Garden Freebies

How perfect when the garden provides you with a crop of medicinal herbs.  Herbs that you didn’t have to raise from seed, or plant, or forage for.  Just wonderful gifts from nature. Today I’ve been harvesting such gifts from the garden – Pilewort, Nettles and Cleavers.

Pilewort, also known as Lesser celandine, offers one of the first splashes of colour after our long winter, with it’s beautiful yellow star-like flowers.  It’s leaves are satisfyingly glossy, and comically heart shaped.  They often form sumptuous patches on forest floors, by streams, or indeed in the garden.  As you might be able to tell from those shiny yellow flowers, Pilewort is a member of the buttercup family, but unlike all the other Buttercups growing here, they’re actually safe for us to use (although I only use Pilewort externally).


In many herbals you’ll find that it’s the root of Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria) that’s recommended, but I actually use all parts of the plant.  The roots are the richest source of active constituents, with tannins, anemonin and protoanemonin, and some saponins.  This makes for a toning, astringent (and I find, mildly anti-inflammatory) remedy.  The roots are also comically shaped.  The doctrine of signatures notes that they resemble the piles for which they’re a renowned remedy, but I think they look like little potatoes freshly pulled from the soil. As far as roots go, they’re not too much bother to clean up, and I process them using sharp scissors.  With this small harvest I’m making a cold infusion, covering the chopped plant material with oil and will allow it to sit for a number of weeks before straining.  This oil can then be used simply as an external oil or made into an ointment with beeswax.  I use my Pilewort infused oil externally on haemorrhoids (piles) and varicose veins.


The garden where we are currently staying has also provided a lovely crop of young Nettles and Cleavers which I’ve harvested and popped in the dehydrator.  These dried herbs can then be used in teas, or could be made into a tincture later.  These two make a lovely coupling for a Spring tonic infusion, Nettles with their deeply nutritive, strengthening, bioavailable vitamins and minerals and a gently clearing diuretic action, and Cleavers with their phenomenal lymphatic affinity.  They make for a very “kind” drink to give your body, whether you’re fighting fit or in need of some care and attention.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) exude the most gorgeous, intensely “green” aroma when they’re drying in the dehydrator.  You can almost smell the iron, and it is indeed a lovely herb to give as an infusion for someone looking to overcome anaemia (and when this is contributed to by heavy periods, Nettle’s astringent action helps to manage excessive bleeds).  It’s nutritional punch helps whenever a nutritional imbalance needs to be addressed in fact.  Herbalists use Nettles to help those will allergies, and with pollen season upon us, Hay fever sufferers may find Nettle’s anti-histamine action very useful!  Nettle contains constituents such as quercetin that help to reduce the release of histamine by mast cells, thereby calming the inflammatory response seen in an allergic reaction.

Cleavers (Galium aparine) are considered a superior tonic for the lymphatic system.  This system serves to keep the spaces that surround our cells and tissues clear and toxin free, and it also contributes to the smooth functioning of the immune system.  Known as a lymphatic, a diuretic, an alterative and an anti-inflammatory, Herbalists use it to help clear lymphoedema and boggy tissues, to support the immune system and to help with that clearing-cleaning-cleansing action of the lymphatic system – something that is helpful whenever we face an infection, an injury or when out body is dealing with an increased toxic load.  Herbalists use Cleavers when the lymph nodes are swollen, especially in cases of tonsillitis, and to help manage a wide variety of skin issues. It’s ability to promote lymphatic function makes it an incredibly valuable and versatile member of our Materia medica.  It’s my first port of call when I start to feel a little run down and under the weather, with it’s cooling, purifying taste and action always incredibly welcome.

So, three lovely garden freebies that can be added to my dispensary, plants that are commonly pulled up as weeds and end up on the compost heap!

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Primula vulgaris and Primula veris are plants of my childhood, from time spent exploring the hedgerows, and wandering through the dappled light of woods and copses and roaming farmland, meadows, marshes and moors. Primroses (Primula vulgaris), with their pale yellow faces peering hopefully up towards the sun have a history of use in love potions, and medicinally for joint issues.  Cowslips (Primula veris) with their drooping yellow flowers are known as “bunch-of-keys” in some parts on account of the old tale that St Peter dropped a spare set of the keys to Heaven down to earth, from which Cowslip sprung, with those droopy heads resembling sets of keys.  Predating this story, Cowslips were named after the fertility Goddess Freya – whose key-like flowers were said to open the lock to Freya’s fertile Kingdom!

Traditionally, it was Cowslips that were more commonly used in Herbal medicine, but whilst their numbers are still in a period of recovery, Primroses become a viable, and perfectly lovely source of Herbal medicine. The two Primulas have similar constituents and therefore overlapping actions, and whilst Cowslips may be a more potent remedy, the subtle medicine of Primrose, I find, often really suits the conditions for which you’d employ it.


