Wednesday 22 June 2011

Violet: friends and family

The last time I wrote about violets, Henriette Kress left me a comment saying, “See, I don’t get violets. We have v.tricolor and that tastes ghastly. No “gentle mucilaginous green” taste, no, it’ll clobber your tongue to tell you to fxxx the hxll off. V.odorata, gentle mucilaginous, check. The rest? The wild dry ones? Most emphatically not.”

This had me worried. I’d never tasted heartsease but it was on my list of things to do with violet’s relations. I’d already chewed a dog violet leaf and that was basically tasteless but more mucilaginous than the odorata. I was intending to do the same with heartsease, but Henriette’s comment did have me wondering. Would it be bitter? Would it be as unpalatable as she described? I would have to “bite the bullet” or rather, leaf and see for myself.

I haven’t found any heartsease growing in the garden this year. For the last five years or so they have wandered around the various beds popping their beautiful flowerheads up out of various beds from late spring to summer. I think I killed them all off by replanting some in the old wheel frame which acts as my sole hanging basket – sometimes I forget to water it and after last winter, nothing survived.

I thought I would have to buy new seeds this year to repopulate the heartsease, but the plants in the Sanctuary had other ideas. They reappeared in March and have been blooming beautifully for the last three months. You may have seen the photos on Facebook.

Last weekend was the menopause workshop where fourteen women got together to discuss, laugh and create amongst the stunning flowers and herbs of the Sanctuary, ending with a beautiful healing circle.

I was standing by the bottom bed while others searched for motherwort, lady’s mantle and nettle to put in their tonics and decided it was time to test the palatability of heartsease. I picked a leaf, chewed and waited to be told to “go away”. It didn’t happen. From the virtually tasteless tiny leaf developed the most amazing amount of mucilage – soothing, calming and definitely welcoming to the tongue.

I picked a bunch of aerial stems and gathered the other women together – presenting them with a leaf each to chew and experience. They all agreed it was pleasant, very mucilaginous and a fascinating experience as most of them had not known the term mucilaginous before.

We discussed Henriette’s comments and agreed that environmental conditions must dramatically affect a plant’s makeup. Finish plants must have a sterner outlook on life than our own as they have to survive in colder conditions with a much short growing period.

I’ve not seen viola tricola growing wild in the UK, but I saw it everywhere when I was travelling from Oregon to California three years ago. I shall look for it again on the east coast when we return to the vast continent to explore from the Canadian border down to Boston in September. There they call it “Johnny jump up” because of its proclivity.

My first awareness of heartease medicinally came from an Israeli herbalist on Henriette’s email list. She talked about using heartsease for childhood eczema, so I steeled my heart to their beauty, gathered a bundle in the garden and made an infused oil. Those I gave it to reported it was helpful, but I might do many other things before handing out a salve now, including using a chamomile water to reduce the heat in an inflamed condition before applying any kind of oil.

James Wong also likes heartease. He talks about using heartease as an anti-inflammatory for eczema and combines it with chamomile in a cream.

Viola eczema cream
Makes one 150 ml pot
2 tbsp (20 g) viola flowers, stripped from their stems (heartsease, viola tricola)
2 tbsp (20 g) Roman or German chamomile, dried (you could use 4x the amount of fresh)
1 tsp beeswax
2 tbsp almond oil
1 tsp vitamin C powder
1 tsp glycerine
2 tsp emulsifying wax
250ml freshly boiled water
1. Place the violas and chamomile flowers in a glass bowl. Pour over the water to cover. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Put the infusion into a medium-sized pan (this will form the bottom of your double boiler or bain-marie).
2. In another glass bowl, add the beeswax, almond oil, vitamin C powder, glycerine and emulsifying wax. Place on top of the infusion pan, and warm over a gentle heat, stirring until melted. This takes about 10 minutes.
3. Strain the infusion, then slowly whisk it into the oil mixture until incorporated – the texture should be smooth, like mayonnaise.
4. Pour the mixture into a sterilized dark glass ointment pot, then seal.
USE: Apply to affected areas morning and night. Ideally, apply within a few minutes of bathing, to keep moisture in the skin.
STORAGE: Keeps for up to 6 months in the refrigerator.

