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!).