I use the flowers of Primroses, although all parts (including the root) can be used.  These beautiful pale yellow flowers are a useful source of bioflavonoids (and make a wonderful addition to blends of colourful flowers and berries that you might use to support a body prone to cardiovascular disease, or to support a body facing a great deal of stress).  But their true affinity is with the nervous system, where they can be considered a nervine, and for those who suffer with a great deal of stress, I consider them trophorestorative. In a manner somewhat similar to Lemon balm and St John’s wort, Primroses can bring light to those who are living in any degree of darkness.  For those who feel worn down by relentless stress, or by difficult episodes in their life, who have become consumed by one aspect of their life to the detriment of their well-being, or for those whose job takes them to dark places (policemen and women, paramedics, doctors and nurses, social workers, those working in aid at home or abroad, charity workers etc) – when their job exposes them repeatedly to the darker avenues of life, to pain and suffering or bad behaviour, Primroses can help to gently lift them up above that darkness and stop their minds from permanently inhabiting that shadowy space.  These people may not present with low mood or depression, but there is a burden carried by those who work in these fields, and it’s easy to see it.  The demure, quiet, unassuming Primrose can shine a light on these dark spaces, a lovely soft light radiating from those beautiful open flower heads.

Insomnia stemming from a busy brain, especially worry, may respond well to Primrose, and children who struggle to switch off at night may find Primrose tea a wonderfully calming ally.  They can pick their own sleepy medicine and dry them on a sunny day out on sheets in a warm spot.  The flowers dry like a dream!


Although the action is stronger in Cowslips (particularly due to it’s roots containing saponins), Primrose also has a lung affinity, with use in cases of spasmodic coughs (like Cowslip it has an antispasmodic action) and, as you might imagine, for nervous coughs too.  This makes Primrose a lovely, calming, supportive remedy for children with a spasmodic cough (or whooping cough), encouraging a healing sleep too.

That antispasmodic action mentioned above also makes Primrose a herb we can employ for spasms, griping and cramps across the body.  For me it a one of the specific herbs for spasms / gripes / cramps associated with stress and anxiety – so the likes of IBS pain and diarrhoea, nervous diarrhoea or constipation, nervous coughing, dysmenorrhoea, tension headaches and other muscular spasms arising from tension.  Primrose often pairs up nicely in the heart of a blend with German chamomile in these scenarios, sharing actions as they do.

A tincture of Primrose flowers is a beautiful thing, light and delicate.  It suits a shorter extraction time – watch for the flowers starting to fade and certainly don’t leave it macerating for longer than a fortnight.  A wonderful honey can also be made, again, straining once the flowers start to fade, with the honey being particularly useful for childhood insomnia and coughs.

Don’t let the Spring pass you by without spending some time with Primrose, perhaps harvesting if you find an area abundant with plants.  And certainly partake in a cup of fresh Primrose flower tea, and note the calming, cheering effect of your honey coloured infusion.

You can use Cowslips grown in your garden (or sourced from and abundant wild patch)  in the same way as described above.


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Usnea, an ancient anti-biotic

High winds over the past few days have brought down precious scatterings of Usnea lichen from the trees in my local woods.  The winter can feel like a rather barren time for foraging, but “windfalls” like this remind us that there is always medicine to be harvested!

One of my first vivid memories of Usnea is from childhood, riding ponies with my sister through mossy ancient woodland on the valley hillside where Usnea hung down in great boughs, tickling our faces as we rode through it.  These old woods on the damp hillside provided an excellent habitat for Usnea, but it is found growing on trees globally (providing us with plenty of historical medicinal uses from across the globe).  Usnea is a fruticose lichen (fruticose meaning coral-like) and is an extraordinary amalgamation of algae (which provides the coloured, often greenish outer layer) and fungus (providing the white, elastic central cord – which acts as a useful identification tool when trying to distinguish Usnea from other species).  Most often, medicinally, we use Usena barbata (Old Man’s Beard).


Many are blind to lichen as we walk through the woods.  But there is something particularly magical about these quiet adornments to the trees. And Usnea is really rather beautiful, especially upon further inspection, where we can appreciate the delicate coral-like shapes.  With the doctrine of signatures in mind you can’t help but notice the reflection of the lungs, and I also see an echo of the tangled web of fibres that we see in wound healing in those delicate strands.  Two images that help us to remember traditional uses of Usnea, as a respiratory remedy and a wound healer.  It’s traditional uses across Asia, Europe and America were mostly topical (known particularly as a styptic), but it was also viewed as a emmenagogue (it isn’t a herb to be used in pregnancy), a lung tonic and an agent to clear phlegm.

As well as mucilage and polysaccharides, Usnea contains the well-known “lichen acid” – Usnic acid.  The bitterness of this well researched polyphenolic acid probably protects Usnea from being eaten!  Usefully for us Usnic acid is also active against gram positive bacteria (such as streptococcus, staphylococcus and pneumococcus).  It interferes with the bacteria’s oxidative phosphorylation, thereby interrupting it’s production of energy.

