Monday, 18 October 2021

October and nettle seeds

The south facing branch of the sycamore tree across the road from my suburban home has turned from green to yellow, showing autumn is finally here. The warm days of the past few weeks have brought both respite and a lengthening to the late growing season, but it is good to be reminded the wheel of the year is turning and change will follow soon.

September always fills me with panic. Have I grown enough? Has the harvest been enough? Have I foraged everything I need. Enough is such a strange concept. How many people do I need to treat? How many people will I need to feed over winter?

In previous years I could plan and estimate but these strange times make things more uncertain. Winter is coming and all I want to do is find my sheltered place, line my nest and hibernate for the duration. I know it won’t be possible but I can hope.

October is the time of roots and seeds, preferably gathered after the first frost, whenever that is. My ashwagandha plants are still vibrantly green. They were so late germinating and then growing back in July that they have hardly put out their flowers and the seed pods are still green. I will wait to see if any of them turn to orange in the next few weeks. Otherwise everything will be dug and dried or tinctured. There is no rush.

What I did find whilst I was pulling up the dead broad and climbing beans was a hidden last harvest of nettle seed. I remember finding some last seeds this time of year in local parks in the first year I gathered. I’d forgotten the time of gathering was quite so long.

Reading through foraging posts on social media, it seems everyone has finally discovered nettles make more than leaves for soup and fibre for fishing lines. The seeds carry a rich nutritive density. As with any medicinal plant, you do need to harvest and consume with caution.

The fresh seeds when eaten can send some people “high”. The American herbalist, Kiva Rose Hardin first pointed out that if you have a “dry” constitution then nettle seed will dry you out further. She lives in New Mexico, so she is very conscious of moisture and the lack of it. Another issue we have discovered is that if you have misused “recreational drugs” somewhere in your past, nettle seed will cause you difficulties.

We tincture fresh nettle seed  to support kidney failure, as first highlighted by David Winston. It is especially helpful in dealing with kidney pain when you haven’t drunk enough fluid. The dry seeds support exhausted adrenal glands. The usual dose is one teaspoonful taken in yoghurt or porridge or as a seed topping to salads.

We usually recommend they are consumed for at least three months or until the “patient” can’t stand the taste of them anymore. I have one friend with an incredibly stressful job who is still happily consuming her nettle seed two years after they were first given to her.

Dried nettle seeds can also be an aid to reducing dietary salt. They can be ground with salt crystals in a ratio of two: one to produce a useful condiment. If you want something a little hotter, add chilli flakes to the mix.

It worried me when nettle seeds at the farm were turning black and dropping off back in July, thinking I had not found enough for fresh seed tincture. The following month I found another stand of vibrant green, enough to put up nearly 5 litres of tincture. After our herb festival in September, huge nettle plants now covering all the Sanctuary like rampant triffids, dangled their seeds so seductively I was forced to pick them, even though I was there to harvest my damson tree and time, as always, was very short.

I did manage to pick my usual five pounds of damsons and these are now sitting on my jam shelves ready to eat. The quince harvest is very sparse but luckily my friend has a tree and shares her largesse with me. Two bottles of spiced quince gin and three of vodka are now infusing in the larder until Christmas and twenty small jars of quince jelly were made over two days this week.

Now, there are more nettle seeds from the garden drying in a paper bag over the kitchen radiator. I should have added another batch from underneath our hawthorn tree but I was too tired and now it is raining.

What I did pick was an orange flourish of calendula, waving from underneath the runner beans. I’ve lamented the lack of a dedicated calendula bed for the past two years, but collecting a few flowers here and there, self-seeded in the vegetable beds have given me a few to dry for anti-viral tea and enough to turn into oil for skin salves when next needed. There was even a rogue chamomile plant this year, providing enough to fill a tiny jar for emergency use in the future.

