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.
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.
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.
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.