Monday 23 May 2011

May blog party : Flower essences

The wonderful thing about blog parties is the diverse wealth of articles produced by participants. This month is no exception.

Ali at Eldrum Musings offers a new (to me) way of considering medicinal herbal doses using the five elements from "earth" to "spiritual" which is the flower essence. She also shares her latest flower tinctures, white archangel and hawthorn.

Danielle at The Teacup Chronicles has looked at the background to flower essences and told her personal story of making and working with dandelion flower essence. I especially love her dramatic photos.

Debs at Herbal Haven has written a courageous article explaining why she doesn't agree with the whole concept of flower essences.

Lucinda at Whispering Earth blog has written a beautiful article, By Sun and Moon, descibing how she has made both a sun essence and a moon essence - something I have not yet attempted.

Jackie at Moongazing Hare has contributed a description of her personal journey with flower essences showing how anyone can make and use them.

My contribution can be found below. Again, it's very much a personal growth story. What I especially love is offering people who come to the Sanctuary the opportunity to build a personal relationship with a plant through making a flower essence. The whole process brings a delight and deeper understanding of possibilities which was not there before they started.

Flower essences : Working with energy and emotions

My first encounter with a flower essence came on 27 January 1988. I was lying in one of Solihull’s delivery suites with my new daughter by my side. As always, the birth had been quick and incredibly painful (5 hours instead of three and a half, but only because I woke up earlier!) and although my body had been very co-operative and efficient (it knew exactly what to do and told me to go away and let it get on with delivering the baby!), I was left in shock with a traumatised diaphragm because I’d pushed semi-prone rather than sitting up.

The door to the suite was open and my friend from the Solihull Community Health Council (CHC) Mother and Child Special Interest Group walked by. Margaret was an experienced NCT tutor and had been a stabilising influence to our survey of parentcraft classes throughout the borough which was our current project.

I beckoned her to come and meet my daughter as I was incredibly proud of finally producing a girl after two boys. When she saw the state I was in, she unearthed a bottle of rescue remedy from her bag and told me to put four drops under my tongue as often as I could.

“It won’t hurt,” she told me, “and it will help.”

I have to admit, with no herbal knowledge at that time, I was more than a little sceptical, but with paracetamol not touching any of the excruciating pains in my body – both from my diaphragm and the contracting uterus whenever I fed Kathryn – I tried to follow her instructions as often as I could. I suspect if I had taken it every half hour as I would recommend to anyone in crisis now, I would have gained more from it, but thankfully the diaphragmatic pain ceased after twelve hours or so and my general recovery was fairly trouble free.

The next time flower essences crossed my path was in 1996 during an oil making demonstration given by Christopher Hedley at the Chelsea Psychic Garden on behalf of the Herb Society. As we waited for the rosemary oil to infuse in its water bath, he told us stories about his patients.

“If you let people talk for long enough,” he said, “they will not only tell you what is wrong with them, but what they think has caused it.”

Once he treated a lady for a boil on her head. The boil had burst on Christmas Day and, not wanting to disturb Chris on this public holiday, she had gone to her local A&E. Chris said he would much rather have had his day disturbed because the boil became infected from the hospital visit and took much longer to heal. He treated the infection with thyme oil, but the lady also told him the emotional reason for developing the boil in the first place. He treated her emotion with flower essence and everything healed well.

Learning about energy during my healer training, gave me confidence to think about energetic uses of plants. It wasn’t something I could cope with at all during my early years with herbs, but gradually it seemed helpful to think about how plants targeted our emotional bodies as well as our physical ones.

The first flower essence I ever made was marshmallow. It was a laborious process bringing spring water and marshmallow flowers up from the Sanctuary, finding out a suitably sized bowl and then waiting for several hours until the infusion was complete. Marshmallow has a property of enabling people to make friends more easily. It suited my black humour at the time to threaten to send some as a present to the financial department of our managing Primary Care Trust who were giving me grief over my budget, knowing they would not appreciate the irony of the gift.

