Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Berry Magic Part II Elderberry

Elder-Sambucus nigra

According to Mrs Grieve, summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower and that it ends when the berries are ripe. Many of us have favourite recipes for Elderflower cordial and wine- but how many of us know about the medicinal properties of this wonderful tree?

Of all medicinal plants, Elder probably has the most magical and superstitious of connections. In most Northern European traditions, the Elder is connected to magic by the nature of it being inhabited by a Dryad, the Elder-tree Mother, Hylde Moer or Earth Mother. If the tree was cut down without permission to the Elder mother, she would haunt the culprits. “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest”. 

In Denmark, there is an old belief that whoever stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, and it has a long tradition of association with Faeries.

Depending on the tradition, Elder wood could bring luck or curses. In Serbia, it is used in wedding ceremonies as a source of good luck, but in Denmark, making a cradle out of Elder wood was as good as giving the child away to the Faeries.Its hollow stems, used as pea-shooters in the past, were used to blow life into a fire. The story goes that Prometheus used Elder to bring fire from the gods to man. The Anglo-Saxon name for fire is aeld.

Medicinally, we use both the flowers and the berries. The flowers are profuse, creamy white and fragrant and are collected in June, just as the May flower is fading. Elder flower has to be dried carefully to prevent browning or blackening,  and can be made into infusions, syrups and tinctures. Elderflower water was used in the 17th and 18th century to reputedly fade freckles and reduce sunburn. 

A simple infusion of fresh or dried Elder is wonderful for helping with feverish symptoms of colds and flu, combined with Yarrow and Peppermint at the first flu symptoms. Elderflower is antihistamine, anticatarrhal and decongesting, so is excellent for hayfever, allergic rhinitis, catarrh and sinusitis.

Although many people use the flowers, the berries are often ignored. They are sweet and delicious and can be made into wine, syrups, jams (especially with apple) and chutneys. There are small scale research studies that demonstrate that Elderberries are effective against the influenza virus. They are very rich in vitamin C and flavanoids. Similar to the flowers, a hot toddy of Elderberry wine will help promote sweating and clear sore throats and catarrh.

My favourite recipe using Elderberries is to make a ‘Rob’ ( a vegetable juice thickened by heat, a recipe which dates back to the 17th century). To make the Rob (recipe from Mrs Grieve)-take 5lbs of fresh, ripe crushed berries. Simmer with 1lb of sugar. Reduce until the thickness of runny honey. You can add cinnamon, ginger and cloves to taste. Strain through a jelly bag or muslin and bottle, preferably with a cork stopper, as it can ferment! 

Some people add a little brandy (purely medicinal of course!) to help preserve it. For a non-sugar version, (recipe from Non Shaw), add 1tsp allspice and 1/2 tsp ginger per 2 pints of liquid. Reduce over a low heat until the juice is the consistency of molasses.

One or two tablespoons mixed with a tumblerful of hot water is taken at night, promotes sweating and is soothing to the chest.
Sources: Mrs Grieve – A Modern herbal; Barker, J. The medicinal flora of Britain and North Western Europe; Bruton –Seal, J and Seal, M. Hedgerow medicine. Non Shaw- Herbalism-an illustrated guide.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Berry Magic

Hello and welcome to a much delayed blog! My blog temporarily became non-existent (mainly because I forgot the name of the Gmail account I had it under!). A bit of detective work and going through old emails caused me to rediscover it-phew!

I've been much less active on the blog than I'd have liked to have been this summer-a combination of being really busy with clinic, teaching, the garden and studying for my PGCHE.

Didn't we have the most wonderful summer though? I ran a couple of full-day workshops, one making remedies from my herb garden (From Herb Garden to Medicine Chest) and a new workshop (Elixirs and Edibles), both went well and we had great fun.

Despite the late Spring-Mother Nature soon caught up and we had a mass of blossom which has now turned into bountiful fruit and berries, so I thought I’d share the first of a couple of berry recipes with you.

The first is for Hawthorn berries-it’s not too late to collect them now!

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is our most common hedging plant in the UK and is commonly known as May blossom. It's a member of the Rose family and it has been used as a food plant for centuries. My parents grew up in rural Carmarthenshire and often reminisce of days spent exploring and playing, sustained by the young leaves of “Bara Caws” or “Bread and Cheese”, an old country name for Hawthorn.

It is thought of as a magical plant and it was sacred to Cardea, the Roman Goddess of the Hinge "By means of her divine presence she opens things that have been closed, and closes things that have been opened." 
She had a death aspect and bringing Hawthorn flowers in to the house would allow her in to the house where she would eat any children she found. It is said that the smell of Hawthorn flowers is reminiscent of the smell of the Plague, or Black Death.