Personally, I can never get a cream not to separate, but then I haven’t tried an emulsifying wax. Maybe I should.

My harvest of heartsease this year is infusing into cider vinegar. I thought long and hard about how to preserve it and what I would find most useful. I already have some wonderful oil from the odorata in the garden and the infused vinegar is being used up on salads, so a vinegar to extract all the minerals from the plant seemed to way to go.

If you would like to see many of the other plants growing in my gardens this month, take a look at Facebook.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Times of change: Menopause

On Saturday I shall be facilitating a workshop at the Sanctuary looking at herbs which can support women (and their families) during menopause. As this is something I am/have been experiencing for the last four years or so, it is a subject I feel intimately involved with. I thought I would share a few things which have helped me to retain a reasonable quality of life during this time.

In today’s busy world, there is considerable pressure to be continually happy and successful in our lives. Our culture idolises younger people and cosmetic companies continually spread the message all women should strive to preserve their youthful appearance “because you’re worth it”. The underlying sign appears to be that if you show any signs of aging, you somehow become invisible and worthless.

These continual messages have caused many women to fear the time when their ovaries cease to function; when they pass from “fertile mother” into that of “wise woman”. They fear the change in body shape, the supposed loss of sexual attractiveness and believe stories that all women suffer terribly from a range of symptoms during the years while their body readjusts to hormonal changes.

They worry about emotional imbalance. Some women talk about feeling “as if they are going mad” because emotions may not be contained as they were before. Periods of unhappiness or grief are considered signs of an inability to cope or function properly and expressing anger is not considered “proper” in a polite society.

Many people associate sadness and unhappiness with lack of self-worth and failure, yet all emotions are part of the human condition. Our capacity for all shades of emotion and sentiment may well increase as we grow older and are exposed to loss, death and bereavement in all its many forms. This is not something to be feared, but acknowledged as a part of life from which to learn and grow.

The usual decade during which the majority of women experience menopause is the fifth. Some women will suffer an early onset of menopausal symptoms in their forties and some women may have to undergo a surgical hysterectomy at any age.
The grief caused by this sudden onset of menopause can catch many women unawares. With the current trends to start families later because of career or partnership commitments can mean a woman loses her choice of whether or not to have a family before she has had time to consider which path she wishes to travel.

There is then the decision whether or not to go down the hormone replacement therapy route (HRT). It has to be a personal decision but anyone asked to engage with this therapy should consider all the facts before embarking on it.

If you do decide to receive HRT, current best practice is that the drug should not be prescribed for more than five years. Many women try to come off it, but because the subsequent menopausal symptoms are so bad, they often go back on the tablets. I have friends who were on the drugs for over ten years because their GP did not reviewed the prescription.

Germaine Greer and Susun Weed have written what I consider to be excellent if controversial books about menopause and they both cite research which shows that HRT does not deliver many of the original claims when it comes to issues like loss of bone density. You really have to get as much information as you feel is helpful and then make your own decision.

One of the most powerful allies in our journey through life is to be aware and knowledgeable about our own bodies and how they work. To be able to find meaning behind a seemingly meaningless situation or symptom is half the battle towards coping with and either accepting or challenging whatever troubles or concerns us.

There are many good books and online resources which look at the menopause from both a sociological and herbal perspective. It is also helpful to discover some basic anatomy so you understand how your body and particularly the reproductive and endocrine (hormonal) system works.

References and websites are included in the resources section at the end of this post. Rosalee de la Foret has written an excellent article about menopause in this month’s Plant Healer Magazine which gives a brief overview of some issues women face from a Chinese Herbal Medicine perspective with some corresponding herbs which can help.

The changes in hormonal activity which women experience can be helped by looking at vitamin and mineral intake in the first instance. It was Henriette Kress who drew my attention to the need for extra B vitamins during menopause. She talked about women who experienced hot feet during pregnancy and how hot feet were a symptom of lack of B vitamins.

Hot feet were something I had suffered with during each pregnancy, but no-one had ever explained why it happened or what I could do to make it better. Of course, since no-one else mentioned it, I thought I must just be really strange and didn’t tell anyone else either. I just went to bed with a cold hot water bottle and waited for my hot feet to disappear!