It was yarrow who taught me the most powerful energetic lesson with three separate instances over several years. The first came when one of my East Birmingham CHC members began his final illness. He’d been in pain for over a year, but no-one could put a definite cause together. His diagnosis of metastasised oesophageal cancer came days before I visited him in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. I was a student healer at the time and John had come to me for healing on several occasions. He was very angry with himself for “not doing enough to beat the illness”. I told him he was doing what he needed to be doing at that time, but I don’t know if the thought brought him any comfort.

I sat by his bedside holding his hand asking for as much love, light and healing as he needed. When I left, I kissed him goodbye on the forehead, not realising he was covered in a foul-tasting sweat which lingered on my lips. Making my way back to the car, I was desperate to find something to take the taste away. There on the steps leading down to the car park were some yarrow leaves. I gratefully picked them and chewed them and the taste was gone.

I didn’t know then about yarrow’s affinity with boundaries. Mathew Wood taught me that property when I read his “Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using plants as medicines”. He told the story of the man whose boss was continually in his face. Matthew suggested he keep a sprig of yarrow in his tool box. The man did this and noticed his boss back off almost immediately, allowing him to carry out his work without hindrance.

By this time I was beginning to offer flower essence making during my workshops – first as a specific workshop with one plant being chosen and a joint meditation - and then as an integral part of most summer workshops. After all, the most important component is at least three hour’s sunshine and access to flowers, so there seemed to be no reason to limit anyone’s activities in this area just because it wasn’t on the official list of things to do that day. Reading about the flower essence makers of Findhorn also showed it was possible to make essences on overcast and rainy days if the intention was clear.

I also learned bowls weren’t essential too. Carrying glass bowls down two fields and up again was not an easy thing to do. You could achieve exactly the same results with flowers spread over the tops of jam jars or glass tumblers. The picture might not be as aesthetically pleasing, but the flower isn’t going to mind!

Some people find it difficult or even impossible to go and sit quietly by a flower and see what it tells you. They look at me blankly when I suggest they wander around the Sanctuary or the field and see which flower calls to them. I remember one woman who did not stop talking for the entirety of the exercise, but even she found a flower which was perfect for her needs. (Lemon balm)

One of the flower essences we made during 2004 was yarrow. In June 2005, a close friend was involved in a traumatic situation and I was terrified of the possible consequences both for them and their family. This worry settled in my solar plexus as a physical pain. It took me several days to remember the yarrow flower essence, but eventually I decanted some into a tiny bottle and took it into work with me. I put four drops into a glass of water and sipped it. I repeated this several times that first day, amazed to find the pain disappeared almost immediately. I continued to dose myself for several days, but the severe pain did not return. It helped to teach me I was an individual separate from my friend. What was happening to them was not happening to me and being so fearful was not an effective way to offer support.

The setting of clear boundaries is something I often find difficult when offering support to others, but yarrow sometimes has to beat me over the head to get me to listen. A couple of years later a yarrow plant suddenly decided to grow outside my backdoor in Solihull. I’d never consciously grown yarrow in the garden, so was surprised to see it appear.

Each day I would open the back door and brush past the plant but never took the time to wonder why it might be growing there or what I might do with it. Several weeks after it started to flower, I realised I was getting very stressed by the clients I was seeing and various issues being faced by my family. The yarrow flower was trying to tell me I needed more help from the flower essence to rebuild and strengthen my boundaries. Needless to say, I took heed of the plant’s message!

The method I use for making flower essence comes from Non Shaw’s little book "Bach Flower Remedies : A Step-by-Step Guide". The sun method is for flowers and the boiling method for twigs, buds and leaves.

The sun method
Gather flowers in the morning when the dew has evaporated, but the flowers have not become too stressed by the sunshine. Pour 1 litre of spring or mineral water into a clean glass bowl and sprinkle the flowers on the surface of the water until it is completely covered. Leave for three hours in direct sunlight in a safe place. Remove the flowers with something other than metal or your hand e.g. a stick and pour 50ml of fluid into a clean dark bottle. Add 50 ml of brandy. Label the bottle and date.

The boiling method
Pick small twigs with flower clusters and young leaves. You will need enough twigs to 3/4s fill a large saucepan. Place them in the saucepan and add 1 litre of spring or mineral water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for half an hour. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove flowers, allow sediment to fall to the bottom, then filter 50ml fluid into the dark glass jar. Add 50 ml brandy. Label bottle and date.

