Wednesday 30 July 2008

Bitters: Herbs which promote release?

This month’s Herbwifery forum blog party hosted by Kiva Rose is about bitters. You can find all the articles at

Bitters is something we think we instinctively recognise. It is a primal taste sensation on our tongue along with sweet, sour, salt and the new one, umami (fullness). Most herb books give the definition of a bitter as something which stimulate the stages of digestion including increasing saliva production and gastric juice activity including bile release (Brigitte Mars).

Jim MacDonald ( expands on this a little further by saying “Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improve appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids. You must taste bitters to receive their medicinal virtues. There are aromatic bitters (Calamus), bittersweet bitters (Celastrus), and just plain bitter bitters (Boneset).” I only know boneset out of Jim’s three examples, so I would change my herbs to angelica (aromatic bitter) and burdock (bittersweet bitter).

The herb I thought to talk about originally was dandelion (taraxacum officinale). It is perhaps the easiest herb to get close to when you are trying to understand the principle of a bitter. The leaves eaten raw stimulate your taste buds to such an extent, you know they are doing what they’re meant to do. They are wonderful additions to salads with other green leaves. I like to add them to cheese or ham sandwiches along with chickweed or sorrel. The sharpness of the greens works particularly well with the heavy fat of cheddar cheese.

I’ve been working very closely with dandelion this year. There is nothing like picking the first green leaves in winter time when it’s blowing a bitter gale laced with snowflakes and your fingers freeze as you dig up roots. While dandelion leaves support the kidneys and pack a massive dose of potassium, the roots, also bitter, support the liver.

David Hoffman advocates harvesting roots in the winter while they are at their most bitter. Brigitte Mars suggests harvesting roots in the spring when complex carbohydrates are broken down and released as sugars. I have a certain problem with this.

Before retirement, my father was a small farmer with a herd of suckler cows. He told me the animals would search out dandelion roots in the autumn when the roots were sweetest and would ignore them in the spring when the roots were bitter. I have given my workshop attendees roots to chew at different times of the year and they have all reported, as I have found, that spring roots are incredibly bitter and autumn roots are fat, juicy and have an unexpected sweetness to them.

Anyway, I digress. I didn’t want to get drawn into talking too much about dandelion, because there are many other bitter herbs which I grow or which grow around me. The ones which particularly spring to mind are burdock, angelica, motherwort, calendula, chamomile, vervain, boneset and the bright, vermillion splendour of rowan berries.

You only have to drink a cup of burdock leaf tea to know that the plant is a bitter. Burdock (arcticum lappa) is described by Matthew Wood as bitter, sweet and oily. He believes it acts as an alterative (tonic), stimulating increased secretion of bile, which in turn promotes better absorption of fats and oils through the small intestine.

Burdock supports the liver and helps with dry skin conditions. The root is said to be a quick acting diuretic (20 minutes after chewing) and has also been praised for stimulating appetite after severe illness when added to stews. (Miriam Kresh, Israel) Jim recommends it for cancer patients when they require nourishment during chemotherapy – again adding the root or young leaf stalks to stews or bone broths.

Angelica (angelica archangelica) is an aromatic, warming bitter. I always encourage my workshop attendees to smell the scent of angelica and everyone loves it. They’re not quite so keen when I give them angelica leaf tea to try, because of its bitterness. Chewing angelica root is an experience! It resembles chewing a bottle of scent and is really quite revolting, yet this root is the part which can take away the intense pain of fibroids. They also make an interesting liqueur if left for several years to mature.

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is another, interesting bitter herb. It helps regulate temperature during menopause, reduces period pains and is a gentle nervine tonic. A tea made from its aerial parts is an intensely bitter brew, but can be alleviated by mixing with lemon balm. There is an old saying that if you need something, you will be attracted to it and its bitterness will be tolerable.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla ) is supposed to be a mild herb, enjoyed by all for its carmative, calming and restorative functions. Commercial chamomile tea bags have a gentle, soothing taste. The first time I grew the herb myself and made a cup of tea, I was horrified by the dreadful, bitter flavour. I was sure I must have been sent the wrong kind of chamomile. When I moaned to my herbalist friend, she laughed at me. “Chamomile is a bitter. You have tasted the proper taste of the herb!”