The same symptom appeared again as I entered menopause. This time I didn’t wait but increased my B vitamins with a supplement. The hot feet disappeared, as did the dreadful heat I suffered for twelve months every time I went to bed. Now, if I stop the tablets, the night heat returns, so I try not to go without them for more than one or two days if I’m away from home.

Paul Bergner talks about mineral deficiency amongst modern cultures. He recommends making up a simple recipe for magnesium deficiency by putting 1 tablespoon of milk of magnesia into 3.5 tablespoons of 5% apple cider or white vinegar and stirring until the milk of magnesia dissolves. If it won’t dissolve, add a touch more vinegar. This produces an ionic solution of magnesium acetate. The mag is 100% ionic and thus nearly completely absorbable as opposed to about 35%
with a pill.

Add one tablespoon of this mixture to one litre of water and drink throughout the day. Don’t exceed this dosage or it can cause loose stools, but he says it is very effective and results should be seen within several days.

Your body can change dramatically during the menopause. Things which have been certainties for the past fifty years are suddenly no longer there and new challenges appear. I can give you two personal examples.

All my life I’ve had greasy hair. It is fine and has always been something I’d rather ignore than take time over. The issues I faced during my teenage years with not being able to wash it more than twice a week has probably scarred my soul!
Once my body began to change I noticed large white patches and a terrible itching on my scalp. At first I thought I’d somehow burned my scalp since the patches had arisen from nowhere, but it soon became apparent I was suffering from terrible dandruff. Proprietary shampoo helped a little but didn’t solve the problem completely. I also noticed I could leave my hair for a couple of days and there was no grease in sight.

Luckily, around the same time, James Wong presented his second series of Grow your own drugs. One of the episodes dealt with dandruff and itchy scalp by rubbing with a mixture of infused thyme and rosemary oil. Over the next few weeks, Chris and I spent a memorable holiday in Spain during the first Icelandic volcanic eruption. One of the good thing about the golf resort we were staying on was that there were large numbers of herbs growing everywhere.

Risking life and limb from stray golf shots, I gathered thyme and rosemary and brought them back with me on the thirty hour coach journey through Spain, France and England. (Never to be repeated!) Once dried, I made double infused oils from both the herbs and mixed a quantity together to apply to my hair. I applied it liberally first thing in the morning, left it for an hour or two and then washed my hair in the usual way.

The herbal oil completely removed the dandruff and stopped the itching on my scalp. I continue to apply it every two or three weeks and haven’t had a recurrence of the problem in eighteen months. One thing which did happen was that I “lost” the thyme oil amongst all the jars of oil in my larder. Instead I mixed first golden rod and then elderflower with the rosemary and still achieved a positive result. Last week I found the thyme oil again, so will be returning to the original combination.

I know my hair will never be spectacular, but I have been able to grow it over the past four years. A couple of months ago, I caught Chris looking at me and his comment was, “Whatever you are doing with your hair, it seems to be working.” I took this as a compliment.

Another problem which many women face during the menopause is vaginal dryness. After seeing a recipe for a wedding night salve made from marshmallow leaves and seeds and a few drops of clove essential oil, I made up my own recipe for a sunflower oil based salve made from double infused marshmallow leaves, calendula and a touch of St John’s wort thickened with beeswax. Originally I included lovage, but it’s just as good without. It works wonderfully, but you do have to be careful about tell-tale handprints left forever on the sheets or pillowcases!

If you have access to a saucepan and fridge, you might want to think about creating your own water-based lubricant. This recipe comes from a long line of female herbalists and midwives who appreciate its properties and was shared by Rebecca Hartmann.

Simmer 1 tablespoon of flax seeds in 1 cup of water until it’s reduced by half (maybe 20 minutes). Strain immediately. (If you let it cool, it’ll be too thick to strain.) Store it in the fridge when you don’t need it as it will only keep for a couple of days unrefrigerated.

You could experiment with scents and flavours; just add herbs or spices to the simmering pot! Mint, cinnamon or fennel can be nice. Start with a small amount, too much of a strong herb or spice could cause burning in sensitive areas. Avoid essential oils for the same reason. Although it might be tempting, stay away from sugar, as it can lead to infections.

The basic lubricant should be condom-safe (it’s completely water-based), but if you do plan to use it with condoms, be sure not to add any ingredients that might damage the latex — i.e., nothing oily or caustic.