This makes 100ml of flower remedy. As long as you add equal amounts of brandy to the infusion, you can make any amount of what is called by Julie Bruton-Seal the mother essence. I have been using this as my dosing medium, but Julie suggests diluting twice before using the essence. She adds three drops of the mother essence to a 30ml bottle filled with brandy which is then known as the stock essence. This can then be used as follows:-

- Put 20 drops in the bath, then soak for at least 20 minutes
- Rub directly onto the skin or mix into salves or creams
- Put a few drops in a glass or bottle of water and sip during the day
- Make a dosage bottle to carry around with you by putting three drops of stock essence into a dropper bottle containing a 50/50 brandy and water mix or pure distilled rose water. Use several drops under the tongue four times a day or as often as necessary.

People have always said that you can’t overdose on a flower essence, but this refers to the diluted essence, not the mother stock. One of my apprentices misunderstood the dosage of a horse chestnut bud essence they made and took a large teaspoonful (over 60 drops) of the remedy. It was very resinous, which worried the apprentice greatly, but apart from the initial concern no long term harm was done.

Some herbalists don’t find flower essences helpful. This doesn’t mean they don’t use the energetic property of herbs, but they take them as teas or drop doses of tinctures, rather than a diluted infusion. I have made a vervain flower tincture when I didn’t have access to spring water because I wanted a drop dose medium to help people access vervain’s ability to make them ‘let go’.

Although there are standard energetic “uses” for particular plants, it is the close relationship and meditation between plant and human which reveals the use for that person at that time. As with everything related to universal energy, there are no set rules. You have to find what works for you and take responsibility for both accessing and using it.

Bruton-Seal, J & Seal, M Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest & make your own herbal remedies 2008 Merlin Unwin Books Ltd
Cowan, E Plant Spirit Medicine 1995 Swan Raven & Co
Davies, J R Hawthorn 2000 Element Books Ltd
Davies, J R Marigold 2000 Element Books Ltd
Lavender, S & Franklin, A Herbcraft: A Guide to the Shamanic and Ritual Uses of Herbs 1996 Capall Bann Publishing
Sanders, K “The Spiritual Properties of Herbs” on Herbal Highways June 17 2004
Shaw, N Bach Flower Remedies : A Step-by-Step Guide 1998 Element Books
Wood, M The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines 1997 North Atlantic Books

Friday 20 May 2011

Summer plans

Summer is always a busy time. Gardens call us to tend and harvest, but time is really short because we find ourselves travelling across the country nearly every weekend for a two-three month period. Most of this travelling is for fun, but there will be some work involved as well. If you would like to see what the Sanctuary herbs are looking like at the moment, go here.

There are lots of herbal opportunities. Maybe I shall see some of you during our travels. Here is the itinary.

3-5 June Exmouth Kite Festival. If you are in the area, Sky Symphony and other kite teams will be performing next to the rugby club overlooking the estuary. I'm offical tea lady and emergency ground crew for the kites, but I shall be taking time out to wildcraft fennel and yarrow and would love to have herbal conversations with anyone who cared to visit.

12 June (Sunday) Mercian Herb Group visit to Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. Come and join us on a visit to the historic gardens. Further details can be found here

18 June (Saturday)Springfield Sanctuary workshop on Herbs for the Menopause. There will be oppotunities to make ox-eye daisy flower essence (to help women come to accept the menopause), mugwort and motherwort vinegar and tincture (bring empty jar jars and some vodka and cider vinegar) and meet herbs which can support women through this life event. I'm also offering some energy healing practice at the end of the workshop.

29 June (Wednesday). During my week up in Newcastle for work, I'm taking the opportunity to offer a herb talk to Newcastle Carers, so as well as delivering bereavement training to staff, I shall be taking a basket of nettles, rose elixir, hawthorn vinegar. chickweed pesto and other goodies for people to sample. Should be fun!

1-3 July I'm in Lincoln with the Ageuk Carers Helpline staff training in bereavement and then we go to Winterton where Sky Symphony are performing at the local agricultural show. Let's hope the team are following the antique tractor demonstrations and not the heavy horses!

