Monday 20 December 2010

December blog party: Adaptogens - A tale of Ashwagandha

This post is part of the December UK Herbarium Blog Party, No time for stress, hosted by Brigitte at My Herb Corner.

If you had asked me two years ago to describe an adaptogen or name one of the plants which fell into that category, I would have looked at you blankly and shook my head. I may have heard the term, but it didn’t really mean anything to me. Then I ordered myself a copy of “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief” by David Winston and Steven Maimes and spent several weeks reading during my ten minute commute to work every morning.

Adaptogens are such incredible plants. Winston and Maimes describe them as “remarkable natural substance that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic functions and help restore balance.

In 1968, Bekhmann and Dardymov gave adaptogens a formal definition. They said firstly, an adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient. Secondly, it provides a non-specific response in the body – an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical and biological agents. Thirdly, an adaptogen has a normalising influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.

They almost sound too good to be true.

Winston and Maimes provide a list of 21 plants classified as true adaptogens. The frustrating part is that none of them are UK natives. I suppose this isn’t surprising since the cultures which have studied adaptogens most closely are Ayuvedic and Chinese medicines, with the Soviet Union getting in on the act following the Second World War when they were looking to support their scientists to win the space race. Modern Chinese research was also to do with winning – but sporting achievements rather than the struggle for off-planetary supremacy.

I wasn’t sure I could grow any of the listed plants, since most of them thrive in hotter climates. I’d already tried American gingseng (panax quinquefolius) but it disappeared from the herb bed shortly after planting and I didn’t know what I was really looking for to keep an eye on it. Liquorice (Glycorrhiza glabra) was another short lived purchase, but since it’s a herb I feel I should learn more about, it may be something I experiment with a little more seriously in the future.

Two plants really did call to me. One was Rhodiola (Rodiola rosea) because I was curious to smell its root when mature and the other was Ashwagandha or winter cherry (withania somnifera). Everyone seemed to wax lyrical about it and Kiva Rose Hardin wrote a beautiful article about the plants she grows in her canyon. Despite the differences in our climates, I decided to see if ashwagandha was something I could make friends with.

Luckily Debs Cook was growing some ashwaganda plants from seed in the spring of 2009. She gave me two seedlings and I carefully planted them on the patio and watched their progress. It was a joyful experience watching the two plants grow large green leaves, then flower and produce vibrant green fruits which eventually turned a vivid scarlet as they ripened. I was so excited.

I picked the fruits, carefully drying and storing them in the kitchen drawer. I hoped the mature plants might overwinter, given our previous incredibly mild winters. Obviously the severe frosts and snow during 2009/2010 destroyed that hope, but I still had my seeds.

During one of the spring workshops, we carefully pulverised the ashwagandha fruits to reveal white seeds. Soil taken from molehills filled two seed trays and around 30 seeds were planted. Workshop attendees also took seeds home and I know at least one plant germinated successfully and grew.

I have to confess I am not a green fingered gardener. I do not provide seeds with heated trays or self watering systems. They are placed on the patio and left to the vagaries of the weather. I may water them if I remember.

The ashwagandha seeds appeared happy. Over twenty of them germinated and I took six of the largest plants to the farm where they grew into mature specimens. Unfortunately the lack of water and the early frosts meant they didn’t set fruit that I could see. I dug them up and replanted them in my parents’ greenhouse, but I don’t hold out much hope for their survival in the current weather conditions.

I kept twelve plants in large pots on the patio where they would get the most warmth. Two plants in the same position as last year’s plants turned very sickly. I think the cause might be the sudden appeared of a rogue mullein interloper in the pot. Don’t ask me how it got there. I know I should have removed it immediately but I didn’t. I love mullein and to suddenly have it appear in my garden was a real joy. Of course, next year, I shall probably discover it’s not mullein at all but false alkenet and then I shall be really unhappy!

General advice is to harvest ashwagandha roots after the first frost. I had enough plants, but I couldn’t bring myself to harvest them. I kept hoping one of the plants would set fruit, but none of them did. Then I decided to try and over-winter them. There really wasn’t any room in the house and I don’t have a greenhouse, so I placed them all in the garden shed and hoped for the best. I saw them for the first time yesterday when Chris dragged me out from cooking frangipanes to frolic in the powder snow. The snow was beautiful, but my ashwagandha were all frosted so I suspect I have lost them all.