There is so much to say about the menopause – everyone could write their own book on the subject because everyone’s journey is different. One of the most important things to do is to learn about your body and take time to listen to what it is trying to tell you. Hopefully this will enable the journey to be travelled more easily.

Calming and uplifting herbs from Kiva Rose
Chevalier, A Herbal Medicine for the Menopause
Gladstar, R Herbal Healing for Women
Griggs, B The Green Witch: A Modern Woman’s Herbal
Edwards, G F Traversing the Wild Terrain of Menopause
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
Herbs for sorrow
Hoffman, D The Holistic Herbal
McGarry, G Brighid’s Healing:Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions
Rogers, C The Women’s Guide to Herbal Medicine
Shaw, N Herbal Medicine : A Step-by-Step-Guide 1998 Element Books
Shaw, N Herbalism: An Illustrated Guide 1998 Element Books
Shaw, N & Hedley, C Herbal Remedies 1996 Parragon Books Services Ltd
Weed , S Healing Wise : The Wise Woman’s Herbal
Weed, S New Menapause Years
Wood, M The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using plants as medicines

Friday 10 June 2011

New story over on Mercian Muse

Storms seem to elicit great emotion in people. This week the members of Solihull Writers Workshop were asked to write a story associated with storms. You can find mine here

Wednesday 8 June 2011

The forgotten few : Willowherbs

Sometimes, all it takes to make you look at a plant in a new light is sharing someone else’s knowledge. Sharing is hardly a new concept, but it is often hard to achieve or take part in. We wander around in our own little mindset, loaded with knowledge and experience and viewpoints, but unless we share and exchange what we know with others, there is no opportunity to verify and explore and perhaps get a new take on an old friend or enemy.

This has happened to me several times recently concerning different herbs. I have Julie Bruton-Seal to thank for kick starting the process. When I was researching bugle, I read through her Hedgerow Medicine and came across two references to willowherb and rosebay willowherb.

The small-flowered or hoary willowherb (epibolium parvafolium) has been the bane of my gardening life ever since we came to Solihull. It seemed small, weedy and no matter how many times I pulled it up, there were always copious numbers of new plants the following year.

I began to wonder what it could be used for when I noticed Henriette Kress mention that she “threw epibolium in any digestive tea” she was preparing for her patients. Reading Julie’s entry made me realise I had hidden gold in my garden.

Ever since Chris’ father began to have prostate problem in his early 70s and then had to have his prostate removed, I have been concerned Chris might experience the same problems, especially as he has a genetically narrow urethra which has caused orchiditis in the past. A daily dose of saw palmetto and nettle root tinctures is hopefully keeping his prostate healthy, but now there is a new possibility if I wish to use it.

Julie says the small flowered willowherbs are a specific remedy for prostate problems including benign prostate hyperplasia. The plants help to shrink the tissues, arrest cell proliferation and normalise urinary function. They are also effective for a wide range of bladder and urinary problems, for women as well as men, with the astringent and diuretic action toning and detoxifying the urinary tract.

They can be used on their own or with pellitory of the wall (parietaria officinalis), couch grass (elytrigia repens), horsetail (equisetum arvense) and bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus) leaves. If they are good for toning the bladder wall, maybe they would be good along with regular Kegel exercises for stress incontinence – the embarrassment of many women’s life!

Julie says Maria Treben, the Austrian herbalist, was the first person to bring the use of small willowherbs to public notice in recent times. It is interesting that none of my other herbals, including Matthew Wood mention it. The dose is a heaped teaspoonful of dried herb per mug of boiling water and infuse for about three minutes. It is recommended to drink two to three cups a day, with one being taken in the early morning on an empty stomach and another half an hour before the evening meal.

I keep looking at the plants in my garden and wondering if I should now be gathering and drying them for later use!

Rosebay willowherb (chamaenerion angustifolium) is one of my childhood plants. I love the stately banks of pink flowers colouring the hedgerows and banks during summer. Like the smaller willowherbs, its use has been overlooked in recent times, but Culpepper and the American Eclectics used it widely, mainly for its astringent and fe properties.