9 July (Saturday) Springfield Sanctuary Exploring Herbs workshop. July is always a wonderful month to visit, because so many herbs are in bloom along with a wealth of herbs to harvest.

15-17 July Festival at the Edge Possibly one of my favourite festivals - a mixture of fantastic storytelling and folk music. This year will be especially fun as friends are coming with us and Sam Sweeney, Tom Bliss and Nancy Kerr and James Fagin are all performing.

22-24 July. Herbfest 2011. I still can't quite believe I've been asked to speak at this prestigious herb conference at its new venue, Croyden Hall in North Somerset near Dunster where Chris' sister was married last June. Rosemary Gladstar - one of the leading American Herbal Elders - is the keynote speaker and the lovely Glennie Kindred will also be talking about Zen and the Art of drawing. My two talks are both on Saturday afternoon. I'm presenting on "Becoming a Kitchen Herbwife" and "Using vinegars in Herbwifery" which basically means we'll be talking about playing with herbs in your kitchen, wildcrafting, growing and tasting and making things. I'm harvesting and drying a mountain of Swiss mint as we speak to use in some way.

28-31 July Warwick Folk Festival Although this is very close to home, it's held in the grounds of Stephen's old school and we usually take the caravan down and camp. I'm especially looking forward to the Spooky Men's Chorale on the Thursday night and lots of other old favourites. This is the weekend that Richard and Laura's baby is due, so we may be down in Woking instead!

Several people have told me their blog posts for the May blog party will be a little late, so I shall be posting on Monday instead of today.

Monday 16 May 2011

The forgotten few

I was sorting out photos from the weekend and realised I had pictures of plants which I’d not taken before. The plants had been growing for ages, but I just hadn’t bothered to take their photos because I don’t work with them or I see them around from time to time but I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. I thought I would share them with you.

Every year around this time of year a beautiful flowered stalk appears along the walkway from the summerhouse down to the pump house. I always admire it, wonder if I know it’s correct name and then forget about it for another year. Once the flower stalks disappear, I can never find it again as the area is covered with Himalayan balsam and other large plants.

The photograph finally forced me to identify the plant properly. It was bugle, Ajuga Reptans. Not a plant I remember discussing in any forum. Trying to discover its properties was also problematic. A lot of books don’t mention it, but thankfully Matthew Wood came to my rescue. His Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants is so helpful when you’re trying to find knowledge most herbalists don’t include. He also points you in the direction of other ancient herbals where you can check the original wording and see what else the writer had to say.

Wood quotes Maud Grieve who included bugle in her Modern Herbal, giving its properties as bitter, astringent and aromatic. Grieve , in turn quotes Culpepper, who gives a clear description of the plant as well as its habitat which is still true today. He said, “It grows in woods, copse and fields generally throughout England.”

Culpepper had a high opinion of the value of the Bugle. He described it as a herb of Venus and said, “if the virtues of it make you fall in love with it (as they will if you be wise) keep a syrup of it to take inwardly, and an ointment and plaster of it to use outwardly, always by you. The decoction of the leaves and flowers in wine dissolveth the congealed blood in those that are bruised inwardly by a fall or otherwise and is very effectual for any inward wounds, thrusts or stabs in the body or bowels; and is an especial help in wound drinks and for those that are liver-grown, as they call it. It is wonderful in curing all ulcers and sores, gangrenes and fistulas, if the leaves, bruised and applied or their juice be used to wash and bathe the place and the same made into lotion and some honey and gum added, cureth the worse sores. Being also taken inwardly or outwardly applied, it helpeth those that have broken any bone or have any member out of joint. An ointment made with the leaves of Bugle, Scabious and Sanicle bruised and boiled in hog's lard until the herbs be dry and then strained into a pot for such occasions as shall require, it is so efficacious for all sorts of hurts in the body that none should be without it.”

I really like the idea that everyone should keep some form of the plant nearby. I gathered some flower stalks and will dry them. During my next visit to the farm, I may search for some more if I have time.

