Meadows Connections

Heather and I were very lucky to be asked to come and host some herbal medicine workshops at the excellent Meadows Connections festival, back in July.  The weekend was blessed with dry weather and a radiant full moon, set in the resplendent jagged peaked and rolling Yorkshire Dales near to Settle.

Meadow Connections is an ongoing project which seeks to provide opportunities to learn about and get involved with the unique, breathtakingly beautiful and increasingly rare habitats of upland hay meadows in the Yorkshire Dales.   (http://www.meadowconnections.co.uk/)

Throughout the weekend, there was the chance to get involved in lots of different workshops apart from our own, including flora and fauna ID, jewellery making, natural beekeeping, scything and drawing.  The Sunday saw the Northern Scythe championships, which if you’ve never had a chance to see and scything a competition, I cannot recommend enough!  Obviously in modern times, traditional skills, like scything have fallen out of practice, but this event showed how quickly skilled sychers could harvest a field.  And how much nicer than using hideous fossil fuel powered giant machinery for the job.  The skill and speed with which the competitiors cut through their 4 by 4 meter squares, was astounding.  And we were very pleased that our friend Ruth, the organiser of the event, came third overall in the competition, beating many skilled men scythers.  Go Ruth!

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But the main reason Heather and I were there, was to experience the vast array of wild-growing herbs in the upland hay meadows.  We were happier than the sky-larks that sang in the big wide blue sky above, to be surrounded by our herbal allies in such abundance.  (We get really, geekily excited about this kind of thing..)  Top treat that we don’t normally get to see in the wild, was probably the swathes of wood betony (Stachys betonica), a favourite nervine herb: meaning that is works to calm and soothe the nervous system, allaying stress, particularly when it is connected with a nervous digestion.  Also very useful for headaches.

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Wood Betony (Stachys betonica)

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Wood Betony and Eyebright

 

During our workshops we took people out into the meadows to gather the herbs that they would be using in the practical part of the workshop, to make medicines.

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Lady’s bedstraw, Plantain, Meadowsweet, Red clover.

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Wood betony, Eyebright, Plantain, Lady’s Bedstraw, Self-heal

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Heavenly scented Lady’s bedstraw. Soporific and calming herb.

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A little bit about drying herbs

People often ask me how to dry herbs so that you can use them later on and that’s a really great question that I’d like to share some insights into.  Essentially drying herbs is not hard, but there are a few tricks of the trade that are useful to share with you.

Gather on a dry day: damp herbs do not dry well.  Preferably gather in the late morning, after the dew has dried, but before the heat of the day takes it’s grip.  But, also, if you only have later on in the day to do your herb work, then grab that moment!

drying borage and lemon verbena

Heavenly-smelling lemon verbena & Courage-inducing borage, two of my favourite herbs.

If you have plants growing in your garden, then you can have the luxury of gathering them over time, just taking some leaves of flowers when they seem at their best.

Remove any withered parts of the plant.

How to dry:

Depending on space available, either:

  • Chop up and lay on paper inside a basket or other container with holes in.  Place somewhere reasonably dark with ventilation/ airing cupboard.
  • OR
  • Hanging in bunches, either tied together or in paper bags, somewhere dry (not a damp room).
  • OR
  • Chop up and place onto an oven tray and heat on the lowest temperature until the herb is completely dry. Also dehydrator is a great option is you have one.
  • OR
  • Buy one of these awesome herb drying contraptions online.  Just search for haning herb drying rack.  They’re affordable and really work well.  Just hang it somewhere out of direct sunlight, with good airflow.dryer

After a few days-to a week, test to see whether you think the herbs are really dry all the way through. If so, they’re ready to store.  Ideally you want their colour to be preserved in the drying process.  Some herbs fade more than others.  A few more things to bare in mind at this stage:

  • Mould:  Dried herbs can easily get mouldy.  Make sure they are completely dry before storing. Jars must be sterlised and have new or scrupulously clean lids.  I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way of reusing lids.
  • Insects:  If you think the herb that you have gathered it’s particularly insect laden (eg meadowsweet).  Lay the herbs out on a sheet, and leave for a few hours.  You should see the insects crawl away when they realise what’s happened!  Later on in the storing process you can sometime see that the batch has been colonised by little insects.  Normally I would throw a batch away that is colonised, but some people might not mind the extra protein.

