Monday 7 November 2016

Preparing for winter SADness

People of all ages find the transition into winter and the months until spring arrives difficult. The urge to hibernate is strong but in busy, modern society it becomes more and more difficult to achieve.

There are several simple and practical strategies which can be put into place to help allay the different forms of darkness. Much of these are around behavior, which many people find challenging. If you rant and wail against doing something different or changing your comfortable habits think about this: If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.

If there are issues which you find unhelpful in your life, then this time of approaching and preparing for winter can be your opportunity to ask yourself, “Is what I am doing helpful or might there be a different way of achieving what I want that I could explore?” Changes don’t have to be major, small steps can lead to amazing outcomes.

If you know you suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), consider investing in a SAD lamp or SAD bulbs which can be fixed into ordinary lamps. Those who have them say they make the world a brighter place in the winter.

Make sure you go outside every day, preferably between 12pm and 1pm, to expose yourself to the maximum light possible during winter months. Children and adults benefit from outdoor exercise so they are physically tired when bedtime approaches. Even if you work in the centre of a city, try to discover your local parks or canals which can be reached during a lunch break.

At weekends, go for a walk which includes lots of trees. There is something very comforting about woodland which will hopefully have a positive effect on your mental health. Notice the colours of leaves, barks and buds. There can be an amazing variety, even in the depths of winter.

Think about what you are eating. It is tempting to increase your intake of calories in the form of warm, comfort food with lots of carbohydrates. We may have needed to increase our bulk to see us through the lean days of early spring a hundred years ago, but it really isn’t necessary now.

Instead, increase your protein intake. Make lots of nourishing soups and stews. They may take time but if you invest in a slow cooker, they can be prepared the night before or in the morning and then enjoyed later. If you have a freezer, always make double or triple quantities so you can freeze the excess and have something to eat when you don’t feel like cooking.

Homemade broth produced either from bones or vegetables can help keep your immune system buoyant.

Bone Broth
Chicken carcass or large beef/lamb or pork bones
2 tblsps cider vinegar
3 bay leaves
Bouquet garni of anti-viral herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage)
10 peppercorns
3 or more cloves of garlic crushed
1 onion peeled and sliced and or leeks
3 celery sticks
Cover the bones in a large saucepan with water. Add 1-2 tablespoons of cider vinegar to help release the minerals from the bones. Add anti-viral herbs e.g. rosemary, thyme, sage, bay. (1 pinch of each herb plus 1 or 2 bay leaves) peppercorns for flavour, onions and leeks for pro-biotic stimulation of good gut bacteria, celery sticks (at least 3) for prevention of gout and help with arthritic or inflammatory conditions. DON'T ADD SALT.
Bring to the boil and simmer for at least one hour. If you are using large mutton or beef bones put aside 3-4 or more hours making sure the liquid level doesn't drop too much. If making stock in a cookpot/slow cooker, simmer all day on low. Strain the stock and use to add a mixture of vegetables or vegetables and meat. If the bones have meat left on them, use it in the soup. Alternatively the stock can be frozen in small quantities and used as a nourishing drink or sauce base later.

Nourishing Vegetable Stock
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can still make a nourishing stock by cooking vegetables, herbs, roots and mushrooms together for long periods.  Start by dicing at least half an onion per person and sweat in olive oil with at least two cloves of garlic. Add half a pint of water or vegetable broth per person together with a large handful of peeled and chopped seasonal vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, cabbage, celery, corn, turnips, potatoes and fresh or tinned tomatoes. Add one small handful of seaweed per person to provide seasoning and to strengthen the immune system. Finally add one ounce fresh, or one-half ounce dried mushrooms per person (any kind) together with dried or fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, and sage) and tonic roots (Siberian ginseng, astragalus, burdock, dandelion, chicory, yellow dock, American ginseng).  Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. You may wish to remove the roots before serving.

Try to eat your evening meal at least two hours before you plan to go to bed so your body isn't trying to digest the food instead of preparing to sleep. If you do eat late, it is possibly better to delay bedtime until your stomach is less full. Try to avoid eating foods containing tyramine, such as bacon, cheese, ham, aubergines, pepperoni, raspberries, avocado, nuts, soy sauce, red wine, late at night as they might keep you awake. Tyramine produces a brain stimulant. If you do feel hungry near to bedtime, choose something like bread or cereal which releases serotonin; this will help you relax.