Today Herbalists consider Usnea to be a superb antibacterial, an anti-viral, an immunostimulant, an antiseptic, an anti-fungal and an anti-inflammatory.  It appears to have an affinity for the mucous membranes, particularly those in the respiratory and urinary systems.  We find it to be cooling and drying and therefore it lends itself to hot, damp conditions (as we often find in the respiratory and urinary systems).  Herbalists report using Usnea in cases of fungal infections (I like it in powders for Athlete’s foot!), Staphylococcal and Streptococcal infections (I use it predominantly, dried, as a gargle for sore Strep throats),  to clean wounds and manage bleeding, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, ulcers and burns, coughs and colds, flu, bronchitis and sinus infections, urinary tract infections and a variety of conditions linked to dampened immunity.  I know of herbalists who use Usnea interchangeably with Echinacea, particularly in those with extremely low immunity.


After collecting a wind fall of Usnea I dry it on clean, thin cotton sheets (and it’s a herb that helpfully dries very quickly for you, unlike others!). I tend to only forage for naturally (and recently) fallen Usnea, as this lichen takes a long time to grow.  If collecting directly from the tree, do so mindfully and only where the lichen is abundant and flourishing, and always away from sources of pollution (roads etc).  Being of “dual origin” we have to perform a careful extraction to acquire all those useful therapeutic constituents.  After drying I grind it to a fine powder (spice grinders work well here), which helps to expose the fungal portion (you should see the little whitish to yellow flecks).  When making a tincture I use a high alcohol percentage to extract the usnic acid, and the water portion of my tincture comes in the form of a strong decoction of Usnea, which allows me to extract the polysaccharides (with all their amazing immune stimulating properties).  I macerate for up to six weeks before pressing.  My last couple of Usnea tinctures have been 1:5 and 90% and I have found small doses work perfectly well (just 1 or 2 ml, up to three times a day).  Herbalists often only use Usnea short term (it will very often help resolve the issues for which it is prized within a couple of weeks anyway).  This short term duration (I don’t exceed two weeks at a time) of use is an important measure of caution though when we consider that isolated Usnic acid, with it’s ability to disrupt oxidative phosphorylation has been linked to liver issues when ingested at high doses within other preparations.  It’s also important to note that isolated Usnic acid can be a skin irritant and some sensitive individuals may find that topical preparations of Usnea irritate.


  • Usnea can be used as a dye, for those who enjoy using nature’s pallete.  It also makes an excellent tinder!
  • For those who are keen to start exploring medicinal mushrooms, but are feeling a little nervous about taking that step, Usnea can be a nice stepping stone towards this.  Collecting it, drying and processing it certainly feels different to working with most other herbs!
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The last to leave…

I lead my final few herb walks of the year recently by the Lochside, as Winter hints at her imminent arrival;  mornings where the garden has been set aglitter by frost, excited little faces at the window watching the first falls of snow (“enough to make a snowball!” up at her little school in the hills), and bare branches silhouetting black against grey skies as if the trees were stretching out as they yawn their way into a Winter slumber.  But there was plenty for us still to find.  Plant allies still basking in the golden Autumnal glow, braving the cold and sharing their gifts.DSCF1777.JPG

We found a poor Blackberry bush that had been trampled and some of it’s roots exposed (which we covered back over), but this gave us an opportunity to talk about the old traditions up here for using the bark of the roots for deep respiratory issues like bronchitis and asthma, where strong dark decoctions were brewed along with herbs like Pennyroyal.  Like the astringent leaves of the plant, the root bark was made into a tea for diarrhoea.  When we tasted the leaves we were able to appreciate that mildly astringent nature.  I like the leaves as a tea and gargle for sore throats, which are so common at this time of year.


I spent so much time with the beautiful banks of Butterbur this Summer and often referred to them as the audience watching the Loch’s daily performance.  But the theatre is rather empty now.  A few stragglers were there to greet us now, with their superbly silver undersides of their leaves.  We took a look at a root and talked about the use of this herb in migraines and it’s ability to ease and relax the most intense gripes throughout the body.  However it’s a plant that contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids and as such their use is tightly controlled and monitored by Herbalists that use them.


All through the Summer Nettles reign supreme on the banks of the Loch and few visitors leave without a tingle somewhere on their body as they brush against the feisty Urtica dioica.  We stopped to have a closer look at drooping seeds on some of the Nettles and chatted about their awesome nourishing, balancing effect on our endocrine system (particularly the adrenal glands),  their reputation as an adaptogen and their incredible affinity for the kidneys.  It was nice to take the time to appreciate a plant that gives so much, with it’s roots, leaves and seeds providing wonderful therapeutic potential, and here we are, nearly in the Winter and these parts were all on offer to us.


We saw many Meadowsweet “ghosts”, as elegant in her sleepy seed state as she is in her Summer finery.DSCF1775.JPG

Meadowsweet seeds are a joy to behold, with their swirling architecture and as we walked on we saw spotted many more beautiful seeds and pondered the cyclical patterns around us, bringing us back round to Nettle seeds and their nourishing effect on the endocrine system.


Though we observed the fragile skeletons of many plants our walk, vibrant greens and a sense of lushness still graced the banks, with the likes of Cleavers, Chickweed and White deadnettle still verdant in November.  We talked about making Chickweed ointments and how the anti-itch nature of the plant would help those skin conditions that become red and irritated through the winter, both through the cold weather and through the drying nature of central heating.  The supreme lymphatic Cleavers was also highlighted as a useful Winter herb ally, supporting the immune system through it’s lymphatic actions.  Like the leaves of Blackberry, White deadnettle has an astringent action and as such I have used it for sore throats.  As well as tannins, this herb also contains some mucilage and saponins and we talked about using this mucous membrane drying and soothing combination, with the gentle expectorant action of the saponins in coughs and colds.


