Saturday 28 June 2008

Celebrating the solstice with St John’s wort

Although both dates for the summer solstice (21st June) and midsummer (24th June) are passed, it feels appropriate to mark them with a posting about St John’s wort. This herb has a special meaning for me. When I first started growing SJW, the flowers always opened a week after the solstice, but two years ago they moved a week forward and the first bloom opened on 21st June. I was sure this year they were going to come beforehand, but they didn't, they waited!

I have been growing SJW for at least twelve years. It was one of the first specialist herbs I bought to grow in my garden. I couldn’t believe anything so delicate could provide such strong and helpful medicine, but it does!

Each spring I cut down the dead stalks of the plant and watch with bated breath as the tiny fronds emerge from the soil. This year it was March when I took the first photo. By the beginning of May the stalks were about four inches high and now they wave delicately around from a height of about two feet.

The tiny flowers are perfect stars – so perfect and bright it is almost impossible to get a picture in focus! Each year I make a sun infused oil and tincture. If there is profusion, or I find a bonus harvest elsewhere as I did last year at Birmingham International Railway station car park, then I might make a SAD syrup and dry some for ritual use.

SJW is thought to be a cleansing herb which repels negativity. It can be used in the bath for purification. It can also be used in rites of purification and exorcism.

Most people know SJW as a nervine, helpful in mild to moderate depression. They forget or are unaware of its other properties as an anti-viral, healer of burns and general external “heal all”. I won’t go into its constituents as that is something for others to comment on. I’m just interested in its uses.

I’m fortunate in that I don’t suffer with depression. There are times when I’m sad or emotionally upset, but I tend to turn to other nerviness – lemon balm, skullcap and vervain – before using SJW tincture for myself. I don’t think I’ve ever tried SJW tea – maybe I should add fresh SJW tea to my list of “new things to try” this year and see how it makes me feel!

Henriette recommends SJW for the pain and depression of grief, when everyone needs extra comfort and support through difficult times.

My dearest love of SJW is the oil. It is perhaps the greatest wonder of the herbal world to cover yellow star flowers in yellow sunflower oil, place it in a sunny window and watch as the oil begins to darken and finally turns a deep and glorious red. It has a very distinct smell entirely its own. There is no need for other perfume when you make the salve.

I use the oil in virtually every salve I make. I use it alone to deal with the itching and ache of venous degeneration in my ankles or to spread on burns after the heat has been taken out, with marshmallow as a diabetic foot salve, with calendula and marshmallow as a general winter salve, with calendula and chickweed for infected eczema, with elderflower to moisturise my face, with calendula, marshmallow and lovage in my “ladies’ lubrication salve” and with rosemary to make a massage oil for sciatica or arthritic joint pain.

I’ve also made a sunburn soother by adding SJW, calendula and aloe vera gel from the inside of freshly cut leaves to an aqueous cream base. I took it on holiday to Cornwall in our caravan fridge one year and gave it to a neighbour on the campsite who was badly burned on her back, arms and shoulders. After one application left overnight, the burn was soothed.

To make a salve, use 1oz of grated beeswax to every 8oz of infused oil. Heat gently in a double boiler saucepan until the wax has melted, then pour into clean pots. Label and date. Store in a cool dark place and the salve should last unopened for at least two years.

Here is the recipe for the SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) Syrup based on David Winston’s teaching using lemon balm with SJW for SAD. The recipe for a syrup comes from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's book, "Herbal Remedies"

1 l (2 pints) water (remember these are European pints (20 fluid oz) not US pints)
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped herb
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain. Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7fl.oz.) left Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label.

For SAD syrup I use equal quantities of dried St John's wort and lemon balm which I ground up in a coffee grinder if the herbs are dry, otherwise I bruise or shred the fresh herbs. I use aerial parts of both plants. Normally I only use the flowers of SJW to make oil and tincture, but I often make the syrup when the plants have gone to seed, so I use seed heads, flowers and some of the stalk.

Remember lemon balm only has a shelf life of 6months when dry, so if you buy some from a supplier, ask when it was picked. You should also pick the leaves before they flower, but if most of my plants have flowered when I make syrup, I try to pick as many secondary shoots as I can (shoots which grow up from stems cut earlier in the year).

Before the herbs simmer in the water, I add the grated rind of a lemon and when the syrup is finished, I add the juice of a lemon so it isn’t too sickly. I add lemon or orange juice to a lot of my syrups and use them more as hot cordials than taking 1 tsp at a time.