Culpepper also believed Bugle was helpful for people “such as give themselves much to drinking[and] are troubled with strange fancies, strange sights in the night time and some with voices….Those I have known cured after taking only two spoonfuls of the syrup of the herb after supper two hours before you go to bed.” Culpepper is unsure how the plant works and it would be fascinating if some modern research were done to see if bugle maintained its efficacy for alcohol-induced hallucinations!

Matthew Wood lists a whole range of specific indications for the herb, from irritable cough, through gallbladder congestion, to oedema, bruises, cuts, lacerations, stab wounds, haematomas and ulcers.

Grieve says the whole herb is gathered in May and early June then dried. The dose is one small wine glass full of the infusion made from 1oz of dried herb to one pint of boiling water given frequently. You can also make a salve for wounds, as well as Culpepper’s syrup. He also suggests a decoction of the herb in wine should help dissipate congealed blood caused by a fall or an inward wound such as a stabbing.

Wall Germander
Wall Germander, Teucrium Chamaedrys, was historically a gout herb. I bought it because Chris developed gout in his hand during a particularly stressful time in his life. The doctor prescribed anti-inflammatories but nothing to dispel the urea crystals, so I dosed him with yarrow, celery seed and burdock leaf. The gout disappeared and has not made a reappearance in the past ten or so years. Nothing like having a herb in the garden to scare away a condition!

Around this time, Roger Tabor, then Chairman of the Herb Society, produced a list of herbs which were disappearing from the wild. Wall germander was one of them, so I decided to plant another one close to the summer house at the farm.

Our garden plant became very woody and fell foul of Chris’ dislike of any plant which dares to encroach where he wants to mow. I cut it back too far one year in an effort to please him but the plant decided it could not cope and disappeared over the winter. The summerhouse plant is still thriving, but almost lost in a sea of encroaching grass.

Wall germander is a creeping evergreen perennial 6 to 18 inches tall. Its scalloped, opposite leaves are 1/2 - 11⁄2 inches long, dark green, and shiny. In late summer, pink tubular flowers grow in whorls from the leaf axils. Grieve says the fresh leaves are bitter and pungent to the taste and when rubbed, emit a strong odour somewhat resembling garlic. (I’ve never noticed this, so must taste a leaf next time I walk by!)

Grieve says “the Emperor Charles V having been cured of gout by a decoction of this herb taken for sixty days in succession. It was employed in various forms and combinations, of which the once celebrated “Portland Powder” is one of the chief instances.”

Portland Powder, named after an ancestor of the Duke of Portland who brought the recipe from Switzerland, consisted of equal parts of Birth wort, Gentian ; Germander, Ground-Pine, and Centaury; all dried, pulverized, and sifted.
Grieve says it was also used as a tonic in intermittent fevers, and recommended for uterine obstructions. The expressed juice of the leaves, with the addition of white wine, was held to be good in obstruction of the viscera.

The problem with wall germander, is that, like comfrey, it contains hepatoxic PSAs which damage the liver. It has therefore fallen into disuse and is not recommended any more for gout especially not for long term usage.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

May blog party : Flower essences, Call for submissions

This month's UK Herbarium blog party features flower essences.

What are they? How do you make them? What do they mean to you? The aim of this set of posts is to discover how you relate or don't relate to flower essences. How do you learn the energetic property of the plant? Do you read a book, discover an internet article or ask the plant to tell you? How do you use the finished essence? Do you use the original infusion or do you use a homeopathic dilution? Have you noticed any difference? What do you use flower essences for? What are your stories? Can you share them with us, no matter how strange or bizarre.

Please let me know if you wish to take part in the blog party (the more the merrier). Once you've written your blog post, send me the link to the article by email at sarah at headology dot co dot uk by 20 May. I know there isn't much time, but this month is proving frantically busy both on a work and gardening front for me, so please bear with me.

If you don't have a blog, but would like to write an article, let me know and we'll arrange a host blog for your post. I look forward to reading everyone's thoughts.

Saturday 7 May 2011

A story for violets

Kristine Brown's eleventh challenge in her Herbal ally series is to write a story to your ally. I've cheated, including a brief mention of my ally in a short story. You can find it here

I promise to write a more significant story later.

