Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Pishwanton to Aberlady

24 May 2011

We travelled from the halls of the RBGE to the hills of East Lothian and the shores of the Firth of Forth today. Following the windswept roads, only just recovering from yesterday’s gales, we heading high into the hills above Haddington to the heather clad fields of the Lammermuirs in search of Scotland’s only Goethean institute.

Pishwanton Wood Visitor Centre
Dr Margaret Colquhoun, Executive Director of Pishwanton Wood, part of the Life Science Trust, welcomed us into the earth covered centre to illuminate us in the ways of the community. No phones, cigarettes or alcohol is allowed, the ethos is of finding harmony with nature to gain the greatest understanding of the relationship between science and art in a rural context. The centre is primarily a place of learning; from the arts of forestry and biodynamic gardening to the domestic crafts of spinning, weaving and herbal medicine making.

Pishwanton Wood Meadow
The landform of Pishwanton is redolent of times gone by; a march of rolling mounds reveals itself as an ancient burial ground, aligned to the Voltadini forts nearby, whilst the homespun fences, gates, woodpiles and tree guards evoke a harmonious and ageless settlement. The layout of Pishwanton; the herb garden, vegetable garden, birch woodland and Scots Pine grove revealed itself to the trustees, taking the form of a human organism, with space for physical activity, internal circulation and digestion and spiritual contemplation.

Birch wood walk
We filled our brief hour with a walk across the free-range cultivated meadow to the new learning centre and back through the woods to the planted gardens. For a brief moment we stopped to commune with the wild hawthorn growing at the crest of the farm, absorbing its vibrant patterns of growth and self-preservation. Margaret, a Weleda scientist of 20 years standing, has listened to this plant deeply and feels that the medicine it produces is excellent for the heart and circulatory system; Hawthorn flowers best taken in a tea or tonic in the morning, with a tincture of Hawthorn berries in the evening.

Biodynamic compost mounds
As we left, the skies released an icy shower of hail and rain, so we scuttled back down the roads towards the sunnier climes of the coast. After a brief stop at Gosford Bothy to refuel with tubs of lentil soup we wound our way through the village to the small parking area at Aberlady bay.  

Footbridge to Enchantment, Aberlady Bay

Once fortified, Greg Kenicer, our class Botanist-par-excellence, led us across the Footbridge to Enchantment (so named by author Nigel Tranter who walked it daily), to explore the flora of the salty bogs and marshes beyond.

Herbologists botanising
We met new friends and old; Sea Buckthorn, now bare of fruit and covered in lichen, tiny Orchids of pinks and purples, lush Coltsfoot, young Meadowsweet, yellow Marsh Marigolds and Pontentillas, early Bogbean flowers, Horsetails and fading Cowslips

We leaned to distinguish between sedges and grasses, and to look for the tiny, rare Astragalus that hugs the banks of the path. 
Greg Kenicer & Catherine Conway-Payne
We also knelt down to dig through the spongy clumps and uncovered a number of spreading leguminaceaes amidst pockets of Wild Angelica. Tiny frogs and caterpillars kept us company as we absorbed the natural beauty of the flora around us.
Heading back across the windy fields we stopped only long enough to gather a few handfuls of Elderflowers and to catch a glimpse of the first flowering Silverweeds edging the estuary and the bridge back home.

Salty Hawthorn in bloom
Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve

Monday, 23 May 2011

May Tonics & Syrups

17 May 2011

Catherine started us off with a challenge: create a Wild Bear’s Medicine using the herbs we had discussed last week and any others that we might find in the wild garden of the RBGE.

We duly set off, en masse, to explore the north-western corner of the Botanics, beyond the great beech hedge, into the little woodlands of Scotland’s natural heritage. Our first introduction was to Herb Robert (Germanium Robertianum F geraniaceae), which frankly is a miracle herb.  Herb Robert

Full of volatile oils, a natural bitter, and containing loads of vitamins A, B C, calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and a little know mineral germanium, which makes oxygen available to cells.  Its qualities are as an astringent and antibiotic that not only boosts the immune system, but is also antiviral and anti-oxidant.  Known for millennia (mentioned even by Dioscorides) as a cancer curing drug, its advocacy in modern cancer treatment is only just being rediscovered.  If you have it in your garden or woodland nearby, pick 4-5 leaves a day and add to your salad, or mix the leaves with Aloe Vera to make an eyewash. A tea of 1 dried tsp leaves steeped in 1 cup hot water.

We then met up with:
Plantain - good for bleeding encourages repair of damaged  tissue; anti-inflammatory
Sweet Cicely - a digestive and and natural sweetener that restores spirits

Horsetail - full of Silica
Wild Garlic - a natural blood cleanser

Bog Bean - a hepatic tonic with lots of Vitamin C
stinging nettles
Stinging Nettle - a fantastic detoxifier and re-mineraliser

Collecting handfuls and backpack full of herbs, we regrouped in our kitchen to concocot our potions.  Working in teams of two, Amy and I joined forces to make the following:

Spring Blast – (a tonic for exam-stressed teens). A deeply concentrated tea of Sticky Willy (for lymph cleansing), Horsetail (for replenishing silica), Bogbean leaves (to kick start a lazy digestive tract) and Wild Garlic leaves (to cleanse the blood). The aim is to drink this foul tasting liquor 3 times daily for 2-3 days and then follow it with:
Spring Blast Tonic brew

Re-Energising Tonic Cubes – Made of: Nettles leaves (to replenish iron, calcium and vitamins), Dandelion leaves (to counteract anaemia and clear the skin), Lemon Balm leaves (to soothe low spirits, calm the mind and alleviate stress), Sweet Cicely flowers ( because it is indicated as an excellent herb for 15- 18 year old girls), Herb Robert stems