 

Storing:

Best option is AIR TIGHT Jars (preferably coloured glass), kept out of sunlight = cool, dark, dry place.

Paper bags can work, but won’t preserve the medicinal properties for quite as long.  I do keep a lot of my herbs in paper bags, that are inside plastic bags, in a chest of drawers.  And they seem to last pretty well in there.

 

Shelf life general rule of thumb:

  • Whole spices and dried herbs, leaves and flowers will keep 1 – 2 years.
  • Seeds will keep 2 – 3 years and whole roots (i.e. ginger root) will keep 3 years.
  • Ground spices and herb leaves keep 1 year.
  • Ground roots will keep 2 years.

What to do with the dried herbs:

  • You can make various preparations from dried herbs.  The most common use is probably making a herbal infusion (tea) or simmering to make a decoction (generally for roots, berries and harder parts of the plant).
  • You can also make tinctures (alcoholic extractions) from dried herbs.  Although I generally prefer to do this with fresh herbs.
  • Other options are syrups, glycerites, vinegars.  Look out for future blog posts on how to make there preparations.

The great thing about drying herbs is that you never know when exactly you’re going to need a particular herb.  You could be really grateful, come mid winter when you’re down with a sore throat and cold, that you dried that sage or that elderflower.  Being empowered to help ourselves with our day-to-day health is what I love so much about herbal medicine.

Herb Study Evening – January 2015

I’ve decided to write up the findings of each month’s herb tasting in blog form.  For those who don’t come along, I’ll just explain how the evening works.  Each month we choose a different herb and no-one knows the identity of it apart from myself and Heather.  To begin with we do some exercises to get into our bodies and out of our heads, we use a Chinese technique called Do-in, which is a combination of meridian stretching exercises, breathing exercises, chi exercises and self massage. Then we make a tea of the herb.  To begin with we just smell it and spend time experiencing that. Then we taste it, first as the tea and then as the tincture.

This month we studied a herb that when everyone found out what it was, they were surprised.  It is a well-known herb but it alluded everyone.

more to follow

Spring Herb Walk

On Sunday 4th of May 2014, Heather and I hosted a walk around Meanwood park to discover what herbs grew there.  We had 20 people come along.  We talked about the virtues of trees and plants and how to make them in to medicines to use at home.  We talked about the different ways you can take herbs, either as a tincture, a tea or even as a flower essence.

First we traversed the oak wood, which some say was inspiration for Tolkien’s Shire, he walked this way each day on his way to work at Leeds University in the 1920’s.

herb walk in the woodsStopping for a minute of stillness with the great giants.  We each had a drop of Oak Bach Flower Essence.  Oak Essence used to help people come out of depression, particularly that caused by the limitations imposed by illness.  It imparts strength.

20140504_121803          Me extolling the virtues of silver birch sap, one of nature’s very best Spring tonics.

We learnt that cleavers or sticky bud is a lymphatic cleanser, that you can use in the Spring to clean your self out, as Heather described it, “like a bottle brush for your lymphatic system!”.

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As its so juicy, I think the optimal way to have it as a medicine is to juice it. Here’s what I did later:

20140423_163233And then freeze it in ice cube trays, so you pop one out and have fresh cleavers juice everyday to keep you healthy.  Add it to your smoothie or juice for that instant “green” hit.  Major smug points for you.

cleavers ice

Ribwort plantain was much appreciated.  A herb that is often under our feet and people recognise it but don’t realise how useful it is.  Healing on the inside and out, being that it combines the qualities of being astringent and mucilaginous. A winning combination for inflamed tissue as it dries and soothes, think eczema.  Known as White Man’s Footprint, the seeds were carried over to the Americas by the settlers.  The Native American Tribes recognised its healing powers and adopted it into their herbal medicine usage.  Also excellent for allergies, hay fever and a drippy nose.

