Sunday 31 January 2010

Bitters and White Horehound

This is another guest posting by Jacqueline Davies, one of my Sanctuary Apprentices. Jackie has chosen to look into white horehound as part of the UK blogparty on bitters, discovering facts about the plant which I wasn't aware of.

Thanks for all your hard work, Jackie!


Prior to attending Sarah Head’s workshops last year I had never thought there might be any reason why I should need to eat anything bitter, and as lots of other foods tasted better I didn’t bother to very often, grapefruits and rocket were probably it.

During the first workshop I attended at The Sanctuary, Sarah gave us dandelion root to try which I didn’t find a pleasant experience. A month later when we strained our dandelion vinegar we discovered that dandelion roots taste better pickled and had some in a foragers salad, which was quite enjoyable. Since then I’ve learnt bitters are important for our digestive systems and have started to enjoy them more knowing they will do me good.

I have now started an apprenticeship with Sarah and our next task is about bitters. I was looking at my herb list for something bitter to research and remembered what our white horehound cough syrup tasted like. I found Richard Mabey’s bitter definition, which made me realise there might be more to bitters than digestion and I started to understand white hoarhound’s actions.

“Bitters - Herbs containing a range of chemicals that have a bitter taste. Some are useful as appetite stimulants, others as anti-inflammatories, still others as relaxants.”

Mabey identifies horehound is one of the 5 bitter herbs to be eaten by Jews at the Passover supper. He says “The plant’s bitter principle, along with its expectorant properties, is responsible in part for the major medical use of white horehound for respiratory disorders.”

This surprised me as I had only related bitters to digestion but he does go on to say a cold infusion is a bitter tonic for the digestive system. There is evidence to show that as marrubiin, the plant’s bitter principle, breaks down in the body it strongly stimulates bile production. The plant has been traditionally used as a reliable liver and digestive remedy.

Matthew Wood says that as a bitter, horehound promotes expulsion of thick secretions, allowing new mucous and new immune cells to be secreted. This allows the herb to work not by killing germs but by changing the environment so as to enable the body to kill the germs. This theory makes sense to me and has made me think differently about how herbs work.

The CU (Champaign-Urbana) herb society say that the bitter principle, marrubiim, does not exist in the living plant, but is formed during the extraction process. They also say that the bitter action of horehound stimulates the secretion of bile from the gall bladder, aiding digestion. In large quantities it could act as a laxative and cause an irregular heartbeat. Matthew Wood cautions that large doses of horehound are emetic and laxative and can cause arrhythmias.

I came to the conclusion that white horehound stimulates the gall bladder and aids digestion and also relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchus while stimulating mucous production; this tallies with Richard Mabey’s definition of bitters including relaxants. I then started to worry I had put two and two together and made five but was directed by my mentor, Sarah, to Jim MacDonald’s web site where there is a lot of information explaining how bitters work to aid digestion but he also sees bitters as grounding and says they can release emotional energy from organs particularly anger and frustration linked to stagnant liver energy.

Jim MacDonald refers to a past blog entry of Sarah Head in 2008 where she suggests that bitters promote release. Sarah says different herbs have affinities with different parts of the body so will promote the release of different secretions or emotions from those areas. I now realise there are energetic as well as physical attributes to bitters, the major benefit is to the digestive system but there could be others as well.

Campaign-Urbana Herb Society (2004) Herb of the Month: Horehound (marrubium vulgare)
Head, Sarah (2008) Bitters: Herbs which promote release? accessed 27.1.2010
Mabey, R. (1988) The New Age Herbalist Simon & Schuster: New York
MacDonald, J. (2009) Blessed Bitters accessed 27.1.2010
Wood, M. (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants North Atlantic Books: Berkeley

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Steaky and kidney pie.

This is a guest blog post by Danny Proudfoot, a UK member of the Herbwifery Forum. He wrote this story for the UK blog party on bitters. Please make sure you read the comments as well as the posting.

There is some disagreement over the order of kidney cleanses and liver cleanses, like which should go first, I guess it depends which formula you do, but as long as you do them sometime, that’s cool. Bowel and parasite cleansing 100pct must come first though, so that toxins can be quickly removed and not redistributed.

I had recently cleaned the digestive tract and got rid of some of the parasites that been driving me mad. Now that my detox pathways had been freed up a little…. I was free to try another kidney cleanse. I used the Andreas Moritz kidney cleanse formula, from, which I can highly recommend. This is collection of herbs which you make into a tea and drink over the course of the day, everyday for 30 days. Tastes very bitter to some people. Not to me though….tastes nice……which is another example of my taste buds telling me what I should and should not be eating & drinking. My mum did the same kidney cleanse and complained bitterly (ha!) that the taste was super nasty, very bitter indeed. I was like, what…tastes nice! My taste buds like these herbs….which means my body wants/needs them. I have since learnt to trust my senses, if I crave something, I have it, but I use my new found knowledge to satisfy the crave with the right kinda food. I use my head and don’t eat junk.