Our Winter health chat continued as we found a few of nature’s little vitamin C capsules, Rosehips.  Now splendidly soft, you can pick them and careful squeeze out a vitamin rich pulp to eat as a delicious foragers treat – but be careful not to squeeze out any of those little irritant hairs! Earlier in the season the Rosehips can be foraged and made into syrups and jellies or dried for use in teas.  DSCF1808.JPG


The Autumn leaves stimulated our senses.  Rustling, dried and curled on branches, crunching beneath our feet.  The light shone through them, a stained glass splendour in one of nature’s cathedral.  The fallen leaves scented the air with their unique, mellow perfume as gently melt into the soil that had previously nourished their home. The leaves of Wood sorrel stimulated our taste buds, whilst a nibble of  cardiotonic Hawthorn drew our attention to our hearts.


Rosebay willowherb has been of special interest to me over the last couple of years.  It’s a special time as you spend more time and learn about a lesser used herb and in the Summer I wrote about this towering treasure in the superb Tilia magazine, a publication for Herbalists and students and apprentices of Herbal medicine.  Come the Autumn it bids farewell festooned in glorious wafts of white silk.  An astringent and demulcent plant, research suggests that Rosebay willowherb has an affinity for the urinary system and the prostate.  But I’ve also found there is an affinity for children too, soothing their throat, lungs, gut and skin.


It was a pleasure spending time with those who stay with us a little longer.  Still so many treasures to be found.  You need only stop and look.

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A moment with Marshmallow

One of the greatest disappointments in life so far for my five year old (five, but nearly six as she’d be keen for you to know), is the fact that Marshmallow plants don’t actually bear marshmallows.  For me it’s offerings are far better than fluffy pink and white confectionery (which do, of course, take their name the plant from which they were originally made) and today, disappointed though she may be in the plant, my daughter is most grateful for it.

As I stroked her soft cheek this morning and told her that she was too ill for school, Marshmallow immediately came to mind.  Althea officinalis epitomises softness for me.  From it downy leaves (so reminiscent of the softness of a child cheek!), to it’s powder pink petals and it’s mucilage packed soothing, softening roots, Marshmallow is the feather-down-duvet of herbs!  And today my girl, with her “sorest” of sore throats, needed it.


Today I have used the roots of this herb, decocting them to extract that incredibly soothing mucilage.  Mucilage that I want to coat her throat, to soothe and ease inflammation, and to moisten the mucous membranes (the dryness here made itself known to her through the night) – thereby making the throat less painful.  This in turn will help her eat and sleep – two things that will help her on the road to recovery!


Being water soluble, mucilage is successfully extracted by the simmering water of a decoction.  This morning I made a bottle of Marhsmallow root syrup by adding and gently melting 400 grams of sugar in 200 ml of a strong Marshmallow root decoction.  Syrups are by nature demulcent, making them a suitable preparation for a sore throat, where a coating action is desirable.  My daughter is taking a dessertspoon of the gelatinous, sweet syrup every few hours.  Feeling a slight heat and scratch in my throat and Eustachian tubes too, I am joining her and enjoying the immediate relief experienced.


I particularly enjoy working with this root.  It always feels like a practical lesson in plant polysaccharides! I love the natural sweetness (which makes even a simple decotion of the root palatable for a child), the primrose yellow colour the aqueous extract and the incredible gloopy mucilage that we liberate.  The roots have been used as a remedy for the respiratory system for centuries.  The ancient Greeks macerated the roots in wine and used this as a cough treatment, whilst in France the original form of the Marshmallow confectionery were in fact soft lozenges sucked on to alleviate sore throats.

Energetically Marshmallow cools and moistens, and this effect isn’t isolated to the respiratory system.  These properties have applications in the digestive and urinary systems too, when there is heat, inflammation, dryness and irritation.  Some prefer to use the leaf over the root when working with inflammation in the urinary system.

I began this post at lunchtime and now it’s early evening.  A few doses in and my daughter now feels able to eat as it’s not so sore to swallow.  My throat feels much better although one ear is niggling.  We will both carry on with our little bottle of yellow goodness and it has already offered relief to another family member too, who dropped in complaining of heart burn.  Althea officinalis, sweetly softening, gentle and soothing – thank you for your assistance today!

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Under Valerian’s wing

In my last blog post I mentioned that plants make the best teachers.  And you find that they’ll deliver lessons in a variety of ways, as I was reminded recently when spending time with Valeriana officinalis.  Lessons about them, about your patients and about you too.


Have you ever been helped along your path by Valerian?  Those who have felt it’s effect develop a deep respect for this special plant. They’ll talk to you about it years later.  The changes it allowed them to make.  The healing and the growth.  And during these conversations you become “Team Valerian”, full of admiration and camaraderie.

