterday morning wondering if tears were a good enough excuse to go home and sleep for the rest of the day!

At times like these I think back to the lyrics of The Squonk by Genesis http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/g/genesis1632/squonk76811.html
I have always identified with the creature, wondering if one day I shall be the one tied up in the sack leaving only a pool of tears as a legacy!

Thinking rationally, I know how much I have to be grateful for, especially when I hear other people’s stories either first hand or on the news. The recent deaths in Redditch must be touching every parent of an adult child with learning disabilities who wonder if they, too, might find themselves in a similar situation one day if their capacity for caring reaches a place of no return.

One of my tasks this week is to put together a list of support organisations for a young mum who had a stillbirth and is now pregnant again. I was very heartened to see the discussion forums now available online which were not around when my children were born or when my mother suffered her miscarriages. Knowing you are not alone in your suffering and fears is often half the battle.

Being alone was something mentioned by a gentleman I met last night at my local cancer support group. I’d been contacted a week ago by the booked speaker who could not attend because her mother, who suffers with Alzheimers, had fallen and needed 24 hour care until she was back on her feet again.

As a group, we have been wanting to offer healing to people with cancer for many years, but the opportunity hasn’t materialised. It was a wonderful evening. I spoke for fifteen minutes or so and then we broke into groups and everyone who wanted healing was able to receive it. Each healer had four “patients” – around 20 people. Everyone said what a different evening it had been and how much they enjoyed it.

While I was waiting to begin, I dropped into conversation with someone who had been given a 12-month prognosis. He looked very frail, talking about losing his confidence, not being able to work and generally not knowing what to do. There was a flipchart in the corner of the room, so I drew him a picture of the river of life model of loss and bereavement. I first came across this at a Brake training day on understanding bereavement and have been using it in my workshops ever since. People love it because it describes the process so simply and they are able to recognise where they are in relation to the whirlpool of emotions and moving backwards and forwards into the new river of life.

When he saw the diagram, the gentleman mentioned how he had been trying to climb back up the waterfall to regain his original river, which is something many people do before they accept it is not possible. I suggested he try to concentrate on thinking only of one day at a time, or if that were too difficult, just the current hour and forget about the timescale he had been given.

I never know whether the words I offer people are helpful. It only seems important that I say them rather than leaving them unsaid and wishing afterwards I had done so.

Another good thing from last night was meeting some of the Reiki healers who offer regular healing to the group. One of them expressed an interest in herbs, so maybe I shall have another healer at my herb workshops!

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Tasting the Garden

Chris was away painting the caravan last night, so I walked home from the station in glorious sunshine and was able to go out into the garden to survey what might be around to make up the accompanying salad for my macaroni cheese.

Dandelions were everywhere, many with golden flowers fully open to embrace the sunshine. I was looking at one of Susun Weed's site's recently where she talked about eating the flowers as well as the leaves, so I picked several to see what they might contribute.

The sorrel was also growing in great profusion with far less half eaten leaves than normal, so I picked a handful of those as well. Behind the well cropped Mexican orange tree was a mass of new violet leaves. Every time I've looked at them since December, the leaves have been eaten and sparse, even when the violet flowers were blooming, but now, since the flowers have gone over, it seems the plants have put all their energy into growing new leaves! There has been a lot of discussion about violet leaves on the Herbwifery Forum with many contributors mentioning that they used the leaves in salads or to make tea. They have all commented on how mucilagenous the leaves are, which I couldn't quite get my head around since they look exactly the same as most leaves which are definitely not mucilagenous.

I've only ever made infused oil with the leaves and have never been tempted to eat them, but this time I thought I would take the plunge. I picked a leaf and chewed it. It was a total revelation! There was little actual flavour, but it wasn't unpleasant and as I chewed it, I could feel the strands of mucilage developing in my mouth. Now I know what everyone else was talking about! I felt like dancing around the garden shouting "I know what mucilagenous means!" Of course, I didn't - I'm far too quiet and reserved for that!

The lemon balm is also growing well, so several shoots were added to the salad mix. It took me a while to find the "Jack by the hedge". The plants were hiding at the back of blackcurrant bush but flowering although they were only about 18 inches high - very small compared with the 3-4 feet they reach in summer. Debs admonished me for pulling them all up when she visited last year, so again, I took the plunge and chewed some leaves. They were amazing - full of flavour with a faint garlic tang to it. The large leaves also went into the salad mix!