Caffeine is another stimulant, which stays in the blood stream for several hours. If you have trouble getting to sleep after drinking tea, coffee or strong chocolate, you might like to try some caffeine free drinks or herbal teas. Too much alcohol also makes you restless, so a nightcap might not be a good idea. Alcohol and coffee are also diuretics, disturbing your sleep during the night because you need to go to the toilet.

To sleep effectively, the body must prepare for sleep, so establishing a good bedtime routine is really helpful. The hour before bed should be spent “pottering”, not concentrating and try not to include any stimulating activity.

On days when things are particularly difficult, take a bath before you go to bed. To that bath add a concentrated tea brewed from lavender, catnip, lemon balm and chamomile. Try drinking a small cup of chamomile tea half an hour before bed. Soak for a while in the bath but once out, you must go straight to bed, maybe read for ten minutes then lights out. No TVs, phones, electronic games or anything else in the bedroom and the bedroom must be dark.

On those nights when your brain insists on talking to itself in ever decreasing circles, keep a dropper bottle of passionflower tincture by your bedside. The dose is one dropperful and it will shut your brain up and let you sleep. You can use this with children, especially during times of stress such as exams or after a bereavement.

You may have to make the tincture yourself by either growing the Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate) in a heated greenhouse or buying the dried herb and infusing it in vodka for three weeks. I doubt you will be able to buy the tincture anywhere in the UK unless you obtain it from a qualified herbalist or import it from abroad.

The herbal combination noted to address SAD issues developed by the American herbalist, David Winston, is equal parts of St John’s wort with lemon balm. This can be taken as a tea, a combined tincture or glycerite, or as a syrup.

SAD Syrup
1 l water
20 g dried lemon balm or 50g fresh chopped herb
20 g dried St John’s wort or 50g fresh, chopped herb
Grated rind and juice of one lemon
450 g sugar
Put herb in water with grated lemon rind, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain. Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 20ml left Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, add lemon juice, pour into sterilized jars or bottles, seal and label.

I usually make my syrup from fresh herbs which I bruise or chop, I use aerial parts of both plants. Normally I only use the flowers of SJW to make oil and tincture, but I often make the syrup when the plants have gone to seed, so I use seed heads, flowers and some of the stalk.

Remember lemon balm only has a shelf life of 6 months when dry, so if you buy some from a supplier, ask when it was picked. You should also pick the leaves before they flower, but if most of my plants have flowered when I make syrup, I try to pick as many secondary shoots as I can (shoots which grow up from stems cut earlier in the year).

The dosage for SAD syrup would be around 1tsp three times a day. Don't use this syrup if you are already taking SSRI drugs for depression or if you've had a bad reaction to SJW in the past. Some people who take medication for migraine conditions find it can bring on a migraine.

Making remedies from herbs you have grown, harvested and stored will always be more effective than store bought because they have experienced the same environment as you and you know what you're getting.

Take care with anything which contains valerian. Although it is a common sleep aid, 10% of people who take it find it stimulating rather than soporific. You really need a whole weekend to see which way it affects you personally. (I have a blog post on this here).

I always think of valerian as top of the herbal sleep tree. I suggest people start with chamomile, lemon balm and catmint first (singly). Lemon verbena can be used interchangeably with lemon balm.

Here are some very pleasant combinations you could try.

  • Lemon balm and lime flower
  • Lemon balm, chamomile and spearmint.
  • Lemon verbena and marshmallow leaves

These herbs can all be used with young children over the age of two

If you are looking for soporifics, then field poppy, californian poppy and wild lettuce can all be tinctured and given in drop doses with a maximum dose of 10 drops.

To make a californian poppy tincture, use the whole plant, roots and all - remove all soil, chop of and cover with vodka in a jam jar for 3 weeks. You can make your own tincture by purchasing dried herbs from a reputable supplier (Try Neal's Yard or Just Botanics if you are in the UK.)

Californian poppy tincture and scullcap tincture can be used for anxiety during the day, again in drop doses. The poppy is also suitable for pain relief in two hourly doses. If you don't want to use alcohol you can use a glycerite instead but their shelf life isn't as long. Be aware that Californian poppy may show up in random drugs test so if your job or driving depends on clean drug tests, you may want to avoid the preparation.

I hope you will find something helpful from what I've suggested and have a "good" winter.

Thursday 3 November 2016

October: A month in the life of a herbwife

When a whole month rushes by in the flicker of turning leaves, you know you’ve been busy. Usually, it is September which promotes the panic of harvesting and foraging. This year, October’s warmth and beauty kept us outside to gather what we could.

