Monday 18 March 2013

Creating your own tonic wines

Many thanks to Ali English from Eldrum Herbs who delivered a workshop at last year's Springfield Sanctuary Festival teaching us  how to make tonic wines.

Wine has been used as a medium for taking herbal medicines since classical times. It is best to use dried herbs when making a tonic wine rather than fresh to minimise the water content. The medicine can be produced in the wine bottle by removing a glassful from the bottle before adding the herbs, or in a jam jar or Kilner jar if that is easier.  The wine should be left to infuse for two weeks before straining and drinking. The daily dose is 20-40mls or the equivalent of a small sherry glass. It should be sipped slowly and savoured. Medicinal wines should be used within one month.

White wine is predominantly used for relaxing remedies and red wine works best with herbs for the digestive system. Remember that herbs can work on many different systems, so chamomile might be included in both a digestive and a stress mixture. Vervain can be used for adrenal support in a stress remedy but is also a bitter. Peppermint is best used in white wine although it is a digestive. It doesn’t blend well in red wine.

Herbal combinations 

Stress: skullcap, vervain, jasmine and wood betony
Sleep: passionflower (leaves and flowering tops), lemon balm
Digestive: crushed fennel seed, ground ivy, chamomile
Anaemia: young nettle tops, organic apricots, diced orange peel in red wine
Post surgery for broken bones: nettles, plantain, prunes or figs, dandelion or milk thistle seeds

Historical tonics tend to favour fortified wines as well as red wines and combine several herbs and spices within the mix.

Aromatic Wine
2-pints red wine
1/2 Tbsp. sage leaves
2 Tbsps. thyme leaves
2 Tbsps. hyssop leaves
2 Tbsps. spearmint leaves
2 Tbsps. wormwood leaves
2 Tbsps. marjoram herb
Use dried herbs
Chop the herbs into a coarse powder. Moisten the powders with some of the claret. Pack into a coffee machine, using parchment paper. Pour the claret over the herbs. It should yield about 1 pint of filtered liquid.

This French formula possesses strong tonic and aromatic properties. It is useful for invalids with feeble digestions and will also help with flatulence and other digestive disturbances. Use 1 tablespoon at a time. For ulcers, use heated as a fomentation.

Tonic Wine
1 pint Madeira
1 sprig wormwood
1 sprig rosemary
1 small bruised nutmeg
1 inch bruised ginger root
1 inch bruised cinnamon bark
12 large organic raisins
Pour off about an ounce of the wine. Place herbs in the wine. Cork the bottle tightly. Place the bottle in a dark, cool place for a week or two. Strain off the herbs.

Juliette de Bairacli’s medicated wine
Several sprigs of rosemary and wormwood
6 candied cherries
2 nutmegs
1 inch cinnamon
Candied angelica
Bruised ginger root
1 doz large raisins
Pour over wine and leave in warm place for 1-2 weeks

Sarah Head’s medicated wine
6-8 sprigs rosemary (fresh)
2 sprigs mugwort (dried, but can use fresh)
2 handfuls of organic apricots
2 grated nutmegs
1 inch grated ginger root
1 quill cinnamon bark broken into pieces
Place ingredients in a 2lb glass jar, cover with Madeira wine, seal with screw top lid, label and date. Leave in a warm, dark cupboard/airing cupboard for 2-4 weeks. Strain and bottle. Take one small shot glass full as required.

Tonic wines can be fun to make, like elixirs but use them in medicinal quantities rather than sharing with friends as part of an alcoholic night in! You may find the flavours take some getting used to. Do not use with children under twelve or frail elders or people with compromised livers or alcohol problems.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Supporting bees with flowers

To lose any animal through extinction is heart-breaking. To lose a wild creature which promotes and supports the health and bounty of so many trees and plants is almost unthinkable.  The consequences are almost too disastrous to contemplate but contemplate them we must if we are to act in a positive fashion before it is too late.

There is world-wide concern about the health of bees. Every few weeks I am contacted to sign up to the latest petition about banning harmful insecticides or putting pressure on political figures to act positively to protect those bees we have left. The idea that we can all play out part to nurture the bees living and working around us is something less well understood and practiced, yet it is the simple things which can help.

Bees require nectar and pollen from flowers in order to produce what is needed in the hive for their colony. Those of us who are able to grow plants need to be aware which plants are richer and more accessible food sources than others so we can offer what we can to the hives.

Bees need a continuous flow of flowers from February when the first bumblebees emerge from the holes in the ground to the warm dog days of autumn in late October/November. It is worth making a yearlong audit of your garden/park/open space/field to discover what flowers when. Is there a period where no flowers bloom? Can you discover something to grow which will fill that gap?

It has been found that bees in large, urban areas are often better served by access to flowers than those in certain parts of the country where single-crop agriculture and grubbing out of hedgerows has decimated the growth of wild flowers and trees with a corresponding drop in bird life and insects. When I’ve visited Lincolnshire and Norfolk in recent years, the lack of variety of plant life in certain areas has been very evident.