Maud Grieve says, “The leaves of the Rose Bay Willow herb have been used as a substitute and adulterant of Tea. Though no longer so employed in England, the leaves of both this species and of the Great Hairy Willow-herb (E. hirsutum, Linn.) are largely used in Russia, under the name of Kaporie Tea.” Julie spells the tea as Kapoori, which may be a more modern translation. I don’t think it would be a good idea to try using the leaves of the Great Willowherb since Grieve goes on to say “Although the leaves of E. hirsutum have also been used as astringents there are reports of violent poisoning with epileptic-like convulsions having been caused by its employment.”!

Grieve quotes Thomas Green’s Universal Herbal, published in 1832 which reports:
- 'The young shoots are said to be eatable, although an infusion of the plant produces a stupifying effect.
- 'The pith when dried is boiled, and becoming sweet, is by a proper process made into ale, and this into vinegar, by the Kamtschatdales; it is also added to the Cow Parsnip, to enrich the spirit that is prepared from that plant.
-'As fodder, goats are said to be extremely fond of it and cows and sheep to eat it.
-'The down of the seeds, mixed with cotton or fur, has been manufactured into stockings, etc.'

The young shoots can be boiled and eaten like asparagus, but modern wild food experts, such as Roger Phillips aren’t keen as they say the taste is too bitter. Given that I’ve never even tried my hop shoots as asparagus substitutes, I can’t really comment.

Rosebay willowherb is used for diarrhoea and other digestive upsets, being both soothing and astringent. The herb also has a tonic action, which Julia says is wonderful for all kinds of intestinal irritation and makes a really good mouthwash.
The Eclectics also used it for typhoid. Last Sunday, I read Juliette de bairacli Levy’s book, Spanish Mountain Life, which mainly talks about her brush with death and almost losing both her children after catching this disease from infected water. It made me wonder whether she would have considered using this plant, if she had had access to it at the time. Her major strategies for herself and her son were starvation, drinking water with lemon juice added and total immersion into cold water during times of the hottest fever.

Luckily, she did finally allow the local doctor to administer penicillin to her baby daughter which probably saved her life when everyone considered she was only hours away from death.

Other conditions treated by the Eclectics with a leaf infusion were uterine bleeding, heavy periods and “foul and indolent ulcers” for which they made a poultice from fresh leaves. Julie uses it for mouth ulcers with success. David Winston is said to use it to treat candida overgrowth.

The leaves of rosebay willowherb can be gathered while the plant is growing in springtime and during flowering in summer. It can then be dried for use throughout the year, by spreading on paper in a shady place until the leaves are crisp. Julie’s recipe for the medicinal tea is to take three or four leaves per cup of boiling water and infuse for five minutes. The dose is to drink frequently during bouts of diarrhoea or as a substitute for tea. It can also be used as a mouthwash for mouth ulcers and a gargle for sore throats.

The flowers can be made into a syrup for childhood diarrhoea or any case of intestinal irritation associated with loose bowels. The dose is a dessertspoonful for children and a tablespoonful for adults every few hours as needed.

Rosebay willowherb syrup (Julie Bruton-Seal)
Bring 20 flower heads in 500ml of water to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes until the colour leaves the blossoms. Strain the juice and return to the saucepan. To every 400ml (approx.) of water add 100g sugar plus the juice of a lemon. The acidic lemon juice restores the pale colour to a bright pink rather like it does when you make violet syrup. Boil the syrup for five minutes, allow to cool a little then bottle and label. This can be kept in the fridge for a few months.

It has been a real joy to discover more about these two plants and I now consider them with much more respect than I did!

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Violet : Theory and Practice

Despite the association between violets and spring, it is not a single season plant. Although the purple flowers disappear in April, the leaves continue to grow throughout the year and are best gathered for oil making or for drying in the summer and autumn when the leaves grow to their largest size.

Until this year when I decided to work more closely with the plant, I have used violets mainly for a double infused oil to offer added moisture to any salve I make. Yesterday I needed a new batch of moisturising and cell-strengthening salve for after my shower, so I mixed together 4 fl.oz. each of horse chestnut and calendula oils and added the last of my 2009 fresh violet leaf oil to bring the volume up to 10floz. To this I added 1 oz. of beeswax and heated it gently until the wax was fully dissolved.

