Thursday 20 January 2011

January Blog Party: A host of herbal hugs

I spend a lot of time during my bereavement courses emphasising the importance of touch. To find another human being who feels safe enough to hug isn’t always possible. Sometimes we have transformed into the prickly hedgehog which makes it difficult for those around us to offer the support we need. Sometimes we just want time alone. If this is the case, it is the perfect time to indulge in a herbal hug or two.

My favourite winter drink was inspired by Rebecca Hartman. Flax seeds decocted with a broken cinnamon stick and finely chopped peel from your breakfast orange is incredibly soothing. Rebecca’s original concoction was made as a relief from period pains, but I have found nothing better for making me sit still and do nothing for however long it takes me to sip the contents of my mug.

Warming winter tea
Place 1-2tsp flax seed together with a broken up cinnamon stick and maybe a couple of cardamom pods and some sliced orange peel, a handful of fresh or half a handful of dried rosehips and the juice of half an orange. Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and fill the saucepan with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer uncovered until the amount of water has halved from evaporation. Strain, add honey to taste and sip while hot.

One word of caution, less really is more in this recipe. We have made flax seed tea twice during workshops using a tablespoon of flaxseed and several pints of water. I’ve also used dried orange peel rather than fresh. It is nowhere near as nice. We found strong flax seed tea on its own almost undrinkable until a drop of cinnamon tincture was added. Too much dried orange peel made the tea very bitter and not to my taste, although others enjoyed it.

Another totally delicious and unexpected drink is Nut Brew. Again this was based on the Hickory Brew recipe from Ananda Wilson's blog. Steeping nuts to make an infusion was not something I'd ever thought of, but it works wonderfully.

Nut Brew
1 part smashed hazel and walnuts (you could experiment with other nuts as well)
6 dates chopped
3 parts water
Simmer for 30 + minutes
Strain a cup at a time, leaving the rest to continue steeping.
Add milk or almond milk to taste if required, but no extra sweetening is necessary.

Sometimes you come across a herbal hug completely by accident. Two summers ago, I began to experiment with elixirs - herbs extracted in honey and brandy. One evening after work, while the sun still shone in the garden, I wandered around gathering herbs which nourished the nerves. In my basket went lemon balm leaves, violet leaves, rose petals, heartease aerial parts, wild strawberry leaves, St John’s wort flowers and four lavender heads. I let them steep for around five weeks before decanting the result into a recycled brandy bottle. It tasted interesting and I labelled it “Uplifting elixir”.

There wasn’t any call for this elixir over the following twelve months, although it did get used as a taste example when I gave talks and was generally well received. Last autumn, my son found himself in an extremely stressful situation, so I gave him a dropper bottle of elixir to take whenever he had the opportunity. He said it really helped.

I also sent small bottles of elderberry and uplifting elixir to my friend in Glasgow as part of his Christmas present. When he tasted the uplifting elixir, his exclamation of “Wow!” really had me wondering what this particular combination was doing. When I asked him to explain his reaction further, he said, “The elderberry is very fruity, and on the nose has almost “vanilla” notes. It’s possible that the tang – similar to the nice sharpness you get from blackcurrant, but without the bitter afternotes that blackberries have – is disguising the spirit to an extent.

“The Uplifting may have just the same proportion of brandy and honey, but it definitely feels in the mouth like a much stronger mix. There’s a tingle on the sides of the tongue that you get with whisky or brandy, and the warming as it goes over is much more pronounced, without being likely to induce a coughing fit.”

My hunch is that the lavender is the main cause of the increased warming effect. One of Kiva Rose’s students once called lavender tincture, “a hug in a bottle” and I know other people have found lavender tincture extremely helpful during stressful times. I’m looking forward to making another batch of uplifiting elixir this coming summer from the fresh herbs in my garden.

Another elixir which is becoming a firm favourite is rose petal elixir. This again was a 2010 experiment arising from articles written by Kiva Rose Hardin on her Medicine Woman blog. The first elixir I made was with a mixture of apothecary’s rose and ‘William Shakespeare’ – a deep scented red rose. To say the elixir tasted heavenly was an understatement.

When I gave a talk on tinctures to a group of complementary therapists in Northampton last November, I took a small bottle of rose petal elixir with me. I stood at the front of the group, cradling the bottle to my bosom and told them I could hardly bear to share it with anyone else – before I passed it around for everyone to taste. At the end of the talk, a woman came up to me, her face alight with excitement.

“How do you make this elixir,” she asked. “It is the best thing I have ever tasted and I could feel it lifting my spirits as soon as I swallowed!”