I was getting up in the night 2-3 times for a pee, so this was good reason to do did a kidney cleanse. Also, apparently, lower back problems can be caused by kidney troubles? Or so I read anyway. I had the mother of all back problems so worth trying this again. Tiny crystals accumulate inside the kidneys and the tubes that go to the bladder and when fluid goes through the tubes this causes lower back pain….apparently. Its all weird stuff this eh! Kidneys and lower back problems….never in a million years would I think that might be a cause of my back pain.

If the Liver is congested, which I knew mine was, this leads to sand, grease and stones accumulating in the kidney and/or urinary bladder. The kidneys are delicate, blood-filtering organs that congest easily due to dehydration, poor diet, weak digestion, stress and wild crazy partying late into the night! Most of the kidneys stones are too small to be detected using modern x-rays and whatnot. The herbs dissolve any accumulated gunk. Andreas Moritz kidney herbs are: Marjoram, Cat’s Claw, Comfrey root, Fennel seeds, Chicory herb, Uva Ursi, Hydrangea root, Gravel root, Marshmallow root, golden herb. Soak 2 table spoons of this herb mixture overnight, bring to the boil in the morning and sip 6-8 times throughout the day, always 1 hour away from food. Simple.

As a general rule, if you have a reaction to a herb, that means its working. That means there are toxins in there somewhere and that herb/formula got a bit out. Toxins always hurt coming out, which is why it’s important to try and control the flow of toxins coming out…too many and life gets difficult again.

The first day I started the kidney cleanse I had a blinding headache, ditto day two. As a rule I only get headaches when I detox…so I know when I cleanse and I get a headache that toxins are coming out Big-Time-Charlie and that the herbs are working. A good signal to know that….that’s a Top-Tip! Luckily this is a herbal tea so I just reduced the amount of tea I drank each day until I had no headache and then gradually increased the dose over the 30 days.

After a couple more days my ankles suddenly inflated like I was wearing 8 pears of socks, they where stiff, swollen and hurt. What the funk is going on here?
Well, it turns out that the kidneys control the fluid in the body, blood pressure, produces urine and regulates lots of bits and bobs in there in relation to fluids. This swelling of the ankles is called Oedema and old ladies get it because their kidneys are full of crystals and don’t work very well anymore. It was most starling to have this happen and I did think hard about stopping the herbs because it was fairly unpleasant….but…this is yet another signal that I was right to try a kidney cleanse in the first place…. that the herbs where working ….. that there were toxins(crystals) in there that needed dissolving… I stuck it out. Oedema lasted about 10 days.

Had I NOT known what was going on, I would have 100pct stopped the cleanse and discarded it as “does not suit me.”

Had a doctor given me these herbs and had I blindly taken them and had these strange symptoms I would have bitterly complained to the Doctor, told him he was a fool for giving me stuff that introduced new nasty symptoms. Probably would have reported him or something. Funny old world eh! But no doctor gave them to me, I was responsible for my health now, there was no one to blame but myself anymore. Which is why I read and researched so much, so I could make educated choices about my health. Now that I did understand, I embraced the hassles as proof that I was on the right track and hoped that by coping with the side effects, that in the end, I would be better off than when I started.

Over the 30 days on the cleanse, I had a multitude of spots and pimples, some heartburn. Strange rashes on my ankles, arms, torso, very smelly urine and again pretty off-world BM’s. Again all these are signals of detoxing happening, especially the dark smelly urine. Life was tricky and unpleasant….but my life was already tricky and unpleasant…so it was no change from normal …but I had the knowledge, or hope, that by the end I would be better.

Oh I almost forgot….The chief reason for doing this kidney cleanse in the first place was because of my long term major lower back problems…..and for the duration of the 30 days my lower back hurt like hell, some days worse than others, but everyday was full of back pain…punch in the kidneys dull throb pain, right inside un-itchable kinda pain….which again was no real change from normal….but it was defo worse. Maybe I’m over-blowing the hassles to you….it was manageable ok….tricky, painful, annoying….but manageable…. for the last 5 years every day I had been managing things, I was a pro at managing pain…………so this was yet more pain to manage.