The dosage for SAD syrup would be around 1tsp three times a day. Don't use this syrup if you are already taking SSRI drugs for depression or if you've had a bad reaction to SJW in the past. Some people who take medication for migraine conditions find it can bring on a migraine.

The difficulty with this syrup is that it tastes so good, it could be quickly used up, so take care and don't take too much at once! As with all medicines, make sure children can't go and help themselves or you will suddenly find the bottle is empty!

Friday 27 June 2008

Watching mullein flower

When the meadow growing on the disused railway platform began to flourish two months ago, it was easy to spot the ox-eye daises, fox gloves and lupins as they grew and flowered. Even the purple waving flax was easily distinguishable from its narrow leaves. Three bundles of pale green leaves looked vaguely familiar.

‘Mullein,’ I thought to myself, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember any mullein plants from the previous summer and before that everything had been destroyed with weed killer, so I settled down for a curious wait as time went by. Over the past few weeks, telltale flower spikes appeared and yesterday I noticed the first yellow flowers appearing at the base of the spike. They are so beautiful.

Mullein grew for me last year at the farm. I managed to harvest several flower heads, drying them on newspaper in the warm summerhouse. The centres of the flower stalks are really hard when you come to remove the dried flowers and leaves. I began by picking them off separately, but it was clumsy and made my fingers sore, I ended up rubbing my hand over everything and collecting the debris in a large bowl. I was delighted to see what I’d gathered resembled a previously purchased package of dried mullein, so I thought I must be doing something right!

My mullein harvest produced 2 full two-pound jars. I used one of them to make a double infused oil during my first winter workshop, enabling my students to go home bearing an oil to help with ear aches. We have been so fortunate while the children were growing up. I only remember two of them having earache once and both were quickly resolved. The other jar is still sitting in the larder waiting for someone to develop a deep chest infection.

The past few weeks have been so busy, it is easy to think little herbal has happened, but that would be very wrong! I was able to spend a whole morning and entire evening wandering through hay fields and by hedgerows to gather elderflowers, dog rose petals and greater plantain. It was even dry enough to walk through the fields in my long skirts holding my basket like a herbwife of old!

Having said that, wildcrafting is not an easy pursuit when you have to wade through grass up to your shoulders, nettles and thistles grow everywhere and gale force winds tangle rose thorns in your hair! It is also very easy to lose balance when dips in the ground appear from nowhere and climbing gates when one is no longer a child is a real challenge. (Especially when you know you have to climb near the hinge and that side of the gate is covered with nettles or briars or something equally aggressive!)

The June workshop was great fun with lovely people attending who really enjoyed their time whether it was making herbal medicines or weeding! As well as the rosemary infused oil, which took at least four days to demulsify, i.e. separate into a dark green oil and water from being a paler green emulsion, I also brewed some elderflower oil in a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil.

The last time I made elderflower oil in sunflower oil two years ago, it was pungent but pale green, this oil was so dark green it was almost black but the smell is just wonderful. I was worried I had no beeswax left, but I managed to find two ounce sticks, so last Tuesday I was finally able to turn the oil into salve, which is pale khaki/olive green. I’ve been using it on my face for the past three days. Being an oil rather than a cream, it does look rather shiny when you put it on, but the dry patches of skin by my nose and forehead are better and my skin feels beautifully soft and moist.

The hardest part of making salve is grating the beeswax. It goes everywhere if you try to grate it straight into the oil, so I’ve started putting the grater on a chopping board and pressing hard, then adding the wax when it’s all grated. I still manage to slice a finger nail at some point in the proceedings!

It was so exciting finally making some infused rose petal honey, witchhhazel extract and vinegar. Seeing an air space at the top of the honey jar, I dutifully turned it over to ensure all the petals were covered, but this was not a good idea as I found a line of honey escaping from the jar on the window ledge down onto the draining board the next morning. Chris wasn’t happy with me using his special acacia honey out of the caravan for my rose extract, so losing it all to gravity would have been a disaster!

The rose petals were so pretty when I put them in the jars; I am hoping the colour spreads to the liquid. I’m not sure what the perfume will be like as dog rose petals have a very subtle scent which is hardly discernable unless you have a large amount of them. I did add some bought rose petals to the withchhazel to see if they would add perfume, but most of it had disappeared. I also added the petals of a rose originally given to me by the East Birmingham Pensioners Association many years ago when I gave a talk to them to the vinegar extraction and the colour started to travel immediately.

