Monday 23 January 2012

How to write a good blog post

I often get asked how to write a blog post, so I thought I would put together a set of guidelines which I hope will be usefulfor anyone who is new to blogging and has maybe never written a formal article to submit to a party.

It’s helpful to start off a blog party post by saying “This post is part of the UK Herbarium month blog party hosted by ,…… and link the name of the host’s blog.”

Firstly, give a general introduction. Why are you writing this article? What did you feel when you discovered the topic (Dread, delight, horror etc. etc.). What did the topic make you do? (I went and sat in a darkened cupboard/I immediately put on my wellies/I pulled out all my books on/I went and talked to the dog/chickens bemoaning my lot etc.) Finally tell the reader what your post is going to cover in general terms (e.g. In this post I’m going to talk about the effects of the Hammurabi Code on splitting walnuts equally between two heavy weights and show how it is not possible to ascribe the code rigidly in today’s modern climate.)

The next section should describe what you did or what you found, preferably in the order in which you did/found it. It’s good if you can back up what you found with some general research as well e.g. When I found my rose bush, all the leaf buds were fluorescent pink which concurs with the information given in Wild Food for Everyone by Saskia Longbottom but which Grieve and Hildegard of Bingen completely disregarded. I can only assume that since Longbottom and I inhabit the same general location i.e. Middle Yard, it makes sense that our shrubs bear similar leaf buds, even though the shape of my bush (see photo) bears absolutely no resemblance to hers (link to photo of illustration).

The next section should include what you have learned from what you did. E.g. Next time I go searching in a bramble bush I will wear reinforced boots and not bare feet. Although the thorns and subsequent pain and infection were a valuable lesson from the plant to me, I am not sure the 3 week stay in hospital with concurrent expenses really supported my overall wellbeing. However, I can now recognise a blue-faced bramble from 60 yards and have used the emulsion produced by mixing crushed thorns with blood to paint a small sculpture which now sits on my altar.

Your conclusion should be a summary of the entire article reminding your reader what you were going to tell them, what you told them and what you’ve discovered through writing the article including any changes that producing the article have induced in you. E.g when I first started researching this subject I was convinced that all rose leaf buds were green. Now I realise that the colour depends so much on the local soil and the variety of bramble which has deepened my connection with this eighth plant of the sacred Druid Ogham.

Dos and Don’ts
Do try to write your post in a word processor before copying and pasting it onto your blog.

Do read through your article at least twice to catch any spelling mistakes or missed words or words you didn’t know you had written. When someone is reading something you have written you want them to be able to read it easily without stopping and trying to work out what it was you were trying to write as opposed to what you have actually written. When I was drafting this post, I noticed the spell checker had changed the “e” in wellies to an “i”, which may be completely inoffensive in some cultures, but makes me blush and I would have hated someone to believe I would use such a word in an inappropriate setting. If you find you can’t catch your own mistakes and don’t have anyone who will read it for you, leave it alone for a day and then read it out loud – you will soon hear what you cannot see.

Do use short paragraphs and leave a space between each paragraph. You don’t need to indent the first word of each paragraph.

Do illustrate your posts with photos and other illustrations if you can.

Do reference all your information either by linking to a web page or giving a list of references at the bottom of the article.

Don’t copy large chunks of information from elsewhere. Copyright law means you can only quote small amounts of text. Copying paragraphs that someone else has written be it online or in books amounts to plagiarism. You need to learn the arts of summary and reported speech and changing sentences around so they don’t resemble the original work.

Don’t use photographs belonging to anyone else without their permission. The copyright law on photos is different from that of text. Even if a photograph has been paid for by a publisher or appears in any capacity on the internet, the copyright remains with the person who took the photo. Most photographers will happily give permission for you to use their photos provided they are asked before you use them and you tell everyone who the photo belongs to. If you don’t follow these guidelines you are effectively stealing/committing piracy.

I hope you find these guidelines helpful and I look forward to reading a wonderful set of blog posts for the party on 20th February.

February Blog Party : Working with winter trees

I am very happy to host the first UK Herbarium blog party of 2012. You are invited to join us by submitting a blog post which describes how you relate to trees in winter.