Hawthorn is still regarded as a sacred tree and shouldn't be disturbed. When DeLorean were building their factory in Northern Ireland, there was an old Faery mound with a Hawthorn tree on top in the way. None of the local Irish builders would touch it-in the end John DeLorean flattened it with a bulldozer. The company went bankrupt 5 years later.

Many hedgerow plants are medicines as well as food and Hawthorn is a good example of this. For its medicinal uses, old herbals recommend it for kidney stones and gout, and Culpepper recommends it for “dropsy”, an old word for heart failure. It not until relatively recently that it has been known as a universal heart or cardiac tonic.

We now know, through modern research that Hawthorn is “heart-sparing”. It is able to dilate the coronary arteries and strengthen the heart muscle without raising blood pressure or increasing the heart rate. In Germany it is viewed as “the nurse of the ageing heart” and is often prescribed to the over 50’s.

There is no one constituent that can be attributed to the medicinal effects of Hawthorn, a good example of a basic philosophy in Herbal Medicine, that “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. Although we do know that the flavanoid compounds called procyanidins help to normalise blood pressure. Hawthorn can be combined with other hedgerow medicines such as Yarrow, Ramsons and Lime blossom to help improve the circulation.

As Medical Herbalists we use both the flowering tops and berries or haws to treat high blood pressure, enlargement of the heart and angina in combination with Convallaria rusticana (Lily of the Valley) and Leonorus cardiaca (Motherwort). It helps dissolve cholesterol and calcium deposits, reducing the effects of arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. (It is important to state that heart disease is a life-threatening illness, and should be treated by a qualified health care professional such as your GP or qualified herbalist. If you are taking betablockers, please only take Hawthorn under supervision).

You can however, take Hawthorn daily to help maintain your heart health.

Many fruits and berries can be made into syrups, but syrups have a limited shelf-life. Another option is to make leathers. The use of fruit or berry leathers are ancient, being a regular staple of hunter-gatherer groups in Paleolithic times. The advantages is that if there is a fruit glut, it is a means of reducing volume, and at the same time allows preservation.
This method (thanks Ray Mears) is dehydrator/dessicator free for making Hawthorn berry leathers:

Make sure to wash the Hawthorn berries thoroughly after collection. They freeze really well to store for later. 

Interestingly, I was chatting with a workshop attendee recently (Hi Laura!) who had had some difficulty with this recipe and we reflected on the fact that I always (out of convenience) always freeze my berries before making the leathers, which I think softens them. This is also backed up by an observation made by a Finnish herbalist Henriette Kress who told me that freezing was the only way to make Finnish Hawthorn berries in anyway workable.

1. Use ripe Hawthorn berries and place in a saucepan. Just cover in water or apple juice. Do not add too much fluid, as you will have to dry this off later.
2. Simmer gently for about 15 minutes and allow to cool. 
3.Blend or mash the pulp briefly to loosen the pulp from the seeds-then rub the pulp through a coarse sieve.

4. At this stage you can add honey to taste if you wish.
5. Pour this strained pulp onto a baking paper on a baking tray so that it is less than 1 cm thin and place in the oven for approximately 2-4 hours. Leave to dry in the oven at its lowest setting.

6. Leave until the pulp is dry and leathery and can be peeled off the trays, without sticking together.
7. Cut with a scissors and store in an air tight jar. If dried and stored properly they will easily last for a year and are also quite delicious!

Eat about 2 cm square daily to keep your heart and circulation healthy.

For my next post (very soon) I’ll be sharing a very special syrup made from Elderberries-so you’ve just got time to go and harvest them and pop some in the freezer.

I often run workshops on hedgerow remedies-so join my mailing list if you’d like further information.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Benefits of Bitters

Bitter foods and bitter herbs-something I find in the UK at least, we seem to have an aversion to, although our continental cousins happily add bitter leaves such as Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) to their salads and eat bitter vegetables such as endive.

Many plants have a bitter taste, and I have to admit that probably the most common complaint I get from my patients is about the bitter taste of their medicine. The plant constituents involved in the bitter taste are diverse and plants are often described as having a "bitter principle" The bitterest compound known to exist is gentiopicrin from the plant Gentian (Gentiana lutea) and it is used on a scientific basis as a measure of bitterness.

Foods and beverages that we use in a daily context can be classed as bitters e.g. coffee beans (Caffea arabica), beer (hops-Humulus lupulus) and vermouth (wormwood-Artemisia absinthium). Bitters are often taken as "aperitifs" to help aid digestion.