The colour of a flower determines its attractiveness to bees. Having said that, it must be remembered bees have a very different colour spectrum from our own. They see colours from yellow to ultra violet and will be guided towards the richest source of nectar by coloured tramlines. The pollen from a field poppy will be seen as blue, whilst that from the buttercup will be deep purple.  It was interesting watching honey bees in my garden during a warm spell a few weeks ago. They ignored the snowdrops and visited every purple crocus instead.

The shape of the flower also affects how easy it is for the bee to access a flower. The bumblebee has a longer proboscis than the honey bee, so they prefer red clover while honey bees prefer white.  The honey bee will often sip nectar through the back of a pea or broad bean flower through a hole made by another insect.

It is worth remembering if you are buying new roses that modern hybrid flowers are useless to bees because they cannot get to the nectar source in the centre of the flower as it is completely enclosed by whorls of petals. If you are not sure whether your roses are nectar bearing, do they produce hips? If they do, then they have been pollinated.

Nectar from different flowers contains different levels of sugar concentrations. For example the richest concentration of sugar comes from marjoram (80%) compared with 40% in lavender and 25% in borage.

Below is a list of plant families which are useful to bees.
Laniums: lavender, sage, mints, bergamot, marjoram etc.
Asteraceae – calendula, daises, chamomile, dandelions, conrflower, sunflower, lettuce
Rosacea – dog rose, apple, blackberry, raspberry, cherries, blackcurrants, nuts
Fabacae – peas,  beans, clover, vetch, acacia, melilot.

If your favourite plants are umbellifers such as fennel, dill, cow parsley, hemlock etc. then please think of adding other plants. Bees cannot feed from any of them!

Don’t forget to provide your bee visitors with water. They need a shallow bowl with lots of places to perch so they don’t get their body wet.

If you grow herbs and a selection of wild flowers the bees will prosper. I feel very blessed to share my herb gardens with a wide variety of honey and different bumblebees. Long may this continue!

Friday 15 March 2013

Cleavers, another spring tonic

Anyone who gardens or who walks through the countryside will come across cleavers, Gallium aparine. They may not notice the plant until literally stuck to it, hence one of its folk names, Sticky Willy. It has many different names, depending on which part of the country you live in. My father always calls it herrick. Once you identify the plant, everyone knows it and usually tries to remove it from wherever it is growing as fast as possible.

Cleavers are a fast growing plant with quadrangular stems and slender, lance-shaped leaves which are all covered with tiny hook-shaped bristles, allowing it to fasten itself to neighbouring plants, animals or anything else it comes across. The flowers are small, white and star-shaped like chickweed. As the season progresses they form into tiny, hard green balls which then turn brown. The seeds are also covered with bristles which attach themselves to everything and are very hard to remove.

Cleavers first appear in February as tiny springs of green with opposing leaves either side of the stem. This young growth can be added to salads or made into a pleasant tea tasting of peas. The aerial parts are best harvested before flowering as they become very tough and unpalatable afterwards. The seeds can be dried and roasted as a coffee substitute. The plant contains several important constituents such as Vitamin C,  glycosides, plant acids and flavonoids

In Anglo-Saxon times, the plant was known as a general tonic. Its name of Goosegrass came from being chopped up to feed to goslings. In the fourteenth century the ointment was used for scalds and burns.  By Culpepper’s time it had a myriad of uses. He recommended it to be chopped up small and well boiled to be eaten in a water-gruel to cleanse the blood and strengthen the liver, thus keeping the body in good health and preparing for the change in season from winter to spring.

Culpepper used the juice and seed together in wine to protect the heart when someone had been bitten by an adder. Gerard expanded this to bites from spiders and other venomous creatures.  He also wrote it was a favourite remedy, taken in broth, to keep someone “lean and lank that are apt to grow fat”. He used a distilled water and a decoction twice a day for jaundice and found they helped with “lasks and bloody flux” as well demonstrating its astringent effects.

The juice was used to “close up the lips of green wounds” and found the powder of the herb could also be used on both fresh wounds and old ulcers. Interestingly, he infused the plant material in “hog’s grease” and used it to soften “hard swellings and kernels in the throat.” Cleaver juice was also used to good effect for ear ache when dropped into the ear.

We would understand these actions because cleavers work on the lymph system, helping to break down blockages and moving fluid throughout the body. I used it when I suffered with a general inflammatory condition caused by exhaustion and stress which had my ankles swollen for nearly three weeks. I used the tincture, made from aerial parts steeped in vodka for three weeks.

In Victorian times, cleavers was used by “young gentlewomen” to ensure a clear and fair complexion. Again, this would be a lymphatic action helping to remove toxins from the skin and prevent outbreaks of acne or other difficulties. It was also used for sunburn and freckles where the tea was used as a wash.

This practice may well have come from the mid-19th century translation of The Physicians of Myddfai by John Pughe which includes the recipe for a cleaver overnight maceration of pounded fresh cleavers in spring water. It was recommended this be the only drink for nine weeks to promote overall good health.

Cleavers also acts as a diuretic. Maud Grieve mentions it as having a powerful effect if taken in large quantities, hence the popularity of the herb with those who wish to slim which has been well known since Roman times!