Then I poured it into three containers and waited for it to cool so I could take pictures to show the dramatic change in colour. The salve is softer because I added two more ounces than my usual ratio, but it still holds together and is much easier to rub on than pure oil.

Today I made a new batch of double infused fresh violet leaf oil to replenish my stocks. The size of the leaves this time of year never ceases to amaze me – they are truly four times the size of the April leaves. They grow in tiers, the largest leaves hiding the substantial volume of green canopy below. The underneath leaves are smaller, but will soon grow to replace the ones I picked. The undergrowth in this part of the garden is so dense, I was fully expecting a grown frog to jump out at me, as happened the last time I picked here, but nothing happened!

What did surprise me was the depth of colour from the double infused oil. I’m sure the oil I used yesterday looked only green as opposed to dark green/almost black hue of the one made today.

The cooked leaves went very soggy after two hours, unlike some plant matter which looks as if it has been deep fried and crispy! Once I squashed the leaves together to remove any remaining oil from them, they turned into a small, compact, green, somewhat-slimy lump. I shall leave it overnight to separate the oil and aqueous layer as much as possible and then pour it into clean jars which will be stored with my other oils in the larder.

Violets are a wonderful teaching aid. Anyone who visits my gardens from January to April is offered a leaf to chew, a new experience to bring delight and wonder. What I have not done yet is to offer the same opportunity over the summer with heartsease leaves and see what happens!

Earlier on in the year, I spent a great deal of time reading in various herb books about violets. If you only have access to one book, the most comprehensive description of violet can be found in Anne Macintyre’s ‘Complete Herbal Tutor’. I was surprised she managed to include more details than either David Hoffman or Matthew Wood.

Wood says violets have a long history of use in European medicine especially the blue varieties. He says the leaves and flowers together are used. He says they have a sweet, slightly mucilaginous, slightly salty taste and cool impression. Violets contain flavonoids, mucilage, salicylates, tannins, essential oils, an alkaloid, saponins and minerals (especially calcium and magnesium). The root and seeds contain a substance like emetine, which causes vomiting, hence only the leaves and flowers are used in herbalism (unless of course you need an emetic!).

Violet is suited to cases where the mucosa is dry, when expectoration needs to be increased. It has an affinity to the lymphatic system and is indicated when there is lymphatic stagnation and swollen glands often in the throat and around the ears, in association with dry skin and constipation. As a moistening agent it acts on the kidneys, bladder and chronic arthritic deposits and skin conditions such as eczema.

Violet is described as an “alterative” or “blood purifier”, a perfect addition to spring salads or mineral-rich hot, long infusions. Add violets to red clover, plantain and nettles if you are looking to maximise the mineral content of your tea or combine violets with hawthorn and oatstraw for a more soothing and nourishing infusion.

From times long past violet has been used to soothe hot, dry coughs such as whooping cough, congestion and sore throats. If you are looking for a soothing juice made from the weeds in your garden, try a combination of plantain, chickweed, violet and mallow/marshmallow leaves. Pick the leaves, wash them if necessary then liquidise with some cold water. Leave the blended liquid for a short while before blending again then strain and drink.

It is important to use cold water if you want to extract the most mucilage from a plant. It is the mucilage which coats and soothes the dry throat and chest. It can also help with irritated bowels or be sponged on sunburn.

Violet is widely used in cancer. Wood says it is one of the few remedies with proven track record in cancer involving the breasts, lymphatics and lungs. Also in skin cancer.

The tissue states which call for violet are atrophy and stagnation . The specific indications for using the plant can be shown as follows.

Constitution, complexion, characteristic symptoms- children with swollen glands, dry skin and constipation
Mind, senses, nerves, emotions, personality – shy “shrinking violet”, shy, flabby children with moist skin and palms, recommended for grief and heartbreak and to improve memory and helps moderate anger
Head- severe headaches, eases headache arising from lack of sleep, inflammation of the eyes, infections in the mouth
Digestion –constipation
Kidneys and bladder – gravel, urinary tract infection
Female – breast lumps, benign and malignant
Extremities – arthritis of the wrists
Skin – skin dry, sore, raw (external), eczema
Other – cancer of the lymphatics, breasts, lungs, skin (poultice of fresh leaf and flower is best), epilepsy & nervous disorders.

No matter how much you study and practice with violet, there is always more to learn and experience.