Finally I have a whole day at home to enjoy tomorrow before I take off again for three days training in the wilds of south Yorkshire. (Not entirely true, one could hardly call Chesterfield, Leeds and Sheffield wild!) If it stays dry, I shall be harvesting more St Johns wort flowers to add to the oil in the kitchen window, marjoram, mint and rosemary to dry for Kathryn and Corey and maybe I shall finish The Bear and the Ivy Lady! Who knows!

Monday 9 June 2008

Cooling herbs for summer – Elderflower

This article is posted as part of the Herbwifery Forum blog party hosted by Alchemille (

As the brightness of hawthorn flowers slowly fades in the hedgerows, our eyes are caught by a new dazzling white array amongst cool green leaves. The elder is in flower.

Every one who loves elder trees knows the joy elderflowers can bring – not only from their aroma, but also the myriad uses in summer drinks. Elderflower cordial has always been a commercial favourite – now freely available in every supermarket, but less people know the flavour of the elderflower as a simple tea to bring cooling in the heat of summer or to soothe the fevered brow during colds, flu, fevers or the hot flushes of menopause.

Elderflower has always worked well in combination with peppermint and yarrow for the classic “cold tea” which was the first herbal combination I ever learned about.

There are so many wonderful things elderflower can make. Here are some of them.

Elderflower tea
Pick 2-4 elderflowers and place in a teapot or cafatiere. Pour over just boiled water, replace the lid and let steep for 10 minutes, strain and enjoy. The tea is naturally sweet and refreshing.

Elderflower cordial
(This is basically Sophie Grigson’s recipe without the citric acid
20 elderflower heads (I forgot to keep counting and used half of the basketful I’d gathered)
4 lemons
2 oranges
1.8 kg granulated sugar
1.2l water
Place the sugar in the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. While the water is heating, place the elderflowers in a large bowl and cut the zest off the oranges and lemons and add to elderflowers. Cut the ends off the citrus fruit and discard, then slice and add to contents of bowl. Pour the boiling sugar syrup over the elderflowers and citrus fruits. Cover the bowl and place in a cool place for 24 hours. I put a plate on the top of the bowl to keep the citrus fruit submerged in the syrup. After 24 hours strain (eat the orange slices – they are amazing!). Strain twice more using either muslin or kitchen paper. Makes 4 pints of cordial. Pour into sterilized glass jars or plastic jars and freeze. Keep in the fridge and dilute to taste. It tastes good with fizzy water. Serve in glass jugs with slices of lemon and a sprig of mint.

You may want to use elderflower’s cooling properties on your skin. Gail Faith Edwards has a wonderfully simple recipe for making elderflower water, which can be used as a cleanser.

Elderflower water
Place elderflowers in a stainless steel or enamel saucepan and cover with fresh spring or distilled water. Cover and slowly heat to just below a simmer. Turn the heat as low as it will go and continue heating for about ten minutes tightly covered. Turn off the heat and allow all to sit, covered, overnight. The next morning, strain the infusion off. You will need to strain at least twice through muslin or kitchen towel to remove all the floating debris. Add a quarter of the volume in alcohol as a preservative. Bottle and keep in a cool dark place. I looked at my elderflower water 24 hours after bottling and there is a yellow sediment at the bottom which is probably pollen.

Elderflower’s cooling properties can also be captured in a double infused oil. I use the general method for double infusing in sunflower oil. The oil is beautifully fragrant and will stay that way for two years or more in a cool, dark place. I was giving an introduction to herbs talk a few weeks ago and found out a sample of elderflower oil I’d made back in 2006 and it was still as aromatic now as it was when it was made. It can be used as a massage oil or to help reduce the heat in swollen, hot joints.

Do be careful when drying fresh elderflowers. If there is any dampness, it will develop mould. I’ve lost two entire harvests from carelessness – not checking the drying herbs for several weeks – and then having to throw everything away! I now dry the flowers flat on top of newspaper in a dark, warm place covered with a second piece of newspaper. Things are hectic at the moment, so I haven’t had the energy to harvest elderflowers for drying yet, but I’m hoping to do so before too long.

There are many other culinary delights involving elderflower. I’ve not yet tried elderflower fritters, but muscadet jam which is made by adding elderflowers to gooseberry jam is wonderful! I also made a very simple gooseberry fool adding two elderflower heads and some sweet cicely during the cooking of the gooseberries, which made the flavour very subtle. Let me know if you would like me to post recipes for the fritters, jam and gooseberry fool.