Most months, I offer two workshops. In October, we met for the last time at the Sanctuary and I was intending to hold the other in my garden and kitchen at home. I was also asked to put on a herb walk and workshop for the Kushinga Gardening Group which helps support homeless refugees from all over the world in Birmingham.

I am dreadful with dates. I think I know when something is and tell others, but when I check, I’m often incorrect. I thought I’d advertise my second workshop locally and three women duly booked before I realised the date was wrong, so I ended up delivering two workshops, two days apart. It wouldn’t have been so bad but two of the three cancelled on the morning of the workshop, leaving me with one person to guide and entertain for over four hours.

Each workshop was extremely productive. At the Sanctuary, we gathered haws, New England Aster, calendula flowers and seeds, marshmallow leaves and seeds, elecampane root, blackberries, nettle seed, milk thistle seed and Solomon seal roots. We also processed dried nettle seed, mugwort, goldenrod and hops. Helen, one of my apprentices plied us with a new tea of dandelion, dock roots and nettle leaves which was surprisingly tasty.

There was also time to think about the energetic side of trees growing in the Sanctuary. We found the earth/water vortex at the back of the pond where two self-sown hazel saplings are growing. People gathered twigs and branches of their chosen tree to make various crafted items including two willow dreamcatchers.

Either side of the workshop, I gathered crab apples and rosehips and Chris dug a basketful of horseradish roots. Once home, I made crabapple jelly (the first of two batches) and eight pints of hedgerow cordial. The first four quinces went into two liqueurs, one simple and one spiced and the liqueurs from last year were decanted and put away for Christmas.

Hedgerow cordial
250g elderberries
500g haws
500g rosehips
1 nutmeg grated
1 tsp cinnamon or 1 stick
6-10 cloves
1inch ginger root grated
Place everything in a large saucepan or stockpot. Cover ingredients with water (about 1 or 2 litres). Bring to the boil and simmer for thirty minutes with the lid on. Mash all the contents with a potato masher to release as much as the juice as possible. Strain, retaining the liquid. Wash the pan. Measure the liquid and return to pan adding 1kg of sugar to 1 litre of liquid. Bring to the boil, then pour into sterilised bottles and seal, label and date. Serve in a goblet or mug with boiling water to taste adding lemon or orange juice if the cordial is too sweet.

Crabapple Jelly
2.5Kg crab-apples
1.7l water
Wash crabapple, cut into quarters, without peeling or coring. Put into a pan and add the water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 1.5 hours until the fruit is mashed, adding a little more water if necessary. A few cloves or some ginger root can be added while the apples are cooking to give added flavour. Strain through a jelly cloth and measure remaining liquid before returning it to the cleaned pan. Add 450g sugar for each 500ml liquid. Stir until the sugar has dissolved then boil rapidly for ten minutes. Tip 1tblsp of jelly onto a saucer and check for setting point (when it cools a skin should form when you gently push against the edge of the jelly). Skim any scum from the top of the jelly then pour into small jam jars sterilised in the oven for ten minutes. Sterilise tops by boiling in a saucepan for ten minutes. This jelly can also be made with any cooking apple. Herbal jellies can be made by cooking the apples with a bunch of a herb (mint is a good one to try first), reserving some of the herb to chop finely and add once the setting point has been reached.

Spiced Quince Liqueur
2 large quinces chopped and grated in a food processor
1-2 cups of sugar
3 cloves,
1 nutmeg grated
1 cinnamon stick broken into halves
(other spices such as star anise, ginger can be added if wished)
Place the grated quince and spices in a large jam jar. Add the sugar. Cover with vodka, stirring to remove air bubbles then fill to the top of the jar. Leave somewhere dark and warm for 8 weeks then decant. The pulp can be infused again with more vodka and fresh spices if wished.

Some of the haws were put to infuse in vinegar, as was the New England Aster, and the mugwort vinegar which had been prepared the previous month was strained and put away. The flavour of the mugwort was so delightful, I determined to make more!
During the second workshop, we dug more elecampane and processed the Solomon’s seal roots. We also discovered how good the dried New England Aster stalks tasted in tea. Holy basil and chamomile seeds were harvested and the stalks used to make vinegars at a future date. Some stray vervain and agrimony stems were also found and tinctured the following day.

To make the most of the Solomon seal harvest, I always tincture the sliced tuber and make a double infused oil from the peripheral roots. Recent discussion infers that the tincture taken internally in drop doses is the most effective when it comes to restoring ligaments and joints but I’ve found the oil helpful when added to a mixed salve for frozen shoulder and other joint ailments.

