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