Fifteen years ago when I was working in patient involvement in the NHS, I attended a talk by a young dietician working with diabetic patients. The locality where the hospital was based had a very high number of people from south asia, who had a genetic predisposition to diabetes. She told us how these communities had very strange ways of looking at their food, calling them hot or cold. She obviously didn’t understand what they meant and neither, at that time, did I. Now I know better.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Signs of Summer

Everything looks better in sunshine. There is a feeling of lightness associated with brightness compared with the doom and gloom laden cloud cover or rain we know so well. Of course there are exceptions, but I’ll try not to get sidetracked by the beauty of raindrops on Ladies mantle leaves or the sound of a single raindrop hitting a leaf during a shower or the amazing scent present immediately following a thunder storm.

I’ve decided the garden can be officially classed as “wild” since there are buttercups flowering everywhere and long grasses wave from every bed. I quite like grass in fields and closely cut on lawns so I can go barefoot, but have never been attracted to buying grasses to plant in flower beds as all the major garden designers suggest.

As usual, plants in my garden grow where they will. Despite trying to remove all the Spanish bluebells and white michaelmas daisies, there is still a profusion of each. The golden rod is already nearly 4’ tall and I’m determined to do something with the flowers this year. There was a fascinating discussion about its merits on the Susun Weed Forum that I found, so I’m very tempted to try dried, tincture and oil.

The marjoram needs cutting if I’m going to dry it before it flowers, as does the lemon balm, so I just hope the forecast of heavy rain for tomorrow is wrong. I love fresh marjoram and then forget about it completely during the winter.

The parsley is growing in great profusion too, so I decided to make up a fresh salad dressing last night using a basic Good Housekeeping recipe – 2 parts olive oil, one part vinegar (sage cider vinegar) 1/3 tsp mustard powder, 1 tsp sugar and about two large handfuls of marjoram and parsley with half a dozen broad leaf thyme sprigs and one rosemary sprig. I whizzed up the herbs in the coffee grinder before adding them to the oil and vinegar mixture, then whisked everything together. It tasted good and hopefully will improve with age.

The first valerian flower was out yesterday although I didn’t smell any scent. I really like valerian, but have never used it. Non Shaw has a recipe for a “deep sleep potion” which I’d love to try, even though I rarely need anything. My problem is not falling asleep, but going to bed – there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I want!

Coming home to an empty house yesterday, I actually managed to make myself a herb tea with lemon balm and cleavers. Someone was saying how mature cleavers were so much stronger than the younger ones. I gathered some thick stems and wrapped them up into a parcel before breaking them into pieces in the teapot. The pea-smell was unmistakable – something I’d not noticed before. The tea also had a sweet aftertaste on the back of my tongue – almost like an artificial sweetener!

The wild strawberries are flowering in profusion and there are real strawberries on the large strawberry plants. I haven’t grown strawberries since before the children were born, so we shall see who gets them first – us or the slugs! I meant to go and look at the gooseberries, red currants and black currents before I went in, but forgot.

In my last posting, I mentioned having time to spare over the weekend while we were away at the Exmouth Kite Festival. I really shouldn’t say things like that. I always forget how much time cooking and making cups of tea take up – not to mention having to wash out Chris’ kite gear because he slipped and fell in the mud on Saturday morning due to torrential rain the previous night!

The weekend kite displays were stunning, especially when Sky Symphony got together with the Airheads producing a ten-man synchronised team. Airheads’ leader, Peter Taylor, makes Sky Symphony's kites including their night kites. It was a wonderful weekend for Sky Symphony as all six of the team were present - the first time for a public display.

Roy got to participate in a scratch “revolution” team for the first time and did really well. Revolutions are 4 string kites, as opposed to the two string ones Sky Symphony use for team displays which go by the names of “T2s” and "absolute zeros". They have three different sets of kites depending on the wind speed and can fly when many other kite teams can’t. On Saturday, Dave and Alan Bill performed a very moving duet with tails on their kites, producing perfect double helixes in the afternoon sky.

I did manage to spend a few moments adding to my latest story, “The Bear and the Ivy Lady”. The sunset over the hills above Exmouth estuary on the Friday evening was particularly beautiful and found its way into the story.

There are two sunsets I remember fondly – the first over the Pacific Ocean viewed from the clifftop apartment in Lincoln City, Oregon, with my friend, Sorcha and the other was on the cliffs at Lands End with hundreds of other visitors waiting for the firework display to begin. We watched in silence and when the sun finally dipped below the horizon, everyone clapped. It was a truly magical moment and now I have another to add to my collection of sunset memories.