There is no mistaking the smell of a Valerian product and the pungent, enigmatically dark tincture certainly makes it’s presence known in a blend.  Those who have bought Valerian capsules from a shop find that their store cupboard will forever more smell of Valerian and so meeting the plant “in the flesh” can be quite a surprise for those struck by the aromatic onslaught of Valerian.  In the Summer, out on walks I see it out of the corner of my eye.  A gentle pastel flash of pale pink.  This demure, tall, slender plant has an appearance that belies it’s titan healing strength.  It’s the roots of Valerian that we use medicinally, and there is no other smell quite like it.  The roots do indeed yield an essential oil, a warm, musky, balsamic woody, dark oil, rich in bornyl acetate and isovalerate.  The essential oil, like the herb is used to calm and restore the nervous system, but when we use the whole root in herbal medicine, the essential oils is believed to work synergystically with other constituents (such as the valepotriates) to product the sedative and nervine actions.  As the root ages, valeric acid heightens the aroma.


I needed to harvest some Valerian roots recently for teaching.  I knew from my Summer herbal forays down by the loch that there were several plants there growing in among the beauty that is Meadowsweet.  The moist soil on the banks of the loch make a lovely habitat for these two plants, who both like to dip their roots into damp soils.   As I made my way along the banks of the loch I smelt her… That feeling of walking into a room and realising someone you know has been there because their perfume still lingers on the air…I knew that Valerian was somewhere close by, but I just couldn’t spot any of the foliage.  I sat for a while down by , and gradually the breeze picked up a little, again carrying that scent.  Realising the direction it had blown in from I followed my nose and presently came across a patch of Meadowsweet, right down by the water.  The smell was so strong and I knew it was rising up from the moist, Autumn leaf strewn soil.  Searching about I eventually saw those familiar leaves and was able to start my harvest.

The tenacious root ball had grown down in the soil between two large rocks,  forging on regardless of it’s surroundings. I had to loosen the rocks by gently digging down and around them,  feeling my away around their cold form, finally creating enough space to release the fragrant knot of roots.  I sat down again by the water to wash away some of the dark earth from the roots, enjoying the plant’s potent perfume and reflecting upon these roots and their journey into the soil between the rocks.  When I work long term with Valerian I see it as the hands that loosen the rocks. That create the space that facilitates a release, and allows the individual to step out and walk an easier path.  A path that isn’t potholed with intrusive anxiety or fear.  A path that is well lit as the fog of insomnia lifts, and the dark clouds of low mood clear.  A path that is easier to walk because the body has released tension and pain,  And there is always a path that has to be walked on the way to recovery.  Not always an easy one, but, Valerian accompanies you.  Some research suggests that Valerian promotes GABA release whilst also inhibiting it’s uptake back into nerve cells, thereby increasing and prolonging it’s presence in the synaptic cleft.  GABA (a neurotransmitter) is involved in the regulation of anxiety.


I took the roots home and as I scrubbed and prepared them she sang her soporific song and I found myself acknowledging the tiredness I’d been ignoring.  In a way I had my own rocks on that day.  I’d bricked myself in with too much work, too many commitments, too many ideas and plans whirring around my head at bedtime, and whilst I loved each and every one of those bricks, my time with Valerian had reminded me that sometimes you need to loosen the soil and make some space.  It reminded me to listen to my body.  Always.  Not doing so had, in the past, left me needing the company of Valerian for many months, to nourish an exhausted nervous system.  And so I did as Valerian asked and rested a little more.  Spent a little more time by the loch listening to nature and took down those bricks one by one without replacing too many with new ones.

A fine trophorestorative, an anxiolytic, a hypnotic and a gentle sedative, Valerian is a herb that directs all it’s attention to your nervous system.  Under it’s wing you feel like this herb is utterly dedicated to your well being.  Like a loving, gentle grandmother it wants you to sleep well, eat well and it helps you deal with your worries by bolstering your inner strength.  At times of emotional shock and upset you can run into those open, safe arms and be held until your racing heart slows.  It is a tower of strength and one that helps you find your own.

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Warming up for Winter with Ginger

I struggle saying goodbye to Summer, to my herb friends who smile out at me from hedgerows, or sway calmly next to me at the lochside.  They’re such good company aren’t they?  And the best teachers. I know they’ll be back next year, but it can be a long old Winter up here in Scotland.  Thankfully Autumn offers a gentle transition, gifting us with berries and roots, with bursts of colour reminiscent of the winter fires that will soon burn.  One last colourful song before the plants fall quiet through the Winter.


There is a quietness to the dark months that I love.  A time to reflect.  A time to study.  I am blessed each winter by a rise in student numbers, students who spend the dark evenings studying, forging down their own roots of knowledge.  It’s my time to study too, to plan and write and take time to nourish that side of me.  Whilst I miss being outside, toes in the grass, nose in the flowers, nature teaches us that we need to take some time to pause.  It ultimately allows us to experience new growth.