This gentle week at home has given me the time to decant this summer’s St John’s wort oil. Only two jars this years, but still plenty in the larder from previous summers. The dried vervain, yarrow and sage have also been poured into glass jars, labelled and put away. The vervain will be mixed with chamomile and lemon balm for IDGAS tea, yarrow for colds and conditions which require an anti-inflammatory and sage for mouth/tooth infections.

There are still bags of St Johns wort flowers, plantain leaves, red clover blossoms and other mysteries to emerge from the “hot cupboard” and put away but not today. I still have tomorrow. 

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Plantain and Stings

Anyone would think from the paucity of posts on this blog in the past couple of years that I have given up on herbs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly, most of my energy now goes into creating new fiction since the pandemic restrictions made it impossible to continue holding workshops and taking on new apprentices. Herbs are still part of my life and help me cope with the myriad of challenges we have faced this year.

Plantain continues to sustain me. Both the greater and narrow-leaved varieties have set themselves up in my garden. I was very surprised to see them edging the flower beds and snuggling up to the lovage in the middle of the largest raised bed underneath the laurel hedge, but I have been so grateful they are there. Every time my husband bruises himself or strains a muscle, the plantain is there, either to chew up for a spit poultice or to gather for another batch of double infused oil for salves. It never disappoints.

This past month has brought several wasp and bee stings. It was interesting to see how my sister’s leg swelled and produced a crimson patch bigger than a hand when she was bitten by two wasps at the same time. I’d made sure she knew what plantain was but the pain was too much for her to move and her husband had recently strimmed the whole garden, thus removing all the easily accessible plants. She finally succumbed to anti-histamines three days after the stings but the angry, crimson swelling took at least two weeks to disappear.

My first bee sting happened at our festival, over a month ago. The poor bee must have mistaken my green sleeve for a plant and didn’t appreciate being squashed when I moved my arm. I managed to poultice it straight away but didn’t renew it until the following day, so there was a red, angry patch for about a week, but no swelling or heat.

You would think I might learn from experience but no. My father’s house has been plagued by wasps these past few weeks. One decided to crawl up inside my trouser leg whilst I was interviewed a lady to become part of my father’s care team as he is now very frail and has difficulty eating.

Of course, the wasp stung me when I touched it to see what was tickling my leg. I’ve done a lot of interviewing in my lifetime, but this was the first times I’d ever had to say, "Excuse me for a moment while I go outside into the pouring rain and find some plantain to chew for a spit poultice." 

The poultice was duly fixed, but I was too busy to change it until the following day, which wasn’t enough so again I had a nasty red patch. This time I treated it on the evening of Day 2 with a salve made from fresh plantain and yarrow. I’d made it for my father, gathering the plantain from the field and the yarrow from an overlooked patch behind a stone wall.

Those double infused oils took up one day, then the following morning I melted some gifted raw beeswax, poured it through one of my late mother’s stockings and then left it to set. It produced 12oz of wax, admittedly still attached to some honey, but it will all get used.

The salve was made especially for my father’s itchy legs but after one application he complained it made them worse so I took it home. I was very grateful it was there to address my wasp sting. Five days later of applying it night and morning there is just one tiny, raised spot when the venom was injected. The red area which must have measure 2-3 inches has disappeared.

I love herbs!

Many years ago when I was trying out some stories about herbs for children, I adapted an English translation of Plantain’s portion of the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herb Charm.

Plantain growing on the floor,

Rib-shot leaves you grow so small

See how we dance over you

See how bulls prance over you

Carts rumble over you

Ladies ride horses over you

Small you may be

But strong your leaves

You draw out poisons

And stings from bees

Special plantain, mother of herbs

You help us heal, all over the world.


Friday, 8 January 2021

January reflections

January is a time of reflection, as signified in this month’s header picture. Sunlight is low and when seen casts a golden glow across the land. The shortest day has passed along with the celebrations of light to ward off the darkness.