A few sprigs of St John's wort and mint completed my gathering. My garden tour showed up how much weeding I still have to do as the creeping buttercup and hedge woundwort have really taken over some patches. It was lovely to see the new pansies still blooming everywhere and the new stocks are also beginning to flower. The new leaves of the goldenseal are beginning to unfurl and the black cohosh has uncurled its leaves. Maybe on Sunday it will be dry enough to get out and attach things with a fork!

Later on, I made up some new tincture concoctions for myself and Chris, since both our bottles were empty. Mine has a mixture of hawthorn flower, nettle, burdock, vervain, cleavers and dandelion root with a couple of teaspoons of rue and horsechestnut seed. Chris' is more straightforward - hawthorn flower, nettle root and a touch of dandelion root. We take a small dose at breakfast in orange juice to accompany our porridge.

Monday 21 April 2008

Being passionate in public

I was going to write about actually spending a week without doing anything herbal, but I realised that wasn't the case - it was just my memory failing me!

I had two evenings to myself last week while Chris went down to the farm to do more work on our ancient caravan. It's a 1957 Paladin Buccaneer which his parents bought from new. They towed it all round Scotland and half of Europe. We took it over in 1987 with the proviso there might be "a little bit of damp rot in the one corner". When Chris and my father started taking it apart, the whole framework crumbled to dust and had to be completely rebuilt. Inside we also put a large fridge, eye-level (if you're very small) grill and a three burner hob which has enabled to me to provide several 3-course meals for 11 people. It's the only one of its kind still on the road.

Two years after rebuilding, we then had one of the wheels sheer off on the motorway, so that was another building project, with a new shassy and floor, but still our wonderful caravan. It has returned to Scotland, when 6 of us slept inside during one night at Loch Lomand (Kathryn was in her carrycot on the sink!) and spent twenty years trundling down to Cornwall and various other amazing places. The kids soon graduated to beds in the awning and then tents of their own, but now we have it all to ourselves which enables us to keep the double bed set up and still have a table to sit at and admire the view.

Two years ago the skylight started to leak into the sink and we noticed that when there was torrential rain there would be a slight damp patch on our jumpers in the top of the wardrobee. Chris decided this winter would be a restorative one, so once again the roof has been removed, new insulation laid and everything re-sealed within an inch of it's life! He's now at the rubbing down stage prior to starting painting this week, so it will be ready to take to Exmouth at the end of May.

So, while he was busy re-sealing the caravan roof in the Cotswolds, I took advantage of his absence to make another mess on the kitchen table. On Wednsday night, there was very little debris as I merely heated up the dandelion flower and leaf oil I'd made on Sunday with beeswax to make a wonderful yellow salve. It even smells faintly of dandelion flowers!

On Thursday night, after teaching my piano pupils, it was nettle tincture and the nettle/apricot/orange peel iron tonic I was decanting. The tincture was poured into an old malt whiskey bottle with a label to discourage people from thinking there might still be something aromatic inside! The iron tonic was a beautiful red colour from the mixture of red wine and madiera. (I can never write or say madiera without thinking of Michael Flander's wonderful inebriated rake in the song "Have some madiera, m'dear!". I knew the song before the wine!) The tonic dregs tasted good and so did the infused apricot pieces.

I made the iron tonic for my niece, Jennifer, who suffered really badly with anaemia last year. I was expecting to be able to give it to her during the family party in Surrey to celebrate her mother's 50th birthday, but she was busy playing corfball in Cardiff and didn't attend, so I don't know when she'll get it. Her grandmother also muttered darkly that her anaemia was "not the usual kind", so I don't know if it will be useful or not. The family all treat my herbal exploits with grave suspicion, so I doubt it will be viewed with any degree of seriousness, which is a shame, because it's Christopher Hedley's recipe so I know it would be efficacious.

During the party, I happened to mention something about nettle soup, which drew the attention of a group of my sister-iin-law's friends, who asked what it tasted like. I made my usual suggestions (i.e. it depends what other vegetables and herbs you cook it with) and then began to tell them all about nettles and how the different parts can be used for different things in different forms. One of them commented on my passion for my subject and I realised it was true. I only have to be given the opportunity to wax lyrical about herbs and I can bore people for hours!

One of the friends asked for suggestions for irritable bowel, so I mentioned marshmallow and slippery elm. None of them had heard of the latter and thought I was talking about a new breed of owl! Interestingly, when I got home, Henriette's email list was discussing management of this painful and debilitating condition and there were many really useful suggestions. I may put it all together and send it to him.