Each year, as the leaves start to fall I find myself drawn to the warming spices.  My teacup becomes a home to Cinnamon, Cloves, Cardamom and, of course, Ginger.  The warming spices have, for the past twenty years, become an important fuel for my “furnace” over the winter months after I learned to listen intently to my body.  When I drink infusions of Ginger I feel this hot liquid gold permeate throughout my being and though it is a stimulant, because it has such a settling effect on my stomach and solar plexus, it actually is a herb that,as well as warming me, brings forth peace and clarity.  As a winter fire warms a home and provides a comfortable environment, Ginger provides that glow and comfort.  And warmth, comfort,  peace and clarity through that longer winter is what I need to help me gather ideas and strength for the next Spring and Summer.


Ginger, Zingiber officinale, is a member of the Zingiberaceae family which grows across India, Africa, China and Australia.  This tall, reed like plant produces yellow flowers, but it is the rhizome that we use medicinally.  And what joy to behold these rhizomes are, often humanesque with their gnarled features and limbs.  In the spice trade a whole rhizome is referred to as a “hand”, with the branches called “fingers”.  And when we cut into the golden flesh of the rhizome, that incredible, pungent, spicy aroma is released – therapeutic from the get-go!


It’s actions really are rather suited to the cold winter months and the challenges these can bring.  For example as an expectorant and diaphoretic it makes a useful allay during the cough, cold and flu season where piping hot infusions can be used to guide the body through a fever (at the the shivery, cold peripheries stage but not when one feels hot) and later to  help cut through a heavy, damp cough.  The Traditional Chinese practitioners talk about these illnesses being a sign of invading cold (or damp) and this coldness and dampness can be driven out with hot, warming herbs like Ginger which promote sweating and expectoration.  Whilst it’s anti-emetic and carminative actions help the stomach and gut following a winter stomach bug (the gingerols may disrupt the serotonin messenger pathway from the stomach to the vomiting centre in the brain and their antihistaminic and peripheral anticholinergic effect may contribute too).  The circulation, of course, is warmed and moved by our pungent allay Ginger. The cold weather in the winter can exacerbate symptoms in those who “feel the cold”.  I like to use dried Ginger for those with cold peripheries (hands and feet) and for those who feel the coldness in their bones, fresh Ginger works well.  Cold, damp conditions in the joints respond well to Ginger, both internally and externally.


I don’t use Ginger every day through the Autumn and Winter, it would become too stimulating for me, but I do try to listen to my body and learn when to add more fuel to the fire.  There are lots of ways to incorporate Ginger into your Winter months.  Let your food be your medicine!  Cook more with Ginger – it’s so delicious.  If, like me, Winter is your time for soup making, add extra warmth to this comforting meal with grated fresh ginger.  It works so well with pumpkin and squash based soups and in light, spicy vegetable or chicken broths.  When people struggle with food choices over the winter month because they’re drawn to warming comfort foods, an ingredient like Ginger can provide the warmth the body truly craves.  I love to make a Ginger infused honey (so simple, just add sliced fresh ginger to a sterilised jar and pour over the best quality honey you can afford and leave to infuse for about a month, after which time you can either strain off the honey or leave the ginger in – I also love to add a little Scots Pine at this time of year!) and this can be added to herbal teas, used as a sore throat and cough syrup, and makes for an excellent hot toddy!  Hot infusions of fresh ginger will certainly warm you up and if you find Ginger alone in an infusion too hot for your constitution, combine it with other herbs and spices to receive the benefits (I love a slice of Ginger in a Chamomile infusion), without the perspiration!


Ginger makes it’s way into my baking at this time of year too, being a festive favourite.  I remember grasping a large square of sticky gingerbread by the bonfire and stirring the dried ginger and mixed spice into the Christmas pudding (make an outlandish wish as I stirred). Each year now I make my children a gingerbread man advent calendar.  Elizabeth I’s Royal gingerbread maker (given the results of my advent calendar gingerbread men, if there’s still a Royal gingerbread maker their position is perfectly safe) created little gingerbread men to represent foreign dignitaries, but, of more interest to a Herbalist is the fact that the folk healers at this time were using gingerbread men as a sort of love potion.  Women would give the biscuit to the man they desired, and were told he would fall in love with her once he ate it (I give my husband Grasmere gingerbread on his birthday each year…I’d hate to break the spell!).





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Ribwort (Plantago lanceolata) is a comfortingly familiar sight.  Often the heads will peek above the surrounding grasses and flowers and give you a friendly nod from their slender stem.  “It’s alright, I’m here!” it would calmly say.  And familiar is the right word.  Ribwort grows commonly, everywhere!  I was inspired to write a little about this herb today having found a patch growing alone on a muddy track by the edge of an Oak wood.  I watched as dog walkers tramped past this precious plant, and they watched (bemused) as I crouched down to photograph and spend some time with this common “weed”.