There is something about ashwaganda I really like. I shall try growing them again next year and maybe this time I will harvest some roots and make my own tincture. My aim is to develop an understanding of the plant’s medicine and I am sure that if I have patience this is something achievable. For the time being they have already brought me great delight and sense of accomplishment brought about by the surprised faces of several herbalists when I showed them my plants.

If you are looking for some stress busting recipes at this challenging point in the year try these.
Kiva Rose’s Winter Cherry Nourishing Electuary

2 parts Ashwagandha
1/2 part Nettle Seed
1 part Tulsi (Holy Basil)
2 parts Elm
This makes a lovely moistening adrenal tonic very helpful in times of stress or depletion, providing energy while relaxing the nervous system and body. It’s fairly temperature neutral, and generally gentle enough for anyone.

Ananda Wislon’s Longevity Electuary
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.

The longevity electuary is intended to be used daily, eaten by the spoonful, used on toast, stirred in warm milk with ghee, or in yogurt or smoothies. Ananda said, “These herbs will provide you with stamina, clarity, physical and mental energy, good digestion, and strong mucous membranes. It is also a notorious aphrodisiac.”

Saturday 4 December 2010

Last chance to apply for a Springfield Sanctuary Apprenticeship

The opportunity to apply to become a 2011 Springfield Sanctuary Apprentice will close on Friday, 17 December 2010.

The twelve month herbal apprenticeship starts in January 2011. You are offered the opportunity to learn more about growing, harvesting and working with herbs to improve personal and family health and wellbeing.

Outcomes: Year 1

By the end of 2011, the apprentice will have:

*improved knowledge and understanding of twenty personally chosen herbs.
*grown herbs from seeds, cuttings or divisions and taken note of their development using drawings or photography.
*shared in practical tasks to manage the Sanctuary herb beds.
*harvested flowers, aerial parts, berries and roots
*made teas, decoctions, macerations, syrups, infused oils, salves, tinctures, vinegars, flower essences and elixirs
*familiarised themselves with a variety of body processes such as respiration, digestion, circulation etc and looked at several herbs which can help to balance these processes.
*participated in an online email action learning group.
*completed tasks set by the mentor and fed back the results to the other apprentices
*begun to share knowledge, enthusiasm and herbal extractions with family and friends

Outcomes: Year 2 (for apprentices who began their apprenticeship in 2010 and wish to continue)

By the end of 2011, the apprentice will have:

*studied a further ten herbs or looked at the original herbs chosen in more depth
*considered further anatomical or emotional processes e.g. fertility, aging, grief
*considered constitutional elements/energetics from a western herbal medicine perspective
*consolidated and continued all the experiences engaged in during Year 1


Each apprentice is expected to:

*choose up to twenty herbs to study during the year
*attend at least six workshops throughout the year and to attend the Herb Festival held in September.
*complete the tasks set by the mentor within given timescales
*work within the Sanctuary herb beds – digging, weeding, planting, harvesting etc.
*keep a herbal diary and/or online blog detailing activities and learning
*evaluate their personal progress at the end of twelve months

Costs: There is no overall charge for the apprenticeship. Apprentices are expected to make a financial donation when attending workshops or the Herb Festival and to offer practical physical help at the Sanctuary. Anyone considering an apprenticeship should factor in personal costs such as time, transport, access to growing space and internet plus a degree of commitment to their studies and to the Sanctuary.

Note: This apprenticeship is for personal development only. Apprentices study at their own pace. The amount and depth of work is self directed. Guidance will be given on sources of information, but handouts covering all topics may not be available. There is no accreditation from an academic body, certificate of attendance or examination process. The apprenticeship will NOT enable anyone to set up in private practice as a medical herbalist.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Academic celebrations

When you give birth, the last thing on your mind is the outcome of the child's education. As the years roll by you experience the first day at playgroup, first day of nursery or school with varying emotions. The transition between primary and secondary school is probably the most traumatic – as a parent you still have enormous responsibilities preparing, applying, managing entrance exams or SATS tests and then sorting uniform and equipment.

You support their interests and activities – providing a taxi service or, in our case, becoming a roadie, hiring venues and feeding band or cast members. Then comes the break. They go to university. You breathe a sigh of relief and relish the silence, supporting with finance and telephone counselling, but at least there is no active involvement with academic studies or writing essays (until the final dissertation when a plaintive voice asks, “Could you just write me a page on different kinds of eye diseases?”).