Friday 6 May 2011

Revising the basics: Infused oils

With sudden spurts of early summer growth all around us, herbs are crying out for different ways to stay with us and be used. One way is to make an infused oil. They are simple to make and once prepared, you can go off and do other things while they infuse.

Sun Infusion
If you ask a North American how to make an infused oil, (or those who are influenced by their practice), they will describe the sun method of infusion. This is where you fill a glass jar with fresh herb (possibly wilted for several hours or days to reduce the water content), covering the herb with your oil of choice so the entire area of herb is covered and either leaving in the sunshine or another suitable warm place for six weeks or burying in hot sand/earth overnight or for several days.

The only drawback to this method is that if you leave any part of the herb exposed to the air, or if you seal the jar tightly so water vapour from the fresh plant material cannot evaporate, mould may form or the oil may become rancid so that at the end of the six weeks you have to throw everything away. You need to check the oil regularly to ensure everything is ok.

The only herb I infuse by the sun method is St John’s wort. I pick the flowers either daily or every few days, place them in a glass jar and cover them with sunflower oil. St John’s wort is a very delicate flower and needs a very light oil, such as sunflower oil. The jar is then placed, uncovered, in my kitchen window sill until the end of September, early October when I strain out the plant material and place the infused oil in a clean jar, seal and date.

The jar is left uncovered to ensure the water vapour from the flowers can evaporate. You can put a lid on as long as it isn’t sealed, but I have had problems with doing this. If you are worried that flies or other insects might contaminate your oil, you can cover it with a cotton/linen jug cover or a small piece of butter muslin/cheesecloth.

St John’s wort oil can be made cumulatively. If you only have a small amount of flowers, these can be placed in a jar and covered with oil, then a further harvest can be added to the jar on further occasions until the jar is full. The oil will start turning colour after 4-7 days, gradually changing colour from yellow to pale pink to deep crimson as the active constituents of the plants are released into the oil. It will also take on a distinctive aroma, which is unique to St John’s wort oil.

Double infused oils
European herbalists usually prefer to heat their herbs using the double infused method on a stove/cooker using the principles of a bain marie/water bath so the oil of choice does not come in to direct contact with the heat source.

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.

Double boiler double infusion classic method
4 oz fresh or dried herb
Enough sunflower oil to cover 2oz of leaves (around 8 fluid ounces)
Either a double saucepan or a stainless steel pot with a lid small enough to place inside another saucepan.
Place half of the herb inside the inner pan and cover with the oil. Replace the lid firmly and place inside the other saucepan which is about half filled with water. Heat the external saucepan so that the water gently boils. Do not let the pan boil dry! Boil for about 2 hours, then remove the inner pan and strain off the oil, squeezing the herb if you can to remove as much oil as possible. Place the rest of the herb inside the inner pan and pour over the oil from the first infusion. Replace the lid firmly and heat the oil in the outer pan for a further two hours. Strain the oil into a heated glass bottle or jar and cap with a screw top lid. If using fresh herb, let the infused oil sit for about three days to make sure any water content separates out. Decant oil. If water drops are left in the infused oil it will go off more quickly. Label the oil with the name and date that you made it.

The need to weigh and measure your quantities of herb and oil is entirely up to you.

Henriette Kress, the Finnish herbalist, makes all her St John’s wort oil by picking up to three inches of the top of each plant stalk i.e. flowers and stem, then infusing using a hot double infusion.

Cookpot/crockpot method
You can heat your oil in a cookpot/crockpot on the lowest setting. You then have the choice of altering the timings and maybe heating overnight for a concentrated single infusion, or for two extended lengths of time for a double infusion.

Remember that oil heats at a temperature higher than water and if you are using fresh plant material, the water vapour will evaporate and collect on the inside of the crockpot lid. Be very careful when removing the lid. Try to lift it up and away quickly so the water droplets do not fall into the hot oil. If this happens, the hot oil can splash and burn you. (I have done this, it’s painful!)

Fresh herbs or dry?
As with making tinctures, some people advocate using fresh herbs for infused oils and others prefer to dry them first. Christopher Hedley recommends always drying calendula petals before infusing in oil because the resin content of the herb is so high. Calendula is probably the only plant material I dry before making oils which means it is usually a winter activity since it can take several months to completely dry the flower heads!