Medicinally, bitters are often referred to as "tonics". Bitter plants have a long history of being promoted for health benefits. Angustora (Angustora trifoliata) bitters were developed in the early 1800's by a German doctor to help promote digestive health in soldiers. It is still the key ingredient in Pink Gin. Most people would be more familiar with it in cocktails these days! But Angustora bitters are also used as a hangover cure-the reason will become apparent later in this article!

Numerous brands or patent medicines followed including Swedish bitters and others, containing bitter herbs such as Angelica (Angelica archangelica), bitter orange peel (Citrus aurantium) and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). In Traditional Chinese and Indian (Ayurveda) medicine, bitter tastes are seen as of great therapeutic benefit. In Chinese Medicine, bitter tasting foods are seen as stimulating, moving blood and Qi, with sedating, cooling and drying properties. This is echoed in Ayurvedic (Traditional Indian) medicine, where a bitter taste is also seen as drying and is used generally for digestive problems.

So how do bitters work?

The bitter taste has a marked physiological effect. How many of us have tasted something bitter and felt our mouth fill with saliva? The bitter stimulates the bitter taste receptors on the tongue and stimulate the release of digestive juices, particularly in the upper digestive tract, including saliva from the salivary glands, stomach juices and pancreatic juices. These are all crucial elements to help us digest starchy foods, such as potatoes and grains. Bitters also stimulate a hormone called gastrin, which in turn increases bile flow from the liver. Bile is a product important for the breakdown of fats in the body, so consequently bitter herbs and foods help our body break down fats better. It is of no coincidence that many bitter medicinal plants help to lower cholesterol e.g. Artichoke (Cyanara scolymus). Bile acids are also natural gentle laxatives, so increasing bitter foods and herbs in your diet will help if you have a sluggish digestion or constipation.

Bitter tonics gently stimulate appetite so are excellent in convalescence and in the elderly with poor appetites. All this adds up to better absorption of food.

Bitter tonics also support liver function and hence makes the perfect hangover cure!

So let's embrace a bitter taste and all the health benefits it entails!!


Of course I'm not suggesting you now run around your local park or in the countryside, trying every plant for its bitter effects, as many poisonous plants are bitter-as with all foraging, be sure that you recognise what you're picking.

Always take advice from a qualified Medical Herbalist if you are pregnant as some bitter herbs are contraindicated in pregancy. You should avoid bitters if you have a peptic ulcer, gall bladder problems or liver disease-please take advice from a qualified Medical Herbalist.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Juicing Cleavers

A few people have asked me more about juicing Cleavers.
With Cleavers, you’d juice it like you’d juice vegatables or fruit, the juicer will separate liquid from fibre, so you wouldn’t be left with any stringy stuff. It will be quite concentrated, so you might want to dilute it with apple juice or similar. It is actually surprisingly palatable on its own-tastes of fresh grass!
You can take a "shot" twice daily for a spring detox.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Spring Harvest-Weed Medicine

Welcome Everyone to my first blog!
I think this time of year is the very best time-don't you think?

The anticipation of Spring, the first green shoots and for Herbalists, the first opportunity to harvest some medicinal plants. I have just seen the first shoots of Galium aperine (goosegrass, cleavers, sticky willy, caci mwnci-it has many names) coming up through the hedgerows.

You know the one-grows in hedgerows, grabs your leg, dog covered in burrs.

Why not take the opportunity to give yourself a spring detox, boosting your immune and lymphatic system by juicing it. It tastes like grass-not bad at all and much cheaper than a juice bar!!!

This common weed is a member of the Rubiaceae, the Bedstraw or coffee family. It includes coffee (Caffea arabica) and Partridge berry (Mitchella repens).

When harvesting, you use the aerial parts (those parts growing above ground, up to and including flowering). Once the burrs have formed it is a little too old to harvest.
As well as juicing, you can make a tea or prepare a tincture.
Cleavers is part of a group of herbs that herbalists call depuratives or alteratives. Another term is "blood cleanser". These terms are traditional and we honestly don't know a lot about how this particular group of plants work. As with many herbs of this group we draw on extensive traditional knowledge for its uses. Many act on the liver and gall bladder, bowel and lymphatic system (all important toxin removing systems).
Traditionally, using herbs and readily available spring greens helps to clear out accumulated winter toxins and can make the body feel more vital and energetic. They are also a very rich sources of vitamins and minerals, especially if juiced fresh.

Herbalists see many conditions, such as arthritis, PMT, skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis, immune and catarrhal problems, fatigue and some serious health conditions as being partly due to toxic tissue states.

Many of the first herbs to appear in at this time are traditional Spring cleansers: Nettle (the young tops), Burdock, Dandelion.

Herbalists often use Cleavers in conjunction with other herbs for particular health problems. Cleavers is indicated when there are swollen glands, tonsillitis and problem skin conditions.

 So why not try juicing some cleavers this Spring?