So, all in all another pretty eventful cleanse. Obviously my kidneys where congested with something and I probably needed to do more, because the hassles continued for the full duration of 30 days. After the cleanse had finished the extra symptoms disappeared and fantastically my lower back was better. Hooray!!! Not cured. Not great….but better…quite a lot better too…..maybe 30pct better than it was before….and when you have been told, “tough luck”, “it’s the dust mites” and “learn to live with the pain for the rest of my life”…….that 30pct betterness, that 30 days of unpleasantness…..all that hassle was massively worth it….I was overjoyed-happy….jumping around the room happy…..shouting from the top of the roof happy.

Stupid doctors……telling me rubbish that I would never get better again, never be able to pick up and lift up me own kids again……yeah yeah yeah…..i know I have an “issue” with doctors…..but screw ‘em! They got it wrong. I was getting better.

Danny Proudfoot

Monday 18 January 2010

Citric bitters

This post is part of the UK Herbal blog party on bitters hosted by Debs Cook at Herbaholics Herbarium.

January, especially when blessed with snow and ice, can often make you feel like hibernating for the rest of the winter. The midwinter festivities may also have left you with digestive stagnation from all the wonderful food and treats consumed. Whether we like it or not, January is a perfect time to start a new relationship with bitters. There is every likelihood they can promote a healthy digestive system and even lighten your mood, helping you to work your way towards Spring in the most positive way possible.

If you are new to the concept of bitters and maybe feel sceptical about the idea of a national “Bitters Deficiency Syndrome”, I suggest you read Jim MacDonald’s excellent article, “Blessed Bitters”. I have written a previous article about the bitters I know. You can also find further discussions about bitters on the Herbwifery Forum and the August 2008 blog party .

One major difficulty in introducing bitters into your diet at this time of year is the absence of fresh greens. You could go to the shops and buy watercress and other bitter salad greens, but salads may not be your first choice of food during cold weather.

There is another food group which is in season at the moment which we may not think of in terms of bitters, but is easily available - citrus. Grapefruit, oranges and lemons can all be used to make bitter tinctures or liqueurs with equal effectiveness providing the bitter taste is not masked by sweetness in the liqueur.

Oranges, especially Seville oranges used for marmalade, make a useful bitter tincture. Other sweet oranges can also provide a bitter component if the peel is used with the white pith left intact. Lemon peel can be used in the same way, to make a “cooler” bitter. I often add fresh or dried citrus peel to teas and elixirs to add an extra “umph” to the mixture.

Here is a selection of recipes from various herbalists which use citrus and other warming bitters which are helpful for this time of year.

Grapefruit bitter aperitif (Rebecca Hartman)
Slice up some grapefruit peel and remove most of the white pith. Put the slices of peel in a pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add a pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 15 minutes or so. Drain the peels and set aside the cooking water to make liqueur. Return the peels to the pot, add fresh water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for another 15 minutes. Drain again (don’t forget to reserve the cooking water).

Bring all the reserved cooking water to a boil and reduce it by about a third. Now add 2/3 cup sugar per cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Let it cool and then add 1 cup of vodka per cup of liquid. You need to allow plenty of time both for the reserved cooking water to reduce and for the sugar water mixture to cool. Pour finished bitter into a glass jar with a screw top lid, label and date. When using, take about a shot glass full or less and add fresh grapefruit juice. It tastes wonderful!

Seville Orange bitter (Julie Bruton-seal)
Fill an empty jam jar loosely with the peel of a couple of Seville oranges, a tablespoonful of cardamon pods, and a few fennel or anise seeds. If you wish, add a clove or two - but not too many as they are strong. Add a tablespoon of honey, and top the jar up with vodka (or brandy, whisky or rum if you prefer). Keep in a dark cupboard for a month, shaking occasionally, then strain off and bottle the liquid. Take half a teaspoonful before meals to improve digestion.

Bitter tincture (Jim Macdonald)
Dandelion root (mixture of roasted and raw or dried) (Use gentian or yellow dock root if available)
Orange peel
1tsp dried ginger or ½-1 inch root ginger
Fill a glass jar with chopped root and peel, cover with vodka for 3 weeks in dark cold place, strain and use. Dose is 15-30 drops 15 minutes before eating or after a heavy meal to release stagnant feeling

Chamomile bitter (Jim Macdonald)
1oz dried chamomile flowers
32 fluid ounces just boiling water
Steep flowers in water overnight.
Dose is 1fl oz taken cold. Freeze remainder in 1fl oz portions and use as necessary.

Bitter tea (Kristena Haslam)
Dandelion root
Burdock root
Milk thistle seed
Cardamom seeds
Cover with cold water, bring to the boil in covered saucepan and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Strain and drink.

