Ribwort

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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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Gratitude for my alliaceous allies

Spring walks punctuated by that heady of aroma of garlic are a real moment of seasonal transition for me.  For the past couple of months this aromatic greeting has moved me from the (rather long) Scottish early Spring to the verdant late Spring and the promise of Summer. Ramsons (Wild Garlic),  Allium ursinum, with their addictively tactile leaves and glorious explosion of white flowers are the fantastic edible that scent the Spring air.  They make a punchy addition to pesto, soups, stews and risottos but also offer us valuable therapeutics.

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Like garlic, Ramsons are a herb for our cardiovascular system, improving our circulation and looking after the heart.  As a tonic and antimicrobial it is a good herb for convalescence, growing just when we might need one after the long winter with it’s offering lingering respiratory illnesses.  This alliaceous ally also has a great affinity for the digestive system, smoothing out spasms, dispelling gas and clearing lingering infection.  Think about bringing it together with the excellent antispasmodic and antiseptic Thyme to help with gut issues.

 

But Ramsons aren’t the only garlicky offering growing at this time of year.  You needn’t look far to find my friend, Jack-by-the-hedge.   The mellifluously named Alliaria petiolata, also known (less mellifluously) as Hedge garlic and Garlic mustard is an interesting edible, with a softer garlic hit than Ramsons, whose bitterness I find very appealing.  It offers a nice source of vitamin C. With bitter foods chronically lacking from the modern plate, wild foods like Jack-by-the-hedge can add that valuable flavour to diet.  Small amounts sit very well in salads, or added last minute to soups and stew (to prevent that bitterness become, well, just too bitter).  They also marry very nicely with Ramsons in pesto.

This is a lovely plant to make friends with.  Like Ramsons, the leaves are so tactile and remind me of a Crone’s skin, wrinkled and wise, soft and papery.  Perhaps that’s why children are so drawn to this plant.  And it’s my eldest child who has taught me so much more about this plant.  I hadn’t used Alliaria medicinally, but my five year old daughter suggested that it should be used in a foot bath when a virus recently struck our family.  She is familiar with using Ramsons in this way, or rubbed in the souls of the feet, but on this occasion she was sure that this was the plant we needed.   And so we added lots of Jack-by-the-hedge to a steamy hot foot bath for the adults and the little feet went in when the water had cooled a little.  The aroma of the steam was, of naturally, much less potent than that of a Ramsons foot bath, but there were other, interesting green notes there that I plan to spend much more time with this Summer, to deepen my understanding of Jack.  The foot bath was an excellent diaphoretic and ultimately lead to that wonderful period of coolness that eases so many of the symptoms of a virus.  Our thermostats were reset and how grateful we were for that, after several nights of uncomfortable, fluctuating heat.  My feelings are that Jack-by-hedge is a gentle medicine, quiet but determined and as a foot bath I can see it’s place in a blend for a child.  When I researched this plant further I discovered that it does in fact have a medicinal history.  It’s therapeutic properties being diaphoretic, antiseptic, nutritive and vulnerary.  Mustard oil glycosides are listed as an active constituent, hence it’s warming character.

Foot baths are sometimes underused as a herbal preparation.  Children love them!  They are profoundly comforting when you’re feeling unwell and I find them particularly useful when an illness brings muscle and joint aches, headaches, stiff necks, congestion, exhaustion and, as Jack-by-the-hedge demonstrated beautifully, they can wonderful when your body temperature has gone awry.  They can play a part in the treatment of circulatory disorders (something to try for cases of mild hypertension) and some migraine sufferers gain relief using one.  Some of my favourite herbs for the foot bath include Lavender, Sage, Rose, Mint, Thyme, Catnip, Rosemary, Pine, Chamomile, Yarrow, and Ramsons.  You can first infuse the herbs in just boiled water and let them steep before adding them to the foot bath (and this period of cooling is vital for children), but for adults I often like herb and feet to join the hot (as you can bear) water.

And so I do give gratitude to our alliaceous allies, the Ramsons and the Jack’s-by-the-hedges, who, for free, provide us with interesting food, valuable medicine and (as plants often do) they remind me that there is always more to learn.

Recipes:

Ramsons and Jack-by-the-hedge pesto – to make an “eat now” serving of pesto to serve your family, pick around eight Ransoms leaves and pick about ten Jack-by-the-hedge leaves.  Pick more if this doesn’t look enough!  Wash and chop the leaves and add to the blender with about a handful of pine nuts and then just cover with olive oil.  Blitz and then grate in a cheese like Parmesan and pulse a few times to mix.  You can add other herbs, and spinach and watercress make a lovely addition too.  This is beautiful and fresh stirred through pasta, or spooned across the top of cooked chicken or steak.

Jack-by-the-hedge & mint sauce – pick a handful of each, wash, finely chop (or blitz in the food processor) and mix with vinegar and enough sugar to taste and serve with meat (especially good with Lamb).  Be aware that Jack-by-the-hedge wilts really quickly once picked.

 

 

 

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Four little seeds…

Four little seeds, carried on the wind to a triangular clover field.  A triangular field that felt like home.  Should we?  Could we?  We should.  We will.

The “self-build” is a unique and challenging experience, where a discussion becomes a solid wooden frame.  Your cheek rests against the walls your husband drew.  Your repetitive shoveling, sawing, hammering and lifting become the safe, solid warmth that houses your children.  But we’re not the only ones forging roots down into the rocky earth of that triangular clover field.  It was wonderful to take a moment to look around and observe who had joined us on this journey.

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The cheering yellow of Dandelion, a comforting familiar old friend whose nutritious young leaves remind us to eat well and mindfully during times of hard work and stress.

Every pile of soil that we dotted about the plot has been quilted green by splendid Nettles.  As I stopped to photograph them they glowed in the sunlight. Each leaf a stained glass tribute to this stinging temple.  Like their Dandelion neighbours they remind us of the importance of nutrition.  Iron rich, builders of blood, they are a herb that suits a Mother long after those initial postpartum months.  Their constituents acknowledging the work of a nursing mother and of a body finding it’s way back to balance after nourishing another.

I was pushing great silvery sheets of insulation into the wall cavity of our sitting room when I noticed the unmistakable mound of Lady’s mantle growing beneath our window.  Look at that folded leaf, waiting to unfurl and hold rain and dew in those captivating beads.  I knew she’d turn up at my home.  The tannins, bitters, salicylic acid and volatile oils in those “lion paw” leaves are often just what I need.

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Selfheal’s pinks and purples punctuate our rubble, reminiscent of confetti left on a pavement after a wedding.  How useful you could be when the build brings on a tension headache.  Or a graze or a bruise.  Or when all the dust hurts our throats and eyes.  There you are.  Sitting quietly, ready for us.

And for my children, the daisies have come.  Their favourite ingredient for both chains and bruise balms.  Little flowers for little hands, whose golden centres and pure petals are the perfect reflection of children.

Emerging, unfurling, opening and spreading, hairy, downy, soft and spiky, amazing neighbours on the building site.

And more plants will come!  Herb after herb after herb will find a home here.  Growing with us on our adventure.

 

 

 

 

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