Sunday, 24 April 2011

Fleeced in the Cotswolds!

Yesterday we had this month’s herb workshop at the Herb Sanctuary. I helped in the new herb bed we dug last year and did some digging and sowing. We sowed chamomile, yarrow, milk thistle and calendula seeds. Amongst the weeds we found an abandoned pheasant’s nest, mother pheasant was probably scared off earlier in the week when the grass was cut. It was sad to see the nest abandoned but interesting to be able to have a look.
Pheasant's nest

 Sarah has a crab apple tree in full blossom which looked beautiful and she made a flower essence. Blossoms were floated on top of spring water for four hours in the bright sunshine and then the flowers removed. The water is added to brandy in 50:50 proportions and then we have a mother flower essence that can be diluted further if required. The bach flower remedy of crab apple is known as the "cleansing remedy" used when there is a feeling of having been soiled by a physical item, self-disgust or self-loathing and a mind full of trivial matters which excludes the important. Dr Bach described it as "the remedy which helps us to get rid of anything we don't like either in our minds or bodies".
Crab Apple Blossom

 The most amazing thing we did yesterday was an attempt to extract lanolin from a sheep fleece. The wool was from a Jacob sheep that must have been thankful to have been sheered on such a hot day. We boiled the fleece for five hours over a wood fire and then removed it. We had to leave the water to cool but it looked like plenty of lanolin was settling on the top which Sarah will use in salves. Lanolin is absorbed easily which helps with delivering herbs to the skin. The fleece was left to dry as it can be used still, maybe carded and spun or perhaps made into felt as it was a bit matted – another workshop story to come!
Simmering the sheeps fleece

Removing the fleece after simmering for 5 hours

The removed fleece
A leaf dipped into the pot came out coated in lanolin

Friday, 22 April 2011

Natural Skin care

The dandelions are all in flower and I haven’t had much time to spend with them. I gathered a big bowlful yesterday and I am trying to decide what to make. I've got a bit behind as last week I spent a few days in London on a course making natural skin care products. I've been interested for years and have taught myself a lot but now I’ve learnt to make creams, gels, balms, shampoos, conditioners and poultices and how I can incorporate herbs and tinctures into these recipes. Using natural plant derived products rather than petroleum based mineral products allows the skin to function properly, the pores aren’t blocked up. If we have difficulty eliminating through the skin then this will put pressure on the kidneys and the bowels (and give us smelly breath!)
 We focussed on eczema and psoriasis and I learnt so much; I had looked at psoriasis as part of my February task but could add lots more now about methods of using herbs. I had never seen a compress of dried herbs used before and it was very effective. I heard the theory from homeopathy that the scabies Miasm  leads to psoriasis, this doesn’t mean psoriasis sufferers have scabies, but that it has been survived in past generations, all new to me, I had not heard of a Miasm before and thought homeopathy just involved little white pills.
 I have discovered new essential oils and purchased two, fragonia which is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial and champaca which warms, calms, reduces stress and can lead to euphoria. I want to try fragonia for joint pain and champaca in facial massages to relax jaw tension and teeth grinding. I've also come back with bags of dried herbs to put into the bath to help troubled skin; wild pansy, horsetail, lady's mantle and chamomile.
 As with our apprenticeship workshops there were lots of other friendly and interesting students who were from all over the world. I enjoyed hearing from an Italian who works with Aloe Vera in Spain who explained how I could put aloe vera in massage oil and a German living in London who has encouraged me to have a go at making cold processed soap some time which always seems a bit scary to me.
 I was glad to see the allotment after a week away from it. Disappointingly pigeons seem to enjoy young cabbages but otherwise all is growing well, even our jersey mid from the allotment competition to see who can get the most spuds from one, has started to make an appearance. I shall be glad when the risk of frost has passed so as I can plant out all my baby plants and reclaim the windowsills!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Herbs to Help Headaches