Luckily the recipe was in her handout.

I’ve made the elixir with dog rose petals, which is lighter and more subtle and with William Shakespeare petals on their own with different amounts of honey. It doesn’t matter how you make it, the result is still wonderful and a real treasure to keep with you during the depths of winter.

Finally, my other favourite herbal hug is my spiced hedgerow cordial. Made from whatever I happen to have gathered from the hedges that day, it is spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and sweetened with honey or sugar.

Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
1-2lbs of blackberries
1/2lb rosehips
1 large orange (sliced)
1 and a half inches of root ginger (grated)
1 nutmeg (grated)
2 large quills of cinnamon
6 cloves
3 lbs honey
Place everything in a large pan and cover with cold water (I used about 5 pints). Bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for about an hour. Strain the liquid and push any juicy bits you can through the seive. Discard the debris and wash the saucepan. Measure the liquid and put on a low heat to evaporate for an hour or so, depending on how thick you want your cordial to be. I had 4 3/4 pints liquid, so I evaporated it down to around 3 pints as I need enough for the party and a residential home demonstration and Christmas. A film will form on the top of the liquid, mix this back into the cordial before you add the honey. Heat very gently until the honey is dissolved. Steralise bottles in the oven for ten minutes, then pour cordial into bottles, seal, label and date. To make the drink, add 1 tablespoon of cordial to a small cup/goblet of boiling water. Sip and enjoy.

You could use half elderberries and half blackberries and more rosehips.

Possibly my favourite is sloes and rosehips flavoured with lemon juice.

Sloe/Rosehip Cordial
1lb sloes
1/2lb ripe rosehips
Place sloes and rosehips in a pan and add 2 pints of water and the juice and zest of a lemon. Simmer for about an hour until the rosehips are soft. Liquidise and measure the resulting liquid after passing everything through a sieve. Add sugar or honey in the ration of 1lb to 1pint of liquid. Heat until sugar or honey has dissolved. Taste. If it is too sweet, add more lemon juice. Serve with boiling water in a ratio of 1/3 cordial to 2/3 water or to taste.

A tablespoon or two of cordial mixed with boiling water in one of my Greenman goblets from Pickering in Yorkshire is a simple but effective way of treating myself when everything else is bleak.

Thursday 6 January 2011

January Blog Party : Call for submissions

This month's blog party is hosted by Lucinda over at Whispering Earth. She writes "With the festive cheer over and the weather unremittingly grey, January is often the least favourite month of people in the Northern hemisphere. That is why I have decided to give this month’s blog party the theme of Herbal Hugs.

The idea is to write about the herbs you find most comforting, supportive, caring and indulgent or the recipes you just couldn’t be without when you feel a little low and just want a big hug from your favourite plant friends. Perhaps you have one plant in particular that has been of great comfort to you, a favourite tea blend or a bath recipe that always calms and comforts. If so please share them with us here so together we can have a truly uplifting start to the New Year.

If you have your own blog then add your post before January 20th and email me the link at -I’ll post the links to all the entries here on the evening of the 20th.

If you don’t have a blog but would like to join us anyway you can email your piece as a word document to Debs at the UK Herbarium on debs at herbal-haven dot co dot uk and she will add it to the UK Herbarium blog as a guest post."

I know I have a few recipes I love to make during this time of year, so I will be sharing these later in the month.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Finding a herbal ally

Most of this post was taken from and inspired by a similar post on Kristine Brown's blog, Dancing in a Field of Tansy I've been following Kristine's blog for several years now and have learned many things. She also produces a wonderful children's herbal ezine called Herbal Roots.

As part of a spiritual/herbal renaissance, Kristine is following in the footsteps of Gail Faith Edwards. The idea of a herbal ally comes from Gail's book, “Opening our wild hearts to the healing herbs” I read this book about three years ago and have forgotten much of what she wrote so I am grateful to Kristine for bringing it back into my consciousness and for providing me with a task for both myself and my apprentices.

Gail says, "Pick a new plant each year to focus on. Be sure to grow the plant, or meet it in the wild, observe it, make different medicines and foods with it, use it in many ways, consume it regularly, or use as applicable as often as possible, and constantly observe. Noting all you observe. Keeping your own notes is critically important. Learn to meditate with plants. Learn to take care of them, learn to process and use them, one by one. Fall in love with each and every plant you work with, one by one. Recognize the living being there, the spirit of the plant. Respect its power. Open your wild heart to it."