Plantago lanceolata with it’s distinctive lance-shaped leaves


As a herbalist you’re often asked what a specific herb is “good for”, and an honest answer would be “many things!” I do talk about specific indications for herbs and know that this is useful, but it’s also nice to talk about a herb in terms of it’s actions.  Ribwort it a drying herb – an astringent.  The mucous membranes throughout our body are moist by nature (that’s one of their jobs!), but there are occasions when they produce too much mucus.  Ribwort can be brought in to dry up these excess secretions and at the same time it will tone, heal and soothe inflammation.  If you’re unsure of where there are mucous membranes in the body, they line the nasal passages, the little bronchial tubes in your lungs, they’re found in other places too, such as the uterus, the mouth, stomach, intestines, bowel, bladder and vagina.  In some of these areas we’re very aware when there is too much mucus.  When we have a cold, or experience a condition like hay fever, an overproduction of mucus is very apparent.  We can see it. We can feel it. And it’s a pain.  Ribwort is a very effective herb in these situations, clearing mucus/catarrh/congestion and stopping production of more at the source. Our mucous membranes will often be irritated during a viral infection like a cold or during an allergic reaction like hay fever.  Ribwort will help to soothe and heal the membranes and this can result in pain relief for symptoms such as a sore throat (I love it for a hot, scratchy sore throat, especially when the ears are involved too).

Sometimes we might be aware of inflammation in other mucous membranes throughout our body.  We might experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea when there is irritation somewhere in the digestive tract and discomfort and frequent urination might herald bladder irritation.  Herbalists may use Ribwort in such cases to soothe and heal.  As a home remedy, Ribwort could be drunk as an infusion to help the digestive tract recover from a common tummy bug, during an IBS episode, or to help during a cold, cough or sore throat (a must during tonsillitis!).

These wonderful healing properties don’t only benefit the mucous membranes – they’re also wonderful for the skin.  Ribwort it an incredible first aid herb (prized by our ancestors) – and thanks to how commonly it grows, it can be called upon for grazes and cuts, bites and stings, and those annoying blisters on the back of your heels whilst you’re out walking. A simple “Plantain plaster” can be made by chewing one leaf into a bolus, pressing it over a cut or blister and then securing it place with another leaf.  Spend some time with those leaves and note just how perfectly engineered they are for this purpose.  Those linear ribs affording both strength and flexibility as a plaster,  but once chewed or crushed, releasing the mucilage and healing juices within to other and adhere to the skin.  For bites and stings simply crush up a leaf and rub it on – so useful for nettle and wasp stings!  So once you know that Ribwort will calm angry, red, irritated and itchy skin, and help to stop bleeding, you realise there are many more occasions where you might like to use this herb externally.  Eczema, nappy rash, allergic skin rashes, spots and so on.  Another of Ribwort’s properties make it an excellent remedy for splinters.  It is one of our drawing herbs.  Herbalists may use powdered Ribwort in a warm poultice for this purpose, but at home the fresh leaves can be used.  Even squeezing out a little of the juice on to the splinter site will help.


Above I’ve talked about the impact Plantago lanceolata has physically upon the body and whilst it is not generally known as a herb with great influence upon the emotions it is certainly an important herb for me when working with anxiety, frustration and even anger – to soothe, calm and heal…now where have we heard that before?

Here I have merely scratched the surface of this reliable herbal friend.  It finds a role in many a herbal formulation and can be called upon for the most simple ailment or used in complex health conditions.  Not, perhaps, the most glamorous of herbs, but reliable, remarkable and irreplaceable nonetheless.



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Getting to know you…

The Cateran trail comprises over sixty miles of ancient paths and cattle droves, named after the fearsome cattle thieves who utilised these rural and secluded paths.  Our new home is being built right on the trail and as we build it we enjoy watching and talking to the hikers who make their own journey along the trail.

This week my children and I walked along a stretch of the trail to the south, an opportunity for me to get acquainted with a new stretch of the trail and the plants that grow their.  I immediately felt very at home among many medicinals, growing peacefully on the lush hillside.  As we journeyed further up the track we were met by beautiful purple heather and the refreshing hill winds, whispering greetings from our home further North.


Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

My oldest herbal friend, Meadowsweet, was waiting for me behind the stream that winds it way down the hillside.  Her fever reducing properties have been called upon time and time again this Summer, reliably helping those in need.  It was lovely to see her here and pay thanks.

She was joined by the stream by the sublimely aromatic Water mint.  That colour!  And those downy hairs!




Water mint (Mentha aquatica)


We have a long history of use with this beautiful Mint.  Our Stone Age ancestors cooked with it, whilst in more recent centuries it was one of our strewing herbs – strewn for both aromatic pleasure and for medicinal purposes.  When you crush the leaves and admire the aromatic volatile oils within this plant it is of no surprise that Water mint was used in an early form of smelling salts.  Picked on a walk it makes a helpful companion for those who are prone to car sickness on their journey home, as they can crush and smell the leaves to allay nausea.



Euphrasia and the sunshine yellow of Hypericum – so exciting to have these two growing along the trail.  We held the Hypericum leaves up to the sun to look for the identifying perforations that can be found with the medicinal St John’s Wort.



Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

This plucky Tormentil was hanging on to the overhanging bank by the stream higher up on the hill, clinging on with his astringent roots.  I harvest the roots for their tannins, which gently tone and bind the lining of the gut – so, so useful in cases of IBS.


Yarrow (Achillea millefoilum)

Yarrow!  A medicine chest in itself, this plant exudes wisdom and competence, stepping in to sort out distressing symptoms and bringing calm to a situation – staunching the heavy bleed, calming the fever, bringing down a high blood pressure.  The Sister of the herbal “ward”, taking charge cool, calm and collected.