Demulcent bitter tea (Darcey Blue French)
2 tsp flax seed
Bitter roots (dandelion, burdock, elecampane, angelica either one or a combination)
Warming spices (cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.)
Place in small saucepan and fill with cold water. Heat uncovered and simmer for half an hour until liquid in saucepan has reduced by half. Strain and drink

Bittersweet digestive and immune tonic (David Essig-Beatty)
Mix tinctures of burdock root and fennel in equal proportions.
Dose: 30 drops 15 minutes before meals.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Another story

Over on Mercian Muse This one is for children about finding a friend.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Herbwifery - a continuing journey

I don't know what it was I ate yesterday (although I have my suspicions!) but a chronic stomach ache during the evening followed by a sleepless night made me decide I was in need of rest and recuperation. So today has been spent pottering, gazing out of the window amazed at the further blanket of snow on the garden and lying on the sofa watching mindless TV.

While Chris and I were having lunch (homemade hearty vegetable soup and a sandwich)there was an advert on TV extolling the virtues of various bits of furniture.

"Ah," said Chris, "any furniture we buy has to withstand the effects of herbs!"

It made me chuckle at the time, but it's very true.

Any extra scrap of time I have is spent pottering with herbs. At the moment, I'm concentrating on digestive bitters. Last Saturday we made a digestive elixir with ground fennel seeds, grated ginger and diced orange peel. It smelled and tasted wonderful and I look forward to the time when it's fully matured.

I've been anxious to try Julie Brueton-Seal's recipe for Seville orange bitter ever since I read her article on the Herb Society website. I know the season for Seville oranges is short and it's this month, so last week I tottered through the ice and snow down to Birmingham market and asked hopefully at the fruit stalls if they had any.

"You're too early," they told me. "Come back next Tuesday."

Yesterday, conditions underfoot were a little better, but the wind was unforgiving. When I reached the stalls, the first trader looked at me with disbelief, "Nothing like that here," he said, "people don't want them any more!"

I wondered if they'd been having me on the previous week, but tried my luck a little further down. Hidden at the back of a stall was a box of Seville oranges. I bought 6 oranges and 6 lemons for the grand total of £2.40, thinking to myself, "You have no idea what I'm intending to make" as I handed over my money.

I thought my bitter foray would have to wait until Saturday afternoon, but this morning found me in a deserted kitchen (Chris had gone to hire an RAF pilot's uniform for a fancy dress evening on Thursday) armed with my camara taking artful snaps of various citrus fruits.

One of the things I love about herbal medicine is that once you understand the principles of a recipe, you can substitute whatever you fancy to give a similar effect.

I found this quote on Henriette's website from Chris Hedley, "Bitter tonics in one form or another will be benificial to most people. The only common proviso is to add a little spice, for warmth, for cold people and conditions."

So, while Juliette adds fennel and cardamoms for her warming spices, I added some chopped ginger to one of mine. You can see the outcome on the heading picture of the blog. I thought the juxtaposition of the snow and the new tincture said everything. Just because the weather is challenging doesn't mean you can't make something seasonal and fresh!

Thursday 7 January 2010

New UK Blog Party: January "My favourite bitter"

Following the success of the Herbwifery Forum's International blog party, we thought we would try to start a similar party for UK blog users.

The idea is to write a short article on a given subject, post it on your blog and send the link to the person who is hosting the party. Debs Cook, Herb Society webmistress and Council Member, has offered to host the first party on her blog, Herbaholics Herbarium. It's Debs' birthday today, so you may want to drop by her blog and send her some birthday greetings.

You don't have to be a qualified herbalist or even experienced in herbs to take part in the blog party, what we want is your experience and your stories.

This month's party is all about bitters. What are they? What's your favourite bitter? What happened the first time you ever tasted a bitter? (Sorry, I'm talking about the herbal kind, not John Smith's or Black Sheep, but you can talk about hops!)

All you have to do to join the party is to write your post and send the link by 20th January to Debs at debs at herbal-haven dot co dot uk.

Happy blogging!

Monday 4 January 2010

Something old, someting new....

This post is a late entry in the Herbwifery Forum January blog party on Warming herbs hosted by Yael.

In June this year, my sister in law, Roz and her partner, Dickie, will be holding a medieval feast at Dunster Castle for their wedding breakfast. They are both keen archers (Roz has been the UK Ladies Longbow Champion in the past) so a medieval celebration seems a perfect culmination of the happy event.

They have borrowed a copy of my ‘Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears’, which was recommended by Anthony Lyman-Dixon as the most comprehensive book of its kind. Although I’ve had it over six months, I’ve only managed to read the first few chapters, but already it has completely changed my view of medieval castle ruins!