Susan Weed suggests “Choose a plant that grows very near to you ... no more than a one-minute walk from your door. You don't need to know the name of the plant, or anything about it. You will be sitting with your plant every day, so, if possible, choose one that grows in a quiet and lovely place ... in a pot on your balcony is just fine ... in a park is great ... so is an alley ... or a backyard. "

Susun offers six different green ally exercises to get to know the ally more intimately.
1. Meditate/sit and breathe with your green ally for 3-10 minutes a day
2. Make a detailed drawing of the ally as accurate as possible. Next make a soft, impressionistic drawing
3. Find out what parts of the ally are typically used. Find out if other parts are useful. Make oils, tinctures and vinegars of all the useful plant parts (separately)
4. Observe the conditions the plant chooses to grow in.
5. Write a story from the point of view of your green ally. (If you have trouble getting started, write a warm up page praising your green ally and telling him/her how much you like him/her and why.
6. Introduce a friend to your green ally. Tell them all about your ally.

You may wish to include these other exercises Kristine suggests
• write a song about your green ally
• write poems about your green ally
• if edible, eat your green ally as often as possible try your ally in tea form
• start some seeds of your green ally so you can watch them grow from a seedling into full life
• harvest your ally at all stages of growth
• sketch, draw, paint your ally at all stages of growth

I am going to choose violet (viola odorata) as my herbal ally. She is a herb I have been meaning to learn more about for a while and have not made time to do so. 2011 gives me the opportunity to rectify that omission.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Clearing the decks

Now the madness of the holiday season is over, it’s a great joy to have a few quiet days on our own before work begins again. May I take this opportunity to wish all my readers a wonderful, herb-filled year!

As much as I love spending time with relatives, the stress of travelling half way across the country during bitter winter weather is very wearing and I’ve been grateful to have these days when we can relax and decide our own activities.
Chris is out with Sky Symphony today, flying kites over Bosworth Battlefield and planning their new routines for this year’s shows. It seemed an ideal time to finally clear my shelves of the remaining jars which still need decanting from last year’s harvest.

The elderberry elixirs I have left in the larder since Kiva Rose suggested she leaves hers intact until use and it’s so much less hassle that way. If I have given the elixir to others outside the family, then it is decanted into recycled bottles or dropper bottles. This year I even sent a sample up to Glasgow in an empty vanilla essence bottle as a surprise Christmas present for a friend. He was suitably impressed by the flavour!

I had not anticipated the variety of medicines I would be decanting. There were two elixirs – dog rose and red clover flowers – both collected from the farm and each surprisingly unique. I love the rose petal. It is not as strong as the red rose petal, but still sweet and enjoyable. The clover is not as sweet and has an almost bitter afternote as if to say, “I am different, notice me.”

I was really pleased with the litre of nettle root tincture which means there is plenty for Chris’ tonic for the rest of this year. It prompted me to make up his daily medicine. He gets a small dose of nettle root, saw palmetto and hawthorn most mornings, while mine is more a blood pressure and nervine mix. We finished the last batch at least a month ago and I’ve not made time to put the new ones together until today.

I love the smell of crampbark tincture and the two year old jar of rue I found hiding at the back of the shelf made me feel very reverential as I handled it. It was so much easier straining the marc through my new large seven inch sieve (a much valued Christmas gift!). This time I used muslin as an additional straining agent, bringing back strong childhood memories of washing the milking bucket, sieve and muslin after pasteurising each day’s milk from our housecow.

In October, I put up three jars of horsechestnut tincture after liquidising conkers with vodka. I don’t think I shall be using James Wong’s method again. I don’t think I squeezed any tincture at all from the largest jar, making the whole process a waste of time and effort. Next year, if I need any more tincture, I will collect the conkers in early August and slice them as before.

There were four vinegars sitting in the hot cupboard, each a wonderful reminder of summer’s final bounty. The colours of vinegars can be so much sharper than tinctures or elixirs. Sage is a glorious pink if the leaves are from my garden or crimson if gathered from my aunt’s plants in Condicote. The fresh motherwort was an earthy brown – probably from being left too long macerating – and both the dandelion leaf and mint were a clear green-tinged gold. The smell of the mint was a true delight!

Medicine making never truly stops during the winter. I still have two jars of fire cider vinegar infusing in the hot cupboard. They were made during the week before Christmas with the last of the fresh horseradish root my son dug for me in October. Chris had been taking last year’s concoction for his cold and I fell into one of my panics about not having enough. Being able to put up more of something makes me feel so much better! Just in case!

I’m looking forward to putting up some Seville orange bitter at the end of the month if I can source some more oranges from the market. They are such an invigorating start to a herbal new year!