Now we face the beginning of a new year, the challenges of snow, frost and continuing cold. The need to stay indoors, to isolate ourselves from those we love and care for whilst worrying about our own health and wellbeing in the increasing web of concern for our wider communities.

How do we cope when the world is plagued by uncertainty and change? By concentrating on the shortest time, the simplest thing, each one building a jigsaw to take us forward into a more positive future.

What are we doing to help ourselves stay safe and well?

Every morning we take a shot glass of herbal tonic. We use tinctures/elixirs because it’s easy to administer.

Mine contains: Solomon seal, agrimony (joint pain) bugle (joint & digestive), St John’s wort and lemon balm (nervine plus SAD), hawthorn and motherwort (heart), dandelion bitter (liver) plus elderberry elixir. This may sound a lot, but when mixed together, it’s only a couple of tsps. topped up with water.

Chris has: dandelion (liver), hawthorn (heart) saw palmetto (prostate) plus elderberry elixir.

Chris spends most winters lurching from one cold to another. This year the elderberry has reduced most infections to one or two days of incessant sneezing and nose blowing with only the odd day feeling under the weather. Once he starts sneezing he takes fire cider vinegar and honey. If you have never made any, this is my version of the recipe.

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 turmeric

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.

The drink we make with fire cider is 2tsps infused vinegar with 2tsps runny honey in a mugful of boiling water, stir and sip. Usual dose is 3 mugs a day. If you want to add potency, then you can use an infused honey, such as sage, elecampane or horseradish but the drink is less pleasant using the latter.

When I don’t drink enough, my kidney complains and I end up with back pain. This is dealt with using fresh nettle seed and cramp bark tinctures (1tsp each 3x day) and extra fluids. Yesterday I resorted to a nettle chai which is an easy warm, comforting drink.

Nettle Chai

2 handfuls of dried nettle leaves

1 inch of chopped root ginger

Spices (cinnamon/nutmeg/1 clove)

Orange or lemon peel

Place all the ingredients in a 2mug/4cup cafatiere (French coffee press) and cover with just boiled water. Infuse for ten minutes, strain and drink.

Another warming drink which helps the immune system is made from astralagus root.

Immune support tea

1tblsp chopped dried astralagus root

1inch root ginger

Small handful of dried rosehips and haws

Warming spices (cinnamon/nutmeg/clove/cardamom)

Citrus juice and peel (orange/lemon/lime/grapefruit)

You could make this as a decoction in a covered saucepan (Cover with 1pint water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 mins, then strain and drink) but it works just as well as a tea made in a cafetière.

 We’re also spending a lot of time in front of computer screens which often means my eyes become either sore or puffy. Putting a square of material or kitchen towel soaked in an infusion of eyebright and goldenrod tea (1tsp of each of the dried herbs) over my eyes for ten minutes during my afternoon nap (yes I am that old!) works wonders.

 There is no escaping the fact that life is currently very stressful for most people.

 Here are some soothing teas to help

 IDGAS tea

1tsp each of dried chamomile, lemon balm and vervain in a single mug cafetière. Add just boiled water and steep for ten minutes strain and drink.

 Ashwagandha evening soother

2 tsps dried ashwagandha roots

1tsp dried rose petals

1/2 pint milk (dairy or nut)

Heat the roots and petals in the milk in a covered saucepan. Simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and drink. Add honey if required.

Keep a dropper bottle of rose elixir and skullcap tincture within easy reach throughout the day and night. Rose will lift your spirits when everything seems too much or when you’ve had bad news about something. Skullcap stops the mice running around in your head when you can’t sleep.

Skullcap is safe for older children and very young children can be sent to bed after a bath to which a strong tea of lavender, lemon balm and catnip has been added. (Bath, bed, story, sleep in strict order, no play fights or running around in between!).

We know these are difficult times. To experience difficult times in winter when energy levels are naturally low is even more challenging but the wheel of the year is always turning and things will change.