The plant can also be bruised and applied as a poultice to sores and blisters.  Similarly the juice can be applied to eczema and other skin conditions as well as insect bites. Grieve says, “The herb has a special curative reputation with reference to cancerous growths and allied tumours, an ointment being made from the leaves and stems wherewith to dress the ulcerated parts, the expressed juice at the same time being used internally.”

As with any plant, care should be taken in some circumstances. Maud Grieve mentions that cleavers should not be used as a diuretic if diabetes is suspected. I was taken to task by a fellow herbalist several years ago for recommending cleavers to help reduce lymphatic swelling in post breast cancer surgery. If there had been cancer cells in the glands, these could have been spread around the body by the cleavers; something I had not considered at the time.

It never ceases to amaze me that a common, usually despised “weed” as cleavers should have such diverse and profoundly useful properties which are freely available if you only know what to look for!

Culpeper, N Complete Herbal 1653 Wordsworth Reference 1995 ISBN 1 85326 345 1
Grieve, M A Modern Herbal 1973 (revised) Random House ISBN 1-904779018
Kress, H Practical Herbs 2011 Tamerprint Oly ISBN 9789526757506
Pollington, S Leechcraft 2000 Anglo-Saxon Books ISBN 1 989281 238
Pughe, J The Physicians of Myddfai 2008 Llanerch Press ISBN 1897853157

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Chickweed, a sign of Spring

Chickweed is one of the plants I ask my apprentices to look for in February. There are frequent complaints this herb cannot be found so early in the year but for me, the sight of chickweed appearing at the base of a tree growing by a busy hospital or over-wintering in my vegetable beds is a sign Spring really is around the corner.

Chickweed, stellaria media, is a small green plant with a white star-shaped flower (hence it’s latin name and common name of starweed) and oval green leaves which grows profusely on disturbed soil. Historically it was fed to chickens and other caged birds and is constantly thrown away by the barrowload by diligent gardeners who have no idea of its many properties. It has a long growing season, appearing in early February or March and continuing to grow until November. I have had it grow almost year round in my garden, even surviving snow and ice.

Chickweed is not only good feed for poultry and other birds; it is full of vitamin C and rich in minerals and trace elements, notably iron, magnesium, manganese, silicon and zinc. The whole aerial plant, well shaken and washed free of soil can be eaten fresh, in salads or lightly stir fried. If cooked for too long it can become chewy and young growth picked before flowering is preferable to older shoots, which tend to lodge between your teeth after you’ve finished chewing. It’s a useful addition to homemade smoothies and pesto.

Chickweed is a herb best used fresh. It juices well, either by putting the plant material through a juicer or by pounding in a pestle and mortar with a small amount of water. The juice can be used for sore and irritable eyes up to six times a day or as a skin lotion for itchy and inflamed skin. It can also be rubbed on nettle stings or mosquito bites. The juice can be frozen in ice cube trays to be used when required.

One of chickweed’s best known properties is anti-itching. It can still be found amongst the list of ingredients in pharmaceutical preparations sold for insect bites, eczema and to soothe chickenpox scabs.

Chickweed oil was my first herbal preparation which gave instant and consistent success. I gave it to grandchildren of the local cowman, both of whom suffered with dreadful eczema. The oil was placed in the children’s bath before travelling home and they reported their first ever peaceful and stress free journey. Their mother subsequently rang me to ask if she could buy some more oil but I suggested she make her own and explained what she needed to do.

Chickweed makes a soothing bath oil which leaves the skin silky smooth or it can be made into a salve for ease of application. Zoe Hawes recommends leaving the fresh herb to wilt overnight before using the double infused hot method to make the oil. It’s useful with eczema, psoriasis, chicken pox and shingles and combines well with chamomile and plantain for any kind of skin rash. You can also combine it with nettle and meadowsweet for rheumatic conditions. Chickweed and calendula make a good preventative salve if your children are prone to eczema.

Chickweed can be used internally as a tea, juice or fresh herb tincture as well as externally when treating hot, irritated skins conditions. It also helps to eliminate toxins via the urinary system and by gently stimulating bowel function.  A chickweed juice tea can be made by pouring one tablespoon of juice into one cup of just boiled water. This can be drunk immediately. If you are making an infusion from the fresh or dried plant material, it should be left to infuse for ten minutes, covered, before drinking.

Chickweed, like plantain, has drawing properties. The fresh plant material can be bruised and applied in poultice form to draw out toxins from boils and abscesses. The poultice should be replaced every few hours. The wilted or freshly dry herb can be made into an infusion with just boiled water to cleanse skin diseases and rheumatic conditions.

Henriette Kress uses a teaspoon of chickweed syrup three times a day for a productive cough. The syrup is made by mixing half a cup (100ml) of juiced chickweed with half a cup (110g) sugar.

Contraindications for chickweed
Chickweed should not be taken if you suffer with stomach or intestinal irritation or bleeding as the herb can make this condition worse. There is also the possibility that chickweed may contain nitrates, so should not be given to children under the age of one year.


Hawes, Z Wild Drugs, a forager's guide to healing plants Octopus Publishing Ltd 2010
Kress, H Practical Herbs 2011