One woman found that a few drops of her bramble root vinegar really dealt with the pain she was suffering from. My first batch of this vinegar is now awaiting straining, which may actually happen this weekend as Sunday is amazingly free of commitments! I'm really looking forward to seeing if it can help my difficult times when my stomach decides it doesn't love me any more!

I do hope the warmer weather arrives soon. I did go out on Thursday evening when I got home from work to look at the new herbs I planted last Sunday evening, but they showed little change and I could only see one of the two black cohosh - which was a little worrying! I am determined not to put slug pellets down this year as the frogs are already in the garden and I don't want to risk hurting them. I shall be very upset if the slugs eat everything!

Tuesday 8 April 2008

An Evening Muse

If I listen carefully, the gentle hum of a computer could be interpreted as a log fire without the sparks and crackles. In my mind I can be transported to my perfect room - a sitting room with thick walls and cushion- covered window seats looking out onto a cottage garden filled with herbs. In the room would be a collection of sofas and comfy chairs and a large oak desk where I could sit and write in the afternoon sun.

On the right hand wall would be an open fireplace, apple logs merrily burning in the grate, the red and green tinged flames dancing their way up the chimney.

I have always had this dream of a room to escape to, where I could curl up and read or sit and write without being disturbed or made to feel guilty for indulging myself rather than doing something more practical and worthwhile. The strange thing is, I know I shall never have a room remotely like it. It is a wish conjured from a similar room described by Elizabeth Goudge in "The Rosemary Tree" and the lounge of the cottage where I lived for my first six years. We never had an open fire there, only a small electric two-bared fire and rarely used the room in winter, preferring the warmth of the kitchen instead.

The good thing about being a romantic is you can always escape somewhere else, but I know my feet are firmly planted on the ground.

I ordered my annual indulgence of new herbs from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery yesterday evening. I have reclaimed a flower bed from the ivy and hope to make a home for six golden seal plants if the slugs don't feast too much and too often. The bed is overhung by the hawthorn hedge and a vibernum bush, so it seemed the perfect woodland environment for them. I shall also plant a couple of black cohosh as I adore their stately flowers in the early autumn.

Apart from a roseroot, the rest of my order is fairly mundane, replacing herbs I've lost or want to try again - hyssop, white horehound, roman wormwood, elecampagne, some marchmallow and calamus to plant by the stream and pokeroot to learn more about. I shall also experiment with some celtic valerian at home - just because it loves acid soil and I like the idea of it.

If I think too much about the weather over the past month, I shall weep. This time last year we were digging the main herb beds in our t-shirts, enjoying the sunshine. On Sunday morning, our lawn was covered with at least two inches of snow and it is still bitterly cold tonight. I can't even think about the possibility of sowing seeds or even an eventual harvest of anything which isn't perrenial and frost hardy!

Ah well, time for some more tea!

Thursday 3 April 2008

Waving for a reason!

When Ananda suggested the topic of plant divas and energetic connections with plants for the April Herbwifery Forum blog party, I knew I wanted to be involved. The only problem was not having a blog. This prevented me from participating in the nettle party in March, so I really didn’t want to miss out again!

So, a new month, a new blog and some thoughts about my relationships with the plants I work with. I suspect they would say the relationship is very one sided – they do all the work, I just come along and smile at them or harvest them and very occasionally pass the odd comment while I’m nearby. I’m very bad at making time to be quiet, alone and do nothing else but pay attention.

Occasionally they take me to task, shouting their message until even I am forced to listen and take action. Here are a couple of stories about messages I’ve received.

I’m very fortunate to have been given some land to grow my herbs. It’s a small glade at the bottom of a field in the Cotswolds. You can see what I do there on http://www.springfieldsanctuary.co.uk/ . About two years ago, when times were particularly stressful, I’d gone for an energy field healing from a friend. She gave me some Goddess cards to work with, which seemed helpful. It gave me the idea of dedicating the Sanctuary to a particular Goddess.

I wasn’t sure which one to choose, so I thought I would ask the Sanctuary itself. It was a glorious, hot summer day and for a short while I was on my own. I lay down on the warm, dry soil and asked my question. The answer I received was couched in a somewhat ironic chuckle. “There is no need for an identified Goddess; this whole place is nematon – sacred space.” I realised I should have known this all along – it was not for me to force my will on a place, but to respect what was already here.