You might think this happy family event has nothing to do with a post on warming herbs, but if you can be patient a little longer, I will explain.

During the November meeting of the Mercian Herb Group, Debs delivered a fascinating presentation on spices. It is easy to forget that spices are also herbs and most of them are warming in one way or another. Amongst the spices Debs introduced us to was Grains of Paradise, Aframomum melegueta. This spice was very popular during medieval times and is an absolute “must have” if you are trying to re-create medieval recipes.

Debs very kindly shared some of her Grains of Paradise with us. They look like peppercorns, which they can substitute for, but have a reddish tinge. The seeds are harvested from a green leafy plant very similar to ginger grown in West Africa. It has a distinctive purple, trumpet-shaped flower. The pods are red when first picked, then are dried to a brown wrinkled capsule. The seeds come from inside the pod and produce a grey-coloured powder when ground.

Grains of Paradise have been described as tasting somewhat like coriander, ginger, and cardamom, with a citrus note and a scent which people sometimes describe as being very “floral.” It is milder than black pepper, but it still provides a degree of heat and spice if applied in large amounts.

The name, ‘Grains of Paradise’, was applied by the ancient spice traders, who justified their high prices by telling buyers it came from the Garden of Eden itself and had to be collected as they floated down the rivers out of paradise. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, knew the spice as “African Pepper”, but the more exotic name was popular throughout Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth century.

Like all spices, Grains of Paradise has its own medicinal properties. In medieval times, under the Doctrine of Humours, it was considered to be “hot and moist”. Like black pepper, it can be used as an anti-inflammatory and a pain-killer by warming arthritic joints. Modern research carried out on rats has claimed it as an aphrodisiac, but one would have to carry out personal experimentation to see if such findings held true for humans as well!

Over the past few days, I have been experimenting with electuaries thanks to the recipes kindly shared by Susan Hess and Ananda Wilson during the August 2009 blog party on Sweet Medicines. I substituted Grains of paradise for red pepper flakes in the Spiced electuary and added some with powdered ginger to the Longevity electuary.

Spiced Electuary (Susan Hess)
1/2 tsp Grains of Paradise,
1 tsp whole cloves,
2 tsp coriander seeds,
2 tsp dried ginger root,
2 tsp whole black peppercorns,
2 tsp fennel seeds,
2 tsp nutmeg powder,
3 tsp cardamom seeds,
3 tsp whole allspice berries,
3 whole star anise,
3 tblsps cinnamon chips
Grind all spices together in a mortar and pestle (or electric coffee grinder if you have one) until quite finely powdered. Stir into 2 cups of honey and simmer together over a the lowest heat possible double boiler for at least a day, preferably longer, but stirring often. Strain warm honey through a medium fine sieve. This will assure that you remove all the tooth-breaking hard parts, but still allow the powered bits to pass through. The finished electuary should be rich, dark and nearly paste-like in consistency. Store in a clean jar and cap tightly.

I made the electuary in a crockpot, which was a big mistake. Even on the lowest setting, the temperature was too high. After two hours, Chris suggested we strain it before it cooled and stuck like concrete to the bowl! We strained it onto a baking tray and put it in the utility to cool. It set into a dark brown toffee which bent and pulled when handled, but which broke when hit with a heavy object (Chris used the wooden spurtle made by my father to stir porridge!).

In small pieces, it is not unpleasant to suck, but is definitely spicy!

Longevity Electuary (Ananda Wilson)
In an 8 oz jar, add:
3 tsp Ashwagandha and or Shatawari powder
3 tsp Spirulina powder
3 tsp Slippery Elm or Mallow powder
2 tsp Siberian Ginseng (Eluthero) powder
1 tsp Cardamom powder
1/2 tsp Turmeric powder
Cover almost full with good local, raw honey
Add 1 tsp of Rose hydrosol or Rose elixir. Dried Elderberry powder is optional as well! Slowly, to avoid the infamous "cloud poof", stir with a spoon until all the powders are smoothed into the honey. Label and store. Refrigeration isn't necessary.

Ananda suggested adding ginger or pepper to the electuary if you have a “kapha” constitution, which I probably have, so I powdered half a teaspoon of Grains of Paradise and added it together with half a teaspoon of dried ginger. The resulting honey is “very different”! The spirulina turned it bright green and the spices have given it a very interesting flavour. So far I’ve eaten it on bread as this seems more palatable to me than having it on its own.

What I love about Grains of Paradise is that it has given me a link to the past which can now carry on to the future. Although it fell out of favour in the kitchen during Georgian times when an Act of Parliament prevented its use as a flavouring in beer, aqua vita and cordials, perhaps now is the time to reassess its distinctive properties and make it part of our lives again.