Interestingly, when I brought back some rosemary from Spain and dried it before making an oil, the oil was incredibly pale with little colour or scent, so totally different from my normal fresh infused rosemary oil.

If you use fresh herbs, the oil will contain a certain amount of watery matter which can make the oil go bad if not removed before storage. Removal can be achieved by firstly noticing the globules of water at the very bottom of the infused oil when you are pouring the final straining and leaving it in the pan. The oil can then be left for up to three days to insure the oil and water layers have separated, then decanting the oil again before final storage.

I have had one occasion when making a double infused fresh rosemary oil in a cookpot, where the resulting infused oil came out as an emulsion and took several months before the oil and water levels separated.

The presence of an aqueous (water) component to an oil does expose it to the danger of botulism being present, since the organism lives in water. The botulin toxin is not destroyed by heat so, if it is present, it cannot be removed. The danger of botulism is rare. I have never heard of a case relating to an infused herbal oil in any country and if your oils are only used externally there should not be a problem. You may wish to make lip balm from oils prepared from dry herbs as the botulin cannot live without water.

Which oil?
The type of oil you use to prepare an infused herbal oil depends on your preference and the availability and cost of your preferred medium. Vegetable oils are the most popular medium. Sunflower, safflower, olive, almond, avocado, jojoba, coconut are only a few examples of what is available. You will need to decide what you want to use and what you are prepared to pay for it.

In ancient times, animal fats were the most widely available form of oil and these were used for infused oils as well as lighting. “Leaf tallow” from around the kidneys of an animal is the purest form of fat. It is easily absorbed through the skin and is gaining popularity amongst herbalists who wish to use organic, local, sustainable oils with respect. Beef, mutton, pork, emu and bear fat are all suitable. If carefully rendered and kept in a cool, dark environment, the infused oil can keep without unwanted scent or deterioration for up to a year or more.

Infused oils should be kept in a cool dark place. If stored correctly they should keep their efficacy for at least two years or more if they remain unopened. You can usually tell if an oil has gone rancid or has no usefulness by the smell/scent. If an oil loses its scent but does not smell unpleasant, it is probably best to discard and make some more.

Oils are slippery and may be difficult to rub in. You may find it easier to make the infused oil with an oil which is solid at room temperature such as cocoa butter or coconut oil, especially if you don’t want to use beeswax for any reason. Shea butter is another vegetable oil which is solid, but melts at body temperature.

You may need to use a combination of solid and liquid oils to ensure you get a suitable consistency. If you are using cocoa butter, the combination is 2/3:1/3 of cocoa butter to sunflower oil.

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. St John’s wort salve is pink, comfrey salve pale green and dandelion salve pale yellow.

The whole aim of both infused oils and salves is to deliver a dose of herbal medicine through the body’s largest organ, the skin. To improve the transfer through the skin, some herbalists add extra contents such as lanolin or honey. If you decide to experiment with these substances you must ensure the recipient is not allergic to the addition and is not diabetic. Since honey is also water based, it may separate out from the oil if not sufficiently emulsified.

Essential oils
Essential oils can be added to salves to improve their keeping (Vitamin E can be used in the same way) or to add scent. Use the least number of drops possible per fluid ounce of salve and never more than 4. If your salve is going to a household where young children live or visit, do not include any essential oil.

I once gave a calendula lip salve scented with ylang ylang oil as a Christmas present to my boss. Her three year decided to use the lip balm herself and her whole face became puffy. I was mortified, because I had not thought there would be any danger of a child getting hold of the lip balm. Luckily my boss was not upset as the swelling went down the following day, but ever since then I’ve not used any essential oil in any of my salves. The scent of fresh honey from the locally sourced beeswax is enough fragrance for me.

Monday 2 May 2011

Herbal ally update: Vinegars and Visitors

My work with violet continues to surprise and delight me. Today I decanted the two infused vinegars I made a month ago together with the tincture.

The first vinegar was made with apple cider vinegar and is a deeper brown colour compared with the shop bought cider vinegar. Both taste sweet and pleasant – none of the harshness you expect from tasting neat vinegar. I poured the apple cider vinegar on my salmon salad at lunchtime and it tasted really good.