It may be you work with them creatively or educationally – admiring their unencumbered outlines or familiarising yourself or others with their individual bark patterns and markings. Maybe you work with the bark medicinally or create wonderful pictures through bark rubbings. You may work with leaf buds in their dormant forms admiring their different colours and textures or making your own flower essences or infused oils or salves.

Share with us your experiences in words and pictures by creating your blog post and sending it to me before 20th February so that I can publish all those links on that day. I look forward to receiving your contribution.

Monday 16 January 2012

More tales of Ashwagandha

I have come to the conclusion that if a plant wants to work with you, they come into your life and their relationship is an easy and fruitful one. This is certainly my experience with Ashwagandha. Being a native of the Indian subcontinent, you wouldn’t expect it to flourish in our relatively cold and wet climate, but for the past three years it has cheerfully grown to maturity, flowered and fruited despite dreadful summers with rain bringing constant soggy growing conditions.

My two original plants came from Debs Cook as seedlings in 2009. From their seeds I gave some away and grew a dozen or so more, but none of them flowered or fruited and although I tried to overwinter the plants, the severe weather conditions killed them all.

Luckily, one of my apprentices had more success with her plants and gave me three cherries. From those seeds I grew sixty plants over the summer and by October felt I could finally harvest and begin to work with the roots.

It was fascinating to see how different plants in different locations had matured in different ways. Those growing in straight lines in the new herb bed were taller, produced more fruit and their roots were twice the volume of their cousins planted in squares in the original herb bed. After washing and scrubbing of the soil, half the roots were tinctured and the remainder chopped up into thin, inch long pieces and dried in my hot cupboard in a paper bag.

The ashwagandha plant and fruit has no discernible smell. I purchased root powder from Baldwins a year or so ago and that too had no smell. My home grown roots smelled distinctive and earthy. In the four or so days between harvested and preparation, they filled the entire outhouse with their particular scent. The tincture tastes as the root smells, dominating other tinctures in my morning tonic and the dried roots also kept their smell when I finally transferred them from paper bag to glass jar last Friday (after nearly three months in the hot cupboard in a paper bag).

Last Saturday was my first workshop of the year. We were studying tonics, so it seemed a good opportunity to try some new ways of experiencing ashwagandha. The night before, I took 25g of purchased root (which was possibly twice as thick as my own) and covered it with cold water. On Saturday morning, the water was transformed into a noticeably more viscous liquid. The roots and fluid were divided into half. One half was simmered with milk and a small handful of three year old apothecary’s rose petals (which retained both colour and scent!) for 30 minutes and the same was done using almond milk with the other half.

Both groups who tasted the Ashwaganda milk commented on its distinctive, nourishing flavour. Everyone enjoyed it. I tasted the cow’s milk version and found it pleasant despite the noticeably bitter aftertaste on the very back of my tongue.

Both Kiva Rose Hardin and Gail Faith Edwards recommend using rose petals to counteract ashwagandha’s warming effects, rather than using the herb on its own. Kiva also suggests pairing it with milky oats for adrenal exhaustion or with nettle seed for those people who have absolutely no energy. In her wonderful article, she offers a useful formula of 2 parts Ashwagandha, 2 parts Nettle, 1 part Peach, and 1/2 part each Lemon Balm and Rose as her personal favourite treatment for adrenal exhaustion, but says, “This is very cooling and calming, and could be made a bit more stimulating and warming with the omission of the Peach and the addition of Rosemary in its stead and a 1/2 part fresh Ginger.”

I’ve not yet worked with Peach as my poor tree has been afflicted with leaf curl since I bought it nearly four years ago. We moved it to a more sunny and sheltered position by the barn wall last spring so I am hopefully it might begin to flourish one day!

There are still ten plants sitting either on windowsills or on the table in my garden summerhouse. Some leaves are dropping, but others are vibrant and green. I am watering them sparingly and have just installed a heater into the summerhouse as the forecast for this next week predicts frosts of several minus degrees centigrade.
The cherries this year were slow to turn from green to orange, so I have harvested the fruits in batches – discarding those which failed to mature and setting the bright orange ones to dry in paper bags and envelopes.

Ten cherries have been given to an apprentice whose ally this year is ashwagandha. She made the point of visiting the plants in the summerhouse as well as the one I’d brought down for the workshop attendees to admire and help themselves to a fruit to take home with them. She emailed me the following day saying, “I was affected deeply by my first real contact with her, so was left a bit dumbstruck.”