Pain is an enormous subject to discuss, most of us get headaches at times and there are so many different causes and types of headaches that looking at this on its own leads to vast discussion.  When someone presents with a headache you need to be looking at the person as a whole; their lifestyle, their diet, their worries, their physical health. I have looked at a variety of causes, suggestions for treatments and some herbs that could help.
 With severe or recurring headaches a consultation with a doctor is required, but for tension headaches herbs or natural remedies can be used. Causes of tension headaches include stress, low blood sugar, hormonal imbalances, liver problems, anaemia, eye strain, sinus problems, digestive problems, allergies, poor posture, loud noise, depression, anger, and emotional or psychological pressure.
 In times of stress, we produce adrenaline which stimulates the body into using its stock of glucose ready for fight or flight. As glucose is used up we become tired & can get headaches, eating sweets or chocolate doesn’t usually help. If the stress is an on-going problem then ways to manage or avoid it need to be found. Relaxation, meditation or gentle exercise can help, as can complementary therapies such as aromatherapy or relaxation. Exercise releases endorphins which are the body’s natural pain killers. From a herbal view point herbs which are relaxing or nervine could help as well as herbs for pain.
 Hormone imbalances can lead to headaches and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) often prescribed for menopausal symptoms can actually have headaches as a side effect. If progesterone levels are stabilised then menopausal symptoms may not occur. Susun Weed says women may experience headaches for first time during the menopause due to all the changes occurring in hormones; feelings of fatigue and stress and the experience of Kundalini moving into the crown chakra area. She says rubbing lavender and chamomile oils between the hands to warm and placing them on the area of the headache can help and that Black cohosh root tincture or fresh willow leaf vinegar will ease headaches due to the methyl salicylate. 10 drops of tincture or 1 teaspoon of vinegar is equivalent to 2 aspirin.
 Pre-menstrual tension (PMT), again involving hormone changes, can bring on headaches, taking herbal teas instead of tea or coffee is advised as caffeine reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Increase fresh fruit and vegetables, cut out sugar, reduce red meat and salt, exercise and relax. Herbs to help with hormone imbalances can be taken in tea, chamomile is useful when started the day before symptoms are expected to start, one cup three times a day. Evening primrose oil can help, start taking ten days before a period is due.
 Liver problems give symptoms  including headaches. Preventative measures include a healthy diet. Vegetable juices for liver cleansing include carrot, celery and beetroot. Herbs to support the liver include dandelion, burdock, artichoke, fennel, calendula, milk thistle and ginger.
 Anaemia can lead to you feeling dizzy, tired, having headaches and palpitations you need to see a doctor if this is suspected. If you have iron deficient anaemia then eat iron rich food such as kelp, dark green leafy vegetables, dandelion leaves, parsley, nettles, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, strawberries, nuts and brewer’s yeast. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption and is in citrus fruit, blackcurrants, green peppers and potatoes. B12 which helps with red blood cell production can be low in vegetarians as occurs mainly in meat and dairy products, it is in fortified cereals and yeast products such as marmite but not in any herbs.
 Eye strain can cause headaches and may be remedied by getting an eyesight test and having correct glasses if required and taking breaks from computers or fine work.  There is a homeopathic remedy for eye strain called Ruta Graveolens.
 Headaches can be caused by blocked sinuses, giving pain around the nose, eyes and front of face that may get worse as the day progresses or when bending or coughing.  These headaches are caused by allergies, clogged sinus ducts and infections. Eliminating mucous forming foods from the diet such as dairy can help as can eating garlic, onions and horseradish which can all be added to cider vinegar to make Fire Cider Vinegar. Herbs to release blocked mucous and reduce inflammation include elderflower, Echinacea, marshmallow, ginger and peppermint. Some people have good results with reflexology.
 Poor posture can cause headaches by creating muscle tension around the head and shoulders, the  Alexander technique can be useful with correcting this.
Diet can be linked to headaches in several ways, not eating regularly could lead to a headache from hypoglycaemia and vitamin or mineral deficiency could contribute if there are low potassium levels or B2 deficiency.  Chemicals in processed foods such as Aspartame, MSG and nitrates are linked to headaches; cheese and red wine can be triggers, as can smoking. state that long term use of commercial pain killers such as codeine and ibuprofen can be a cause of headaches rather than a cure. They state that the New England Center for Headache took people with chronic headaches off their pain killers two-thirds had fewer headaches by the end of the month.
Herbs to Help Headaches
Basil – Matthew Wood indicates this for “headaches associated with cold, indigestion, nervous tension”.
Burdock – this is a liver herb which can help with detoxification.