It has been such a long process, you don't believe it will actually finish. You plan retirement around how many more years of study you need to support. Then suddenly the day comes. It is all over. Degrees are attained and your heart bursts with pride.

We weren't expecting both degree ceremonies to occur in the same week for both remaining offspring, but they did. Despite freezing weather and snow for the final event, they were both glorious days full of smiles and laughter and hats thrown in the air.

Two of the three graduation ceremonies were held in cathedrals. Richard's in Durham with Bill Bryson as Chancellor, Kathryn's in Coventry. Stephen's was held in The Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, with Sir Michael Parkinson giving the final address and congratulations.

It is a wonderful feeling to know you have successfully piloted all three offspring through higher education.

Herbal Gifts

I am way behind with my contribution towards the UK November blog party on making gifts with herbs. This was the theme of my November workshop and the Mercian Herb Group meeting, so I am posting some recipes we used then, with many thanks to Debs Cook for her contributions and tutelage.

Even though the ice and snow are upon us, if you have a store of dried herbs or access to another source, you can still make herbal gifts. Here are a few suggestions.


Salt scrub
1/2 cup oil.(118ml or 4fl oz) Use sweet almond, grapeseed or another light-textured massage oil such as an angelica, dandelion or rosemary infused oil . Don't use simple cooking oil from your larder.
1 cup fine sea salt. Baleine is a good choice. Don't use simple iodized table salt -- it's too harsh. If you have sensitive skin you can substitute sugar, which is gentler.
5-15 drops high quality essential oils. The essential oil you choose for your salt scrub depends on the result you want. Lavender is relaxing, lemongrass is refreshing and rosemary is stimulating. You can experiment and do your own blend.
Put the salt (or sugar) in a small bowl.
Add the oil, mixing well with a spoon or wooden stick. The texture should be moist enough to hold together, but not overly oily. You can adjust the amount of oil to achieve that texture.
Gently tap in the drops of essential oil and combine well. So now you're ready to use your home-made salt scrub -- once a week is plenty. This recipe should get you through three salt scrubs.

Rose Water (Gail Faith Edwards)
Pick blossoms on a sunny day when their scent is at its peak or use an amount of dried, scented rose petals or buds. Put into a stainless steel or enamel pot 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. In the morning, strain the fragrant rose water off. Add a quarter of the volume in alcohol as a preservative. Bottle and keep in a cool dark place. Rose water can be splashed all over the body to tone and refresh. As a wash, it can help heal acne.

This recipe can also be made with dried or fresh elderflowers

Rose Petal Cleanser (Tammy Herring)
Fill a glass jar with dried or fresh rose petals and cover with distilled witchhazel (available from the chemist). Use a chopstick to stir the mixture to remove any air bubbles, then refill the jar so all petals are covered. If you leave the petals uncovered they will go brown within a couple of hours.

Seal the glass jar with a screwtop lid, label and date. Leave the jar to infuse in a cool, dark place for a couple of weeks. Strain and pour back into the original dark glass witchhazel bottles. You may find the scent from fresh rose petals is not strong or even non existent, so it might be worth adding some dried rose petals and re-infusing for two further weeks after you have strained the fresh rose petals. Apply to your face with soaked cotton wool pads.

This recipe can also be made with dried or fresh elderflowers

Herbal soap (Anna Kruger)
170g/6oz grated, unscented, uncoloured, very mild soap
120g/4oz dried or 4 handfuls of fresh herb (see below for skin type) simmered in 375ml (1-1.5cups) water in a covered pan and left overnight
1tsp essential oil
Put grated soap in the top of a double boiler saucepan (or a large bowl with a saucepan of boiling water underneath) and stir in herbal tea. Whisk vigorously until all soap has melted. Add essential oils. Pour into small, greased moulds or waxed paper cake cases and leave to cool Place these in a warm place for 6-8 weeks until dry. If making soap for sensitive skin replace 3oz soap with honey and add to mixture as soap is beginning to melt.

Herbs for different skin types
Normal to dry: chamomile, violet leaves, elderflower, parsley, borage, marshmallow leaves and root.
Oily: Lavender, marigold, yarrow, horsetail
To improve circulation: rosemary, nettle, fennel

Massage Oil
Make a double infused oil from suitable herbs
Deep muscle pain – goldenrod
Light muscle pain and breast tissue issues – dandelion
Sciatica – rosemary and St John’s wort
Arthritis – meadowsweet, ginger, solomon’s seal, plantain
Nerve pain – St John’s wort

The term, “double infused” means that you use the same amount of oil for two separate amounts of herb. This usually means dividing your herb harvest into two piles which you add to the oil at different times, the first amount being added at the beginning and the oil then being strained and the first portion removed at the end of the required time, then the strained oil is poured over the second portion which is subsequently heated.