The macerated herbs from the vinegars both exhibited a mucilaginous “glow” when decanted. It was as if the vinegar had changed the consistency of the plant matter. This was not the case when the tincture was decanted. The violet flowers had been leeched of their colour and the leaves were pale green, but the overall consistency of the plant had not been affected.

The tincture was pale green with a slightly violet hue and tasted pleasant.

I made a salad with violet leaves last Tuesday when we returned from the farm after our Easter escapades, but I think the leaves now are too tough to be really enjoyable eating. I may try them again later as the violet bed is a vibrant green entity within the garden, but I may leave them until I need to make some more violet double infused oil.

I have made the oil for the past two years and it is a lovely addition to salves where you want to increase the moisturising content of the salve.

Whilst I was bemoaning the loss of violet flowers in the middle of April, I suddenly became aware of another violet flowering beautifully under the wooden patio seat. This was the original violet in the garden, but I had not taken any special notice of it until now.

The difference between this violet and the viola odorata is that the flowers tower over the tiny leaves with a magnificent arching stem. The petals are pale in comparison to the sweet violet and the leaves are a deeper green with a mat finish instead of the bright green lustre of the woodland plant.

The leaf when chewed is more mucilaginous than the sweet violet leaves showing that this visitor, or rather, long-term resident of this garden, would be suitable for many of the uses other violets are renowned.

This violet is the dog violet, viola riviniana. I became quite excited when I first saw it, thinking I might have stumbled across the rare heath dog violet, viola canina, since the latter grows on acid soil, but it seems much more likely that my visitor is the more common variety. It has a delicacy and poignancy all of its own and offered an extension to my violet flower study with its later blooms.

You can find my violet article for the Herb Society in two parts here.

And now it’s May!

I don’t know where time goes to these days. I seem to have spent the last three weeks in a blur of illness, recovery and frantic gardening/herb growing. When you’re not feeling well, everything is a greater effort – for me it was a sudden, excruciating pain in my neck. It was so bad, I took it to the doctor (haven’t been there in nearly four years!) and she wrote me a prescription for codydramol and told me it would probably get better on its own. She was more concerned with my weight and high blood pressure, so I’m taking steps to manage that through diet, digging, hawthorn and lime flowers.

Luckily I had an appointment booked the following day with my osteopath. He manipulated my neck for nearly an hour, freed the trapped muscle and removed the pain and told me I had a lesion between the muscle and where it joined onto the skull bone. He said it was damage normally seen from having your neck lifted over the washbasin in a hairdresser’s, but since I never go to one, we tracked it down to a combination of my new pillow and spending more time in my unsuitable home computer chair.

What really concerned me, was had I followed to the doctor’s advice and taken the codydramol, my neck would not have recovered by itself, but become more restricted as more muscle groups locked up and I would have had to have suffered the side effects of the codeine paracetamol combination. I love my osteopath.

Once my neck pain disappeared, my tooth started up again. Chris thought I should take it back to the dentist, but since his only suggestions would be antibiotics or taking the tooth out, I really wanted to do something different. Heather Nic An Fhleisdeir suggested I try sage, so I started taking a regular mouthwash of sage and calendula tea – swilling it around the affected tooth and then swallowing.

I normally don’t really like sage but this combination I could drink happily and it worked. Over three days, the pain disappeared and although the tooth is still sensitive, especially when I’m tired, it doesn’t throb and I can chew on it normally. Herbs have come up trumps again!

The other activities which have taken time and energy have been the April meeting of the Mercian Herb Group (a herb walk around my garden followed by elixir tasting in the kitchen) and the Easter Sanctuary workshop where we experimented with making lanolin from a fleece over and open fire. You can see photos of the lanolin making here and photos of the rest of the Easter break activities here. I’ve also put up photos showing all the trees and herbs in the Sanctuary.

Since then we’ve been at home preparing the garden for the vegetables I’ve been growing from seed or buying from the local nursery. Today, Chris has gone off to play with his kit car and I’ve been decanting some vinegars and making up a hawthorn tincture as well as planting more seeds. Maybe one day it will be time to rest again!