20140504_12255020140504_123522Heather talked about Hawthorn and its widely accepted use as a cardiac medicine.  Used to regulate blood pressure and to strengthen the heart itself.

20140504_123710The blossom was just coming out.  And as we’d had such a mild winter, there were still some berries on the tree from the previous Autumn:

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We finished off with a pot of nettle tea, picked fresh from the hedgerow.  Heather lead a mini herb tasting.  This is where you drink the tea and try to feel where the sensation of it “goes to” in your body.  Its a way of tuning into your intuition and discovering through your inner-sensations, the bio-kinetics of how herbs work.

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If you’re interested in a more in-depth herb tasting session, we will be holding them once a month.  We won’t tell you what herb you will be tasting in advance, in order that you can use your intuitive powers to the max.  Next herb tasting event is June 18th, between 7-9, in Chapletown.  More details to follow. There will be an event created on facebook.

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We are also running a one day Summer Herb Workshop at my house/garden/dispensary in Headingley.  It will be a hands-on workshop.  We’ll be making a daisy bruise healing balm and a syrup and learning lots more about herbs that grow in the summer.  June 13th 10.30 – 4.30.  More details to follow.  There will be an event created on facebook.

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Enjoy the beauty that is nature’s bounty.

Flower Fairies of the Spring: Walk and Playtime

Thank you to everyone who came on the Flower Fairies of the Spring: Walk and Playtime that myself and Nixi from Playful Possibilities held last Sunday in Meanwood Park, Leeds.  This walk was not really intended to be educational like my other herb walks where we focus on the plants’ medicinal properties, but more of a time to just be with the beautiful flowers and the budding of Spring.  We ended up with far more adults than children, but that was just perfect, and gave us all a good chance to get to know each other and enjoy the beautiful day.  Meanwood Park has long been known for its association with fairies.  The artist famous for his fairy paintings, John Atkinson Grimshaw is said to have painted in Meanwood Park.  Here is one of his paintings:

Grimshaw-fairie

The idea of the day was inspired by another fairy artist, Cicely Mary Barker, the creator of the beautiful Flower Fairy books, which so many of us grew up loving.  I happened to come across the Flower Fairies of the Spring book in a charity shop recently and was enchanted once more by the lovely drawings and song-poems.  It felt to me like the delicate spring flowers were calling out to be noticed and appreciated, so I arranged this walk to give time to honouring them, a chance to explore the tiny and the unseen at springtime.  As we get older we sometimes forget to play.. the fairies would encourage otherwise.

I’m just going to share two of the flowers the we encountered with you, to give you a taste of the small beauties of the forest floor.

This is a bank of wood anemone in Meanwood Park, mixed in with the delicious wild garlic.

wood anenomes

 

Otherwise known as windflower.  Herbalists don’t use Wood Anemone anymore.  It was once used as a bath for leprosy and as a kind of snuff juice to clear the head.  However there is one of its relatives which you will probably have heard of, Pasque flower or Pulsatilla (Anemone pulsatilla) which is used a lot.  Pulsatilla is a commonly used homeopathic remedy and Herbalists also use it in the whole plant form, usually as a tincture.  It is an excellent nerve tonic and anti-spasmodic, I’ve often given it to women to help with period pain.

This is Pulsatilla (not taken on the walk):

pulsatilla

THE SONG OF THE WINDFLOWER

While human-folk slumber,

The fairies espy,

Stars without number

Sprinkling the sky.

The Winter’s long sleeping,

Like night-time is done;

But day-stars are leaping

To welcome the sun.

Star-like they sprinkle

The wildwood with light;

Countless they twinkle-

The Windflowers white!

wind flower fairy

Windflowers are most commonly white.  We were lucky to find some rare pink ones on our walk:

pink anenome

My other favourite tiny spring flower is Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella).  Wood Sorrell is easy to identify by its heart-shaped leaves folded through the middle, that occur in groups of three.  The leaves look a bit like clover leaves, but they’re more folded down.  The flowers are smaller than those of the windflowers.

wood sorrelHundreds of years ago, this was a popular medicinal herb and salad herb, but has fallen out of favour as other herbs became introduced.  There is a traditional use of it being used as a cooling drink in case of fevers.  The leaves taste very sharp, and can be used in food instead of vinegar.  This sharpness comes from it containing  a special salt, binoxalate of potash, which is also present in Rhubarb.  This constituent is also present in the other sorrels that you may have heard of, sorrel or sheep’s sorrel which have become famous as part of the Essiac tea that Rene Casse used to treat people with cancer.  The Wood Sorrel is nothing like the other sorrels and is just grouped together with them because they all contain this sharp-tasting constituent.