The following day I determined to clear most of the herbs which had been drying in paper bags in my hot cupboard over the summer. To make room, I made some calendula oil from last year’s harvest and was pleasantly surprised to see how deep the oil turned during the second infusion. It was satisfying how much chamomile, sage and calendula petals I’d been able to gather by picking just a few flowers whenever I could. There will also be lots of seed for next year’s planting.

During the third workshop, I took my newcomer on a comprehensive tour of my garden, identifying and talking about the herbs still growing. I’d dug up and washed more elecampane root and this was split between an infused honey and sliced for drying. We made a double infused chickweed oil and I turned it into an eczema salve with St Johns wort and calendula oil for the attendee to take home.

Another trip to the farm yielded a harvest of purple New England aster, ashwagandha roots, roses, calendula flowers, purple sage, lemon verbena, milk thistle seeds and a huge harvest of quinces. My father kindly picked a load of crabapples and horsechestnuts so I was able to make a second batch of jelly and the conkers are waiting to be turned into oil if necessary.

The following day, the calendula, sage, lemon verbena and half the New England aster were put to dry. The ashwagandha roots were tinctured and half the quinces were made into jelly. The horseradish root was washed and chopped in the processor, ready for the next day’s workshop but I used the opportunity to put up a large jar of fire cider vinegar, just in case we get a winter of colds and other nasties.

It was good to return to my student haunts in Selly Oak. The Kushinga garden is owned by the Bournville village trust and sits behind Hope House run by Selly Oak Methodist Church. It grows an array of fruit and vegetables including native and exotic herbs. Only four people joined us for the herb walk but others were waiting when we returned to the church hall to make fire cider and rosemary digestive vinegar followed by hedgerow and nettle and rose syrups.

Fire Cider Vinegar
Equal portions of horseradish and ginger root – grate or whizz in a coffee grinder. (It is your choice whether you peel the roots or not.)
1 head of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 good handful of rosehips (fresh or dried)
6 cloves
2 tsps paprika
2 tsps tumeric
2 tsps cayenne pepper
(If you have access to fresh chilli peppers, you can add these as well, leaving the seeds in to give extra “fire”!)
Mix all dry ingredients together in a large glass jar so it is filled about half full, then add cider vinegar stirring well to remove air bubbles until the jar is full. Place cling film over the top of the jar before sealing with screw top lid. Label and date. Place jar in warm, dark place for 3 weeks. Strain and use.

Rosemary digestive vinegar
2” root ginger grated
1 small head of garlic peeled and crushed/chopped
1 large handful of fresh rosemary chopped coarsely
1 large handful fresh or dried rosehips
1 small handful fresh or dried haws
Holy basil stems
Dandelion roots or leaves (optional)
2 tblsps freshly grated orange peel
2 tsps ground coriander
1 whole red chilli
1 tsp powdered turmeric
Cider vinegar
Layer your ingredients in a large glass jar until it is halfway full then cover with cider vinegar, podging with a chopstick to remove air bubbles then refill with more cider vinegar. Put clingfilm over the mouth of the jar before putting on a metal lid. Strained the infused vinegar after a month and re-use the ingredients after blitzing with more cider vinegar to make another infusion.

Nettle and rose syrup
Gather a large amount of fresh nettle tops and wash well. Either place in a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for twenty minutes then turn the heat off and leave overnight or place the nettles in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave overnight in a cool place. The next morning, strain the nettles and add the petals of seven red roses to the liquid in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes. Strain and measure the volume of remaining liquid. For each pint of liquid add 1lb of sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon, bring back to the boil and simmer until the syrup is reduced to the desired consistency. Pour into heated, sterilised bottles. Seal, label and date. Store in a cool place. Keep refrigerated once opened. Use to make a milkshake with cold milk. This can be made with dried nettles and rose petals, but reduce the amounts.

Two of my apprentices, Kathy and Lorraine, travelled over fifty miles from Gloucestershire to help with the workshop. I was so grateful for their help in preparing the herbs and syrups and working with the refugees and other locals who came to make some medicines for winter. 
Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and we were treated to a wonderful vegetarian lunch prepared by one of the refugees who used to run her own restaurant back in Malawi.

It has been a busy month with all my herbs. In between, both my sons have moved house and asked for practical support with electrics and loft boarding. A close friend of the family, (my unofficial third son!) was married last Saturday which provided the opportunity to visit Warwick Castle with my grandsons the previous day. We hoped things would calm down a little once the festival was over but it was not to be. Maybe November will bring the quiet time we crave.