Calendula (calendula officinilis) is a herb you wouldn’t normally associate as a bitter, yet Matthew Wood classes its taste as such. He talks about its use for deep fevers and people who are “bone weary”, quoting herbalist Matthew Becker who likened it to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

It is curious that calendula, boneset and vervain (verbena officinalis) are all recommended for severe, bone aching fevers. Both boneset and vervain are incredibly bitter to the taste when taken in tea. Vervain can make you shudder from head to toe if the tea is too strong, even when taken with other herbs.

This diversity of actions by bitter herbs got me thinking about a possible basic principle of bitters, that of causing/promoting release or letting go. Since every herb has an affinity with a particular part of the body, there will be different secretions or emotions or other tissue states which are released. Dandelion releases digestive secretions, burdock releases bile, vervain releases both fevers and the need to keep on keeping on, which could otherwise be described as personal intensity. Boneset releases the intensity of aching bones.

So where do rowan berries come in all this? Several years ago my herbalist friend presented me with a jar of rowan jelly. “You’ll like it,” she said, “herb people like bitter flavours.” I took it home and put it on the dinner table with a Sunday roast. Everyone tried it, but they all agreed the sweetness of the jelly was overtaken by the bitterness of the rowan berries. I could just about tolerate it, but one day I shall make my own and see if my tastes have changed!


Hoffman, D The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal 1996 Element Books

Mars, B Dandelion Medicine 1999 Storey Books

Wood, M The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism : Basic Doctrine, Energetics and Classification 2004 North Atlantic Books

Monday 14 July 2008

Harvesting, Flowers and Weather

This time last year I remember driving along a darkened Fosse Way on the Friday night before my July herb workshop during torrential rain wondering if I would make it through deep pools of water threatening to flood the entire road. I remember feelings of frustration and despair because my father was unable to mow down to the Sanctuary. The constant rain made it impossible to cut the fields for hay, so grass was sodden and almost impenetrable.

It was with a sense of déjà vu I travelled along the same road on the same evening of the year with rain again beating against the windscreen in torrents. This time it was Chris who was prevented by weather from doing any tidying up in the Sanctuary. I anticipated finding a total wilderness as I traipsed down the just discernable path with water coating my boots and overtrousers. Despite the damp and cold, my journey was accompanied by dancing butterflies seeking nectar from waterlogged red clover and bright yellow ladies bedstraw blooms beside the path.

As I opened the Sanctuary gate, I was met by a glorious surprise. A huge mass of lilac and white goats rue flowers were waiting for me by the summerhouse veranda, towering over the stately white plumes of the comfrey. Bumblebees were diving inside the flowers at their usual languid pace as if the previous downpour had never happened.

Inside the summerhouse it was still comfortably warm. I was able to gather up all the dried herbs into paper bags – elderflower, red clover, apothecary’s rose petals and lemon balm. I didn’t have time to take the leaves off the lemon balm just then. Gillian kindly completed the task for me during the workshop the following day.

Although the light was poor, I tried to take photos of all the beautiful flowers – motherwort’s pink, scullcap’s blue, calendula’s orange, valerian and heliotrope’s pink-tinged white, the huge canopy of yellow from dyer’s greenweed, even the deep crimson of the apothecary’s rose. Unfortunately, the flash washed out much of the colours, making the photos unusable.

It was still a wonderful experience to be down in the heart of the Sanctuary as the rain fell gently. I took shelter under the trees, searching around the edge of the pond for the small spotted orchid. I only found two blooms but know there must be more hiding. There was little sign of the meadowsweet either. I could see the leaves and the deep red stems, but there was no sign of flowers. Maybe they are late blooming because of the shade from the overhanging branches or maybe something has eaten the flower stalks!

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny – such a contrast from the previous day! The workshop was great fun. I even managed to pick a basketful of young nettles before they were trampled on. I was hoping to repeat the harvest on Sunday morning since the new steps were totally covered by young nettles, but I was too tired after harvesting everything else. It’s still good to know I have some young nettles drying for the winter.