But, anyway, I’m just being reminded that we weren’t supposed to be getting serious on this herb walk, so lets finish with the lovely picture of the Wood Sorrel fairy and some photos taken on the day.

wood sorrel fairy and song

olwen's pathOlwen gathering wild garlic.  Flowers growing in her footsteps.

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Fairy wishes

 

Next event is a Medical Herb Walk on the 4th May, 2014.  See the Upcoming Events page for more details.  There will be a Flower Fairies of the Summer event, details to follow.

Springtime Herb Walk

Spring Herb Walk with Herbalists Helen Rideout and Heather Ware.

Come and join us for a walk around Meanwood Park, Leeds on Sunday 4th May, 2014 and learn about the herbs that are growing there.  Helen and Heather will inspire you with their knowledge and passion for the plants that grow so abundantly during this beautiful time of Spring.

Wear sensible footwear and bring waterproofs.  We will be going up into the woodland and over into the meadow area.

Meet at the car park near the play area at 11am.  The walk will take around 2 hours.  Adults £5, children free and they are very welcome.

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Grasping the nettle

This beautiful bank holiday last weekend saw a troupe of us going up to Roundhay park in Leeds on a foraging mission. We were so lucky with the weather and the dew had most definitely dried off the nettles by the time we got up to them early afternoon. Foraging in the city is not however, without its downsides, we needed to find a place where pollution from passing traffic would be minimal and most importantly, dogs would be unlikely to have urinated on our prospective crops. Kim had previously spotted a good area in the woodland part of Roundhay park, one of the largest city park in Europe, I’m told. The area proved to be excellent, as there were some really good patches of nettles on some precarious angles, that we could feel fairly sure that no dog would have walked into the middle of to wee!
nettles
A stream ran through the bottom of the little combe in which we gathered the nettles (we were wearing protective marigolds of course and attracting strange glances from other park enjoyers), I wondered how clean the stream was but then decided not to worry about what was in it when I remembered what Matthew Wood says about nettles in his excellent book “The Book of Herbal Wisdom”. Nettle likes to grow downstream from any place that is giving off nitrates and uric acid like a septic system. The plant then uses these waste products to construct proteins which when absorbed into the human system combine with uric acid waste products in our systems that need removing. Without the nettle proteins coming in and forming complicated protein building blocks to form some of the most complicated molecules used by the body, the waste products can build up causing health problems and sluggishness. This to me is true human plant human synergy. The nettle lives off our waste products, turns them into something useful, we eat the nettle and together become immortal! OK, slight over exaggeration, but you see what I’m getting at.

Nettle has got to be one of the most useful herbs on the planet. Through its ability to clean out our system whilst simultaneously being incredibly nutritious is has been used through the ages to help conditions such as indigestion especially “windiness”, eczema, allergies, anaemia, thyroid problems, period problems, lack of sex drive, the list goes on and on. Nettle is useful for everybody even if you are really healthy, as it helps to clear any stagnant energy that remains after a winter of inactivity.

After we had stuffed our bags full of nettles we quickly returned home in order to get the nettle preserved as quickly as possible. Nettles lose their vitality after a few hours so we wanted to make sure that we preserved them whilst they still had their sting. Some went into vodka to make tinctures. Some were frozen straight to be defrosted as and when needed. Some were chopped up fine and dried in the airing cupboard to be put into dark coloured jars later on for tea. And finally we made a big pot of nettle soup which we ate with cream and nutmeg. Delicious, and the next day my belly was flat as a pancake, no windiness at all and a feeling of being really healthy.

If you want to pick nettles I recommend you get out there soon before they flower and all their wonderful energy goes into their own reproductive processes!