Chamomile – is a relaxant and painkilling and can be used at the first sign of pain (Anne McIntyre)
Dandelion – another herb to help the liver, eating a few flowers often relieves a headache (Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal).
Evening primrose oil – is used in hormone imbalance.
Feverfew – is often used to prevent headaches and is indicated for “headache and migraine from congestion of blood to the head, before the period; forehead full, pounding, throbbing, often involving the left eye and left temple; temple hot to the hand.” (Matthew Wood) Feverfew is also a good choice for the treatment of migraines and other vascular headaches. In his 1772 Family Herbal, John Hill stated, "In the worst headache, this herb exceeds whatever else is known." The City of London Migraine Clinic found that almost 75 per cent of those with migraines who took feverfew had fewer, or at least less severe, headaches. In a study for the Department of Medicine and Haematology at City Hospital in Nottingham, people who experience many headaches ate fresh feverfew leaves for three months resulting in less severe headaches and fewer symptoms and an increased feeling of well-being (
Ginger tea - Researchers believe it helps by relaxing the blood vessels in the head and diminishing swelling in the brain. It also activates natural opiates in the brain that relieve pain, and it reduces prostaglandins, which are responsible for causing inflammation (mother Kiva Rose uses it for headaches from colds and viruses, headaches caused by circulatory congestion and cold, stuck sinus infections.
Guelder rose, cramp bark – the bark tincture is used as an analgesic.
Hops - are used as they are relaxing and painkilling (Ann McIntyre) and are recommended for nervous and occipital headaches by Matthew Wood.
Lady’s mantle - 10-25 drops of fresh herb tincture can be used several times a day for menopause headaches (Susun Weed).
Lavender – relieves stress and depression and is anti-inflammatory. A tincture of lavender called Palsy Drops was recognized as an effective herbal treatment in the British Pharmacopoeia for more than 200 years. Until the 1940s, physicians used this tincture to relieve muscle spasms, nervousness and headaches ( Kiva Rose describes lavender as a great overall headache remedy that works for tension and neck tweaks and even for hormonally caused headaches.
Linden tea - In the British Herb Pharmacopoeia, linden is listed as a sedative for treating nervous tension and headaches. Researchers suspect that this herb heals migraines (and other vascular headaches) by improving blood circulation (
Meadowsweet – is anti-inflammatory and contains natural salicylate salts. Aspirin is synthesised acetylsalicylic acid which can be burning to the stomach and cause ulcers but meadowsweet is soothing for heartburn, acidity and ulcers, a case, says Richard Mabey where “the plant is greater than the sum of its constituent parts”.
Milk thistle – is a herb which supports the liver.
Mint tea – is used for headaches, including those associated with digestive tension (Matthew Wood).
Rosemary – is good for mental fatigue, vision impairment, headaches and depression (Chris Thomas and Diane Baker) and as a preventative (Ann McIntyre). For headaches associated with “weak liver function” and “from eyestrain, mental strain, long distance driving” use the oil externally” (Matthew Wood)
Skullcap – relaxes spasms and headaches. “A specific for those I’m so tense I can’t breathe kind of headaches, where your neck is spasming and you’re getting ready to scream at the next person who speaks to you. Other indicators are if you grind your teeth (asleep or awake) or have lots of jaw tension pain or find that your fists are constantly clenched” (Kiva Rose)
Vervain – Susun Weed says that a tincture of fresh flowers, 20-40 drops before bed, can be used in strengthening nerves, insomnia, depression, nervous exhaustion, headaches and migraines, Bruton-Seal and Seal use the tincture for menstrual headaches. “My favorite for disorienting PMS or neck tension headaches… when it’s really called for, you only need a very small dose of the fresh plant tincture. In fact, I find that if I take more than I need, it will actually aggravate the tension (anyone else found this?) The tincture works so well that I’ll often get shivers from the rapid release of my neck muscles, makes me feel like a limp fish (in a happy way)” (Kiva Rose).
Wood Betony – can be used as a preventative (Ann McIntyre) and for the brain, head and nervous system, weak digestion and “headache with pain causing hysteria” (Matthew Wood). Betony is an age old headache remedy indicated for headaches and facial pain, being mildly sedative; it relieves stress and nervous tension. It is a mildly bitter tonic and stimulates the digestive system and the liver, all of which contributes to easing headache pain (home herb garden).
Essential Oils
The essential oils of lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus and rosemary can be useful for headaches. Soaking feet in a cool foot bath with rosemary oil can help with menopausal headaches (Susun Weed). 1or 2 drops of mint or lavender in a carrier (if too strong mint will cause headaches and lavender can stimulate) massaged into the temples can help. In a 1994 study on headaches, the essential oils of peppermint and eucalyptus were shown to relax both mind and muscles. When these herbs were diluted in alcohol, then sponged on the foreheads of study participants, both oils greatly reduced sensitivity to headaches (