The first plant to draw my attention was yarrow (Achillea millefolium). He and I go back a long way – a plant of my childhood which was always there during the summer. The first year I grew herbs in the sanctuary there was a group of wild yarrow growing by the fence. It was not really large enough to meet all my needs so I bought some fresh plants to grow and put them in one of the herb beds. For several years the new plants were nowhere near as strong as the wild one, but gradually they became acclimatised to the limestone soil and their taste became the same.

I found yarrow in other places too – especially when I needed him. In 2002, I was visiting a friend in hospital who was dying of metastised oesophageal cancer. When I left, I kissed him goodbye on his forehead. The acrid taste of his sweat filled my mouth and I didn’t know what to do. By the side of the steps leading down to the car park was some yarrow leaves. I picked and chewed them and the taste of death left me. I suppose, as a battlefield herb, yarrow knows a lot about death.

Three years ago, another friend was involved in a fatal road accident. I was beside myself with worry and the fear lodged in my solar plexus as a deep, physical pain. A wild yarrow was growing in the cracks in our patio. I brushed past it every time I went outside into the garden. At the same time I was putting together a handout on the energetic use of herbs for a workshop I was running on flower essences. Part of my research led me to Karin Saunders 17 June 2004 radio show where she talked about yarrow strengthening personal boundaries so you knew where you started and someone else ended. This tied up with things Matt Woods mentioned in his discussion about yarrow.

While everyone else was choosing their flower to make a flower essence, I went to my yarrow patch and picked enough flowers to float over the top of my glass of spring water. We talked about what flowers we’d chosen and how they might help us.

The following Monday morning I took my yarrow flower essence into work and added four drops to my water glass because the pain was still troubling me. Within half an hour the pain had gone. I continued taking the flower essence for the next three days, but the pain did not return.

When I got home that Monday night, I went out into the garden and talked to the yarrow growing by the back door. I knew how much he had tried to show me he could help in a difficult situation but it had taken me a long time to realise why he kept drawing my attention. I told him how grateful I was he persevered.

Sanders, K “The Spiritual Properites of Herbs” on Herbal Highways June 17 2004 http://www.kpfa.org/archives/archives.php?id=15&limit=N

Wood, M The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines

Wednesday 2 April 2008

View from my window

The only time I sit and stare out of a window is at work. I'm very lucky to have my own window next to my desk and, as you can imagine, it is full of flowering plants. When the man came to clean my computer a few weeks ago he commented on my "greenhouse"! There are two cuttings of "sticky thyme" which came from one of the women at my writer's group in Solihull. She had been given the plant by a friend who had brought it back from the Caribbean with the instructions that it was used to flavour gravy. It has a wonderful scent, but I doubt very much whether it is a thyme - possibly more a basil. I keep meaning to get it identified, but haven't achieved this yet.

The other scented plant is a small patchouli. It's just sitting here until I find someone to give it to. My kitchen windowsill at home is full, so this one makes a good nursery space for cuttings. The other seven plants are all African violets whose flowers range from pink to deep violet. Some are babies of other plants at home, two were rescued from the landing window sill where they had been ignored for several years and the really purple one was removed from a dustbin in the office kitchen where my boss' secretary had just deposited it about six months ago. The poor plant had been sitting in the middle of the open plan office and never watered, so it was very sad. I took it home, repotted it in fresh compost and brought it back again. It has flowered twice, gloriously. The first time it flowered, I re-introduced it to my boss and asked if he wanted to have it returned, but he declined the offer. I noticed the other day it has a large baby growing on one side, so I may take it home soon and give it a pot all of it's own.

Outside the window I have a wonderful view of central Birmingham rooftops with the Rotunda towering above them. Seagulls wheel around the open space and I am often visited by pairs of pigeons who strut along the parapet and have taught me various courtship rituals. I'm sure they will come in handy in a future story! There is grass and moss growing in the gutter outside. I keep waiting for someone to clear it, but the men who clean the windows don't seem to feel the need to reach outside their safe walkway.

I'm sure it must seem very strange to keep so many plants in the middle of a legal desert, but then I'm a strange person doing strange things. If anyone asked, I'd tell them about the "new" discovery of positive mental health i.e. everyone feels better if they have plants to look at in the workplace. It certainly makes me smile when I see the different colours so it must be working!