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!


Moon Gazing Hare said...

This brings back memories, this is the first syrup recipe I ever tried! It's astringency is noticable as soon as you taste it,I felt like my tongue had gone furry. I have also loved rosebay willow herb since childhood but had never realised its proprties until I read this book.

Sarah Head said...

Hi Jackie, If I get time, I may try making the syrup or at least gathering some to dry over the summer. Might be a good teaching tool to show people how astringency works!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post Sarah, we also are swamped in willow herb and I noticed the entry in Hedgerow medicine but hadn't found the time to research more thoroughly or harvest yet. Your post has given me the push I needed to get out there and make good use of those weeds!

Sheryl at Providence North said...

I looked it up on Google. I don't believe I have ever seen it growing around here. I will have to keep my eyes open for it now.

Pauline Conolly said...

It's well past my bedtime here in Australia Sara so will return for another read tomorrow. Looks a really interesting site. I have just added a last minute recipe for Nettle Pudding to my manuscript, a Taste of the Thames before it goes off to the publisher. Not sure whether people grow willow herb here, although it sounds familiar.