If you are intending to use the infused oil as a massage oil or salve for children or frail elders, you may wish to undertake a single infusion for some highly aromatic herbs e.g. rosemary.

Moisturising salve
To make a simple salve, grate up some beeswax and add it to the hot infused oil, stirring continuously until it melts. (About 1oz beeswax to 8 fluid ozs of oil) Test on the back of a wooden spoon to see whether it is of a suitable consistency, then pour into small jars and seal. If you are not confident to do the spoon test, an easier way of checking is to drop a very small amount of oil plus melted wax into cold water in a small bowl or mug. The salve will immediately cool and you can rub it between your fingers to check the desired thickness.

The salve will thicken on cooling, usually from the bottom upwards if you pour into cold jars. It will usually be a paler colour than the original oil.

To make a moisturising salve use oils which have an affinity with the skin such as calendula and add violet leaf or marshmallow oil to add moisture. If you want the salve to have a strong scent, add 1-4 drops of your favourite essential oil per fluid oz of oil, but do not do this if the salve may be used by a young child.

You can experiment with adding honey or lanolin to your salve to give it extra softness.

Lip Balm
The easiest way to make a lip balm is to infuse dried calendula petals with 2/3rds cocoa butter melted with 1/3 sunflower oil. When poured into cold jars, the balm will keep solid at room temperature.

Rosebud Lips Balm
225ml (9floz) Calendua Oil
3 Tablespoons Jojoba Oil
45g (1½ oz) Dried Alkanet Root
30g (1oz) Beeswax
12 Drops Rose Essential Oil (optional)
Method - Gently heat both oils in the top of a double boiler for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the alkanet root and steep for around 30 minutes, to extract the colour from the root.
Strain the root from the oils through a muslin cloth. Return the oils to the double boiler with the beeswax. Once this has melted, remove from the heat and add the rose essential oil drop by drop. Pour into small sterilised pots or jars. Allow to cool thoroughly before putting the lids on.

We first made this lip balm last February following inspiration from The Victorian Farm. Debs found the recipe and it has been really useful. I prefer to make the lip balm without essential oil because it makes my lips tingle. This time we used a combination of calendula and dandelion flower oil which made a lovely rich infusion.

Creams and ointments are made by emulsifying a mixture of infused oil and water. You can also make a cream by adding your own tincture and oil to a commercially prepared cream or ointment. Christopher Hedley’s basic recipe for a cream is
1oz base cream (eg Aqueous cream)
1 tsp infused oil (e.g. marigold or St John's wort)
2 tsp tincture (e.g. rose petal or comfrey)
4 drops of essential oil (e.g. lavender)
First add the infused oil to the base cream and stir until it is all absorbed. Then add the tincture and stir again, then add the drops of essential oil and stir again. Spoon into small jars with screw top lid and use.


Moths do not like cloves, so pomanders are the perfect, sweet-smelling preservative for drawers and wardrobes. Choose which citrus fruit you would like to make into a pomander – lime, lemon or orange. Put in a warm place to dry for 2-3 days. Place sticky tape around the centre of the fruit - one circle for lemon or lime, two for an orange. Using a thick darning or knitting needle, make a hole in the skin of the fruit and insert a whole clove. Make sure you cover the whole surface of the fruit. Remove sticky tape then cover the pomander with a mixture of equal portions of nutmeg, cinnamon and orris root powder. Place somewhere warm and dry for 2-3 weeks. The fruit will shrink so you may have to reinsert any cloves which have fallen out. Shake off excess powder and tie a ribbon around the fruit in the space left by the sticky tape.

Sleep pillows
Gather equal portions of dried lavender, hops and rosemary. Grind the rosemary to release scent. Place inside a small muslin bag and secure firmly. You can add a few drops of lavender essential oil if you wish before securing the bag. The muslin bag can be placed inside a cotton case if desired. Place this sleep bag either on or under the pillow to aid sleep. It can also be used when travelling to aid sleep in a strange bed.

Scent bags
Fill a small muslin or organza bag with your herb of choice – lavender (soothing), rose petals (uplifting), lemon balm and marjoram (soothing), mugwort (to aid dreaming), pennyroyal (to deter insects).