Our walk ended with these two beauties, Red Clover and Self heal – vibrant in the sunshine.

I look forward to foraging along this trail over the years and finding out all about the therapeutics of the plants that grow alongside this ancient path, wondering as I go, about those who have picked and used the plants here throughout history on their own journey.  Did the feared Caterans use Yarrow on their wounds? And did the communities living high up in the Glens pick the wildflowers as they carried their lost love ones down to the churches on the valley floor? Such history.  Such promise for the future.



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Angelica, the protector

My garden has been offering me generous leaving gifts over the past few months.  The little Elder tree has blossomed properly for the first time.  The first bloom opened on the day I came down with a fever, providing me with the right medicine just when I needed it.  Perfectly pristine and petite Wild strawberry plants have self seeded in one of my raised beds, to the delight of my children who were delighted by that first glimpse of red.  The Betony, my old friends, are plentiful this year. And then there is the Angelica, taller than me by half,  growing unexpectedly in the moist soil by the outside tap.



An Angelica likes to forge it’s root down into damp soil and is partial to a little shade.  If it flowers it is a biennial and you should collect the roots in the Autumn of it’s first year to use medicinally.  Being early Summer it’s now the time to collect the leaves, which also reward you with medicinal benefits.  I use them externally on the chest during respiratory infections and as a beautiful hot compress for dysmenorrhoea.


I am enjoying spending time with this giant.  With herbs I am so often damp kneed, down on the ground, in the grass, under the trees and in the hedgerows; it’s nice to chat to a plant face-to-face, so to speak, and breathe in it’s warm aroma.  That warmth of aroma is reflected in it’s warming action within the body – where preparations made using the roots are warming to the digestion, increase perspiration, stimulate the nervous system and add a little fire to the heart and stimulate our circulation.

Being around Angelica you can’t help but reflect upon the Doctrine of Signatures.  The long, hollow tubes were believed to be a reflection of tubes in the body, such as our bronchial tubes and the blood vessels.  The way the stems lead to the the globular umbels is very reminiscent of the bronchioles leading to the alveoli.  And indeed Angelica is an excellent herb for our respiratory system where, as a comfortingly warming expectorant it helps to clear the chest during coughs, colds and flu (where it’s diaphoretic actions are most welcome too), and even bronchitis – as the plants form seems to tell us beautifully.    Angelica’s tubes were also thought to represent the blood vessels (and sometimes the stems are tinged with red), a reminder to us that this giant can stimulate the circulation (especially to the stomach, bowel and heart), warming and shifting stagnant blood as it goes.  In Shamanism this plant’s tubular stem represents a passageway from this place to another, and the dried stem can be used in ceremonies as a staff to help with journeying.  It is not only the Shamans who hold Angelica in high regard.  It finds use in Pagan rituals and was a herb dedicated to pre-Christian Gods, believed to guard against evil spirits and witchcraft.  As you spend time with this green sentinel you can appreciate why our ancestors felt a sense of protection and guardianship from Angelica.

On warm Summer days the aroma from Angelica carries across the garden and hints at the essential oil within.  Phellandrene, pinene, linalool, borneol, thujene and limonene are found within the plant’s essential oil and, as might be expected, Angelica is a glorious carminative and antispasmodic, aiding intestinal spasms, flatulence, nausea and colic.  It’s cholagogue action (the root contains bitter principles), combined with it’s warmth and digestive actions make it useful for coaxing back a depressed appetite.  I find it very useful for this purpose with the elderly, where it can also help during convalescence, to bring system-wide warmth and as a supportive tonic.  The elderly may also benefit from an infused oil of this green gem, which, used externally,  helps to ease stiff joints and aching muscles.

Angelica is a stunning tonic for the female reproductive system, improving the uterine circulation, again – warming and could be considered internally for dysmenorrhoea and PMS.  For women with chaotic cycles who are trying to conceive, Angelica can help to regulate the cycle, being particularly useful for women who have become disenchanted and negative about their reproductive system following failed attempts to conceive.  The image of a herb bringing warmth and circulation and therefore nourishment and energy to this system can be a powerful and positive image.  Use of the herb must cease in pregnant women.

Despite it’s heavy, gravity defying flower heads, Angelica’s structure exudes strength and that strength and stability is truly reflected in it’s cumulative action within the body.  It’s aromatic warmth and stimulation encourages the return of strength when it has been lost through illness, or promotes further strength in those who feel worn down by life or age.  A herb that we can lean on, like the steadying staff supplied by it’s vasiform stem.

“Contagious aire ingendring pestilience

Infects not those that in their mouth have ta’en

Angelica, that happy counterbane,

Sent down from heav’n  by some Celestial scout,

As well the name and nature both avou’t”

Du Bartas

*The furanocoumarins contained with Angelica mean that this is one of our herbs that could cause photosensitivity.    Be aware that high doses could interfere with anticoagulant therapy.  Angelica is contraindicated in pregnancy.  Herbs are best administered under the care of a qualified Herbalist.

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