Thursday, 7 April 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

If you went down to the woods in the twilight hours yesterday you might have found me under a pine tree gathering needles and leaf mould to go in a trench for our blueberries. Our gardening mentor said leaf mould and pine needles are acidic, so today I will make a trench for the acid loving blueberries and get them planted at last.
 Whilst climbing the hill to the woods I noticed that the bilberries covering the heathland are in flower and the blackberry bushes now have good sized leaves. These plants were both added to my apprenticeship list this year as I thought I should know how to use what was on my doorstep – well at the end of my garden at least!
 I decided I must try bilberry leaf tea and when I read that it contains anthocyanins which are anti-aging substances I was more determined! These bitter compounds increase blood circulation to blood vessels in the extremities including the brain. They also reduce inflammation and pain, and relieve muscle spasms. I was not sure at first if I had true bilberries as  in our area there are hybrid bilberries crossed with cowberries which do not grow in many other places but from the description here I think they are normal bilberries; dark reddish pink flowers and pointed leaves. I made a tea this morning from fresh new leaves, it is yellowish, bitter and strong tasting and I would drink it for its benefits but not as a pleasant tasting drink.

Bilberry flowers
 Last night I had blackberry leaf tea and looked up its properties; it is apparently an excellent tonic and a remedy for mild anaemia. I used the soft and tender feeling new leaves and let them steep in boiling water for ten minutes which gave a bright, light yellow-green tea, slightly astringent and tasting a bit pea-like. I enjoyed my cup of tea, it is always relaxing to sit with a cup of fresh herb tea, it tastes better and has more vibrancy than dried shop bought tea.
Bramble leaves for tea

 We’re already a week into April and a new month means new tasks to those of us who are Sarah’s herb apprentices.
 This month I need to look at the herbs in my area, which ones can be harvested and how can I store or use them. I also need to look at using them for food and to share recipes with other apprentices which will be fun and I’ll see how many recipes I can get my family to eat which may be more tricky!  
 I have been eying up the stinging nettles around my compost bin, I know from past experience that my family and friends will eat nettle soup; once they tried it they enjoyed it. While working on dandelion flowers this month I will try and incorporate the greens into our diet, I will need to see what else I can find to harvest.
My favourite nettle soup recipe was passed on by Sarah:
Nettle Soup
225g (8oz) young nettle shoots
2 carrots diced
1 ½ pints vegetable stock
2 onions chopped
3 potatoes sliced
Seasoning to taste
Simmer ingredients for 25 minutes, cool slightly and liquidise. Add a swirl of cream.
(From Herbs 2003 Vol 28 No3)

 As we passed the nettle patch last night Mr Moon Gazing Hare mentioned weed killer, I reminded him about the nice soup we will have and thought I’d better start using more nettles. I put nettle tops into a lunch box, covered them in cold water and put them in the fridge to soak overnight. I first tried this at the herb sanctuary and could not believe that a pint of nettle maceration contains more calcium than a pint of milk. I tried my maceration this morning, it is not strongly flavoured and I think it has a slightly sweet taste. In the spirit of Sarah’s instructions to encourage family and friends to consume more I thought I will try this out on them, if they don’t like it I could dilute it with elderflower syrup or even orange squash to give a drink rich in minerals.
Nettle maceration ready to stand overnight

 This month’s theory is about pain, concentrating on migraine and headaches so there’s lots of research to do. I shall look at migraines and headaches separately.
 The seasonal tasks are to make a crab apple flower essence and as many dandelion flower projects as possible, I have my first flowers in the garden today. My first worry is as usual, where am I going to find crab apple trees?  I shall of course continue to get to know the dandelion, my ally this year.
 This month’s terminology to learn is nervine and vulnerary.
Nervine:  nervine herbs soothe, nourish and calm the nervous system and are used to treat mild to moderate anxiety. Examples are chamomile, lemon balm, skullcap, wild oats, valerian and wood betony.
Vulnerary: vulnerary herbs help broken skin to heal. Examples are comfrey, calendula, plantain and St John’s wort.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Gardening Lesson Number 2