On Sunday morning, I knew I had about two and a half hours to harvest everything I needed. I cut the flowering stems of the broadleaved thyme growing in the bungalow garden before I left to go down to the Sanctuary. Rock rose grows intertwined with the thyme, so I picked the yellow flowers as well, leaving them to dry on newspaper after the sun had dried the initial dampness.

I began my harvest by taking photographs to show what the plants looked like in all their glory. This time it was the brightness of full sunlight which made exposure difficult.

Skullcap was the first abundant plant I came across. I divided the harvest in half, leaving some to dry and the rest to take home and tincture. I wanted to make lots of motherwort vinegar this year since I’ve used up the one bottle I made last year, so I gathered great armfuls of the tall stems, taking care not to scratch my bare arms on the stiff flower prickles.

It was wonderful to see the white horehound in flower and know I would have plenty to make a new cough syrup this autumn. The hyssop wasn’t quite in flower, so I weeded between the plants to give them some access to sunlight.

The heartsease was beautiful, but I left them to bring joy to the garden. Betony flowers were few and had to be searched for amidst the jungle of solomon’s seal, joe pye weed and lemon balm. Luckily I have bottles of tincture left from the Cornish betony I gathered last year and we’ll be returning there next year so I can gather again.

The first few calendula flowers were out, but most were very rain damaged. The mint was tall and impressive. The reaction to mint tea made with this chocolate mint has been so favourable, I gathered a huge armful to dry. Applemint is really nice dried as well as fresh, so I’m hoping the chocolate mint will be the same.

Other stately plants were the agrimony with their long, yellow, flower stalks, while the blue star flowers of the borage made me feel happy just to look at it. The deep pink cups of the Himalayan balsam were gorgeous, but any plants growing within the herb borders were ruthlessly culled.

I keep meaning to work more closely with agrimony. Maybe this is the year I will do so. I love the fresh taste and smell of both borage tincture and vinegar. Many people don’t use this plant any more because of the potential harm it might cause to the liver, but I still value it.

I also uncovered the ladies mantle, their long strings of yellow flowers trailing across the ground. I made some fresh tincture last year and haven’t used it, so decided not to gather at the moment. I did take three long stalks of fennel to make a syrup for heartburn along with meadowsweet.

The real stars of the herb garden were the huge red blooms of the bergamot blazing amongst the green immature tansy and lemon balm. Their colour is much more vibrant than last year, which was their first flowering, so I’m hopeful they will produce many more blooms throughout the summer. I tinctured the aerial parts last year, so this year I have left them to dry for teas.

The heat was intense while I was picking and weeding, not helped by the constant swarms of flies which objected to being disturbed from their nectar source! It was wonderful to see two copper butterflies hanging together from a New England Aster leaf in the top garden. I also managed to gather enough St John’s wort flowers to fill up the 1lb honey jar in my parent’s kitchen. They picked half a jar full two weeks ago before the rain set in and were impressed how quickly the oil went dark.

Before I left, we picked raspberries and blackcurrants from the garden and I gathered more plantain – both ribwort and greater – to make some more oil, along with a few stalks of yarrow.

On my way home I stopped to wildcraft some beautiful, searing white yarrow from the grass verge and a large bunch of meadowsweet. Two herbs from two different counties – Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, both of which provide my roots back into pre-history.

It is really difficult to know whether to wildcraft from road sides or not. I know the dangers of pollution, but neither road was constantly busy, both plants were newly grown and I didn’t have anywhere else to harvest at that moment and needed them both.

Back at home, I picked some more St John’s wort flowers to make up the beginnings of a new jar of oil (this will be the third) and some more raspberries- red and yellow, alpine strawberries and a few redcurrants.

I managed to make both the plantain double infused oil and the meadowsweet and fennel syrup as well as put up two jars of motherwort vinegar during the evening, but I did spend two hours watching the TV on the sofa as well. The trouble with harvesting is you forget how exhausting it can be! The rest of the harvest will have to wait until tomorrow night when I have no other commitments and can give them my undivided attention.