Ashwagandha does that to you. You watch her spring to life from a tiny seed, then grow to green maturity in four short months. Her lantern-like fruit pods hide the growing cherries and it is not until those lanterns turn from green to dry brown you notice her vibrant and truly amazing fruits. More months pass until those fruits become winkled and you can carefully peel off the scarlet covering to reveal the white seeds inside; seeds which can be planted to begin the circle once again.

She is a truly nourishing plant. Not only does she feed your depleted systems, she teaches and helps you to grow in so many different ways. Next year I shall try making a healing salve from her leaves and I look forward to another abundant harvest of roots and fruits.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Hubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble or Surviving the perils of January

Our trials started in November when I was made redundant and we had to consider how to manage our finances to continue living as we wished.

In the middle of December Chris began a series of re-current kidney infections and I had to think about how to support his body to repel the invader, strengthen his tissues and organs whilst minimising the effects of necessary repeat prescriptions of antibiotics. I have used food and drinks as “vehicles of transmission” using what I have in the cupboards plus a few items purchased from supermarket and healthfood store.

These are some of the recipes I’ve developed.

Cranberries are reknowned for their effects in reducing urinary tract infections by reducing the ability of bacteria to cling to the lining of the bladder or urinary tissues. Luckily, being Christmas, fresh cranberries were on sale in the supermarket so I bought several packs to freeze along with some dried cranberries for when the fresh ones are finished.

Cranberry orange drink
1/2 pack of fresh cranberries
Chopped rind and pith of one orange
Small handful each of thyme, bergamot and dandelion roots
Cover ingredients with 2 pints of cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer, covered, for half an hour until the cranberries can be easily mashed. Strain through a sieve pushing through as much of the cranberry pulp as you can. Cool. Store in the fridge. To serve, pour juice into 1/3 of a half pint glass and fill the rest of the glass with water. Drink without sweetening with sugar or honey.

One of the best foods to nourish the kidneys is barley. Barbara Griggs in her Greenwitch Herbal gives a wonderfully simple method of making lemon and barley water.

Lemon and barley water
4ozs pot barley
Peeled rind of one lemon
1 litre of water (probably two by the time you’ve finished)
Put the weighed amount of pot barley in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and then discard the water and swill out the saucepan. Return the barley to the clean saucepan together with the lemon peel and 1 litre of water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the barley is soft and tender. You will probably have to add more water as time goes on so you are left with enough fluid to drink at the end. I cooked it for two hours and added another litre of water in the middle ending up with half a litre of gloop at the end.

Barley water is best served hot when the gloop becomes liquid. You can add honey for flavour.

Although the recipe is for the barley water, you can’t just throw away the cooked barley. The first lot went into an amazing vegetable soup with the last of my homegrown tomatoes, celery, onions, garlic and a couple of carrots. The second batch became a spiced barley pudding; delicious with cream.

Spiced barley pudding
4oz cooked pot barley
4 pieces of candied ginger plus 1tblsp ginger syrup
2 ozs raisins or saltanas
8 cardamom pods,
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ of a grated nutmeg.
3/4pt milk
Gently heat up the spices with the milk then add the cooked barley. Simmer for 30 minutes on a low heat, then serve. I found it didn’t need any extra sweetness, but you may wish to add syrup or honey.

When you’re suffering with a kidney or urinary tract infection you want something which will soothe the membranes and take away the itching/discomfort inside you.

Soothing tea
Take a pinch each of yarrow, calendula, marshmallow and thyme. Infuse, covered for ten minutes then strain and drink. Honey can be added for sweetness if desired.

I used to mix half of the soothing tea with half of the barley water and give it to Chris at least three times a day plus at least 3 of the cranberry drinks.

Of course, after two series of strong antibiotics when he went down with a cold last Thursday, the world came to an end and he turned into a blob for several days. I started him on a regime of 2tsps cider vinegar with 2tsps horseradish honey together with one tsp of elderberry elixir in a mug of boiling water three times a day. You can find the recipes here.

When the blob began to talk and walk again, I changed his medicine to my hedgerow cordial (elderberries/sloes/rosehips/nutmeg/cinnamon/ cloves/ginger) with added lemon juice three times a day. He also started taking raw garlic in honey on a piece of bread three times a day once he finished the last course of antibiotics.

After two more days, he started coughing. Of course I’d given my last bottle of cough syrup to my aunt just before Christmas, so I got him to make up a soothing tea while I dived into my hot cupboard to see what I could find in the way of cough herbs to devise a new syrup.

Soothing cough tea
1inch root ginger finely chopped or grated
1 pinch thyme
1 pinch bergamot
Infuse with just boiled water for ten minutes.
Chris was actually prepared to drink this without honey (which is unheard of!) but added honey for its soothing effects on the throat.

If you want a basic cough syrup, you use equal parts of white horehound, hyssop and marshmallow. I’d been intrigued by Ali English’s latest cold syrup and managed to find the following ingredients in the cupboard and larder.

Cough syrup
1 handful of white horehound
2 handfuls of marshmallow leaves
1 handful of hyssop
1 handful of goldenrod flowers and leaves
3 stems of New England Aster
Small handful of dried elecampane root (there wasn’t time to soak it overnight)
2 inches of grated ginger root
1 large dried homegrown chilli pounded in the pestle and mortar
½ a dried stem of mullein
Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan and cover with water (about 3 pints or so). Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for about half an hour. I then added the ginger and chilli and simmered for another ten minutes because I’d forgotten to add them before and I didn’t want the syrup to be too hot. Strain the liquid and wash out the saucepan. Pour the liquid back in the pan through a muslin cloth because you don’t want any of the fine hairs from the mullein in the syrup. Reduce the liquid by slow evaporation for as long as you’re prepared to wait. (You should reduce until only 1/7th of the original volume remains but that can take all day, so I just reduced by half.) Measure the volume of liquid and add 1lb of sugar to every pint (UK) of liquid. I ended up with 1.5 pints so added 1.5lbs of sugar. (If you are making this for clients you should reduce original volume by 7/8ths and add 2lbs sugar per pint of liquid to ensure it keeps well). Return saucepan to a gentle heat and stir until all the sugar has been dissolved. Pour into sterilised bottles, seal, label and date. Store in the fridge once open.

The resulting syrup tastes quite good with a nice heat at the back of your throat.

One of my apprentices posed an interesting question when he was posting his annual review at the beginning of the month. He said, “Lately I’ve been pondering the question: ‘Do medicinal herbs work?’ It might seem odd for me to go to so much effort collecting, processing & preserving the above without having a definitive answer to this question! My best answer for the time being is ‘Yes. I think so. For me at least.’ […]I’ve attempted many times to actively heal personal ailments and those of the people close to me. Sometimes these attempts have proven successful […] but just as often they’ve resolutely failed.”

When Chris first became ill and I knew he needed to take the antibiotics, I felt a sense of abject failure. What on earth was I doing spending so much time with my herbs if I couldn’t address this major condition? When I was saying this to a friend, he gently said, “There was a reason antibiotics were developed. They save lives.”

Another part of me knows the kidney infection has arisen because of a congenital malformation which was addressed surgically some 22 years ago and may well have reappeared, so I am immensely grateful for our health service which means we have access to GPs, ultrasound scans and a consultant urologist I have faith in because he fixed the problem last time.

In reality, every illness and dis-ease is a journey both for the person experiencing it and anyone who is supporting that person in whatever way they can. Whilst I am unsure how well I can support the kidney condition, I know the progress of the cold virus was alleviated by all the potions I administered. Even Chris said he was grateful to have me around looking after him, something I couldn’t have done if I’d still been working.

Last but not least, how do you support the carer? Personally I’ve added ashwagandha tincture to my daily tonic to help nurture me through all the stress. I’m also really grateful I made quite so much spiced hedgerow cordial because it tastes wonderful as a hot drink with extra lemon juice. Yesterday, when it seemed I would also succumb to the cold, I added a tsp of Echinacea tincture and so far, it hasn’t developed.

Whatever the outcome of this particular challenge, I find it amazing I can go to my store cupboard and find what I need when I need it and I can turn so many different things into something which helps support others. I'm also incredibly grateful to be part of the wider herbal community who respond to requests for assistance with such alacrity and reassure me I am not in this on my own.