Today I’ve been to our second gardening lesson at the allotment, we looked at what we could be planting and sowing now, jobs that need doing and any problems we are having. We had our lesson in the new marquee.
Marquee from orchard

 We started on a fruit bed last week; we were given some autumn raspberries and bought summer raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries and blueberries. We didn’t realise that blueberries require acid soil so we have not planted them yet. Joyce, our teacher suggests we can add sulphur, leaf mould and pine needles. As there are many pine trees near to me I will collect needles to line a trench to plant the blueberries in.
Barry waters the fruit plants

Planting onion sets
 At this time we can plant outside broad beans, asparagus, early carrots, parsnips, peas, radish, spinach beet, turnips and onion sets. On our plot we have planted early and second early potatoes, peas and broad beans, lettuce and today we planted red and white onion sets. We became interested in asparagus and have decided to dedicate a quarter of our permanent crop to it. We can’t eat any spears this year, can take only one third of what comes up next year and can eat what we want the year after and the crowns can last up to twenty years.
Peas and beans with our homemade bird scarers

 We can sow in trays baby beets, sprouts, kohl rabi, early cabbage, summer cabbage, early cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, spring onions and leeks. We can also start to prepare a compost trench ready for runner beans, kitchen waste and newspaper can be put in to line the trench.
 Everyone’s biggest problem was couch grass, I have brought some roots home today as I think “waste not want not” really. Sarah previously directed me to a website here about couch grass as it can be used for bladder infections, cystitis, bronchitis, sore throats and laryngitis. It is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, diuretic, demulcent and an expectorant. The roots are used fresh or dried to make a tea, decoction or tincture so I have brought some home with me to try it out.
 The orchard looks stunning with blossom and spring bulbs and has a new delivery, a bee hive has arrived and we are waiting for a bee keeper to bring in a swarm.  I am hoping I will be able to acquire some honey and beeswax for my herbal remedies if the trust is able to sell some.
A bee hive has been delivered - just waiting for bees

Yesterday I went to the Rollright stone circle in my search for violets, I can’t find any near to home but knew they grew here and it was worth the journey to come to such a special place even if I didn’t find any violets. I have purchased some violet seeds to plant in the autumn and my friend Jacki is splitting her clump to give me some so next year should be easier. My single garden violet plant has not grown this year.

 I found three violet flowers and was feeling a bit disappointed about it but came across a clump as I was returning to the car. I felt I had enough to at least test out a violet syrup recipe, to see if I could see the colour change and to have a taste.

 The recipe I found was on the Herban Lifestyle blog and I adjusted it for my small quantity. The original recipe has 1 cup of violets steeped for 24 hours in 1 cup of boiling water. The strained liquid is mixed with the juice of ½ lemon and 2 cups of sugar and simmered in a pan for 10 minutes.
 I only had ¼ cup of violets so put them in a little jar with an equal quantity of boiling water. I can’t tell you how amazed I was when the violets started to ooze out a beautiful blue colour as I had seen in pictures. There was an earthy smell but I definitely could smell violets. I then had to leave them for 24 hours and decided to add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and ½ cup of sugar.

 24 hours after leaving my violets to steep in the boiled water the flowers had lost their colour and were translucent and the beautiful blue colour now seemed light green, is this because I left the green parts on the flowers? I added the lemon juice and sugar and continued with the recipe, my resulting syrup was sweet with the sharp taste of lemon and was an amber yellow colour although it was not unpleasant it was without any real violet taste. I think to get a good result a better quantity of flowers is required.
 Violet flowers are said to be slightly sedative so helpful for anxiety and insomnia. In history syrup of violets has been used for ague, epilepsy, inflammation of the eyes, sleeplessness, pleurisy, jaundice and quinsy. Pliny said that the smell of violets could cure a headache. Violets have a mild laxative effect so don’t take a great quantity unless this effect is required.
 Violet syrup can be used in cocktails such as a Violet Martini or a Violet Kir; you can pour it over a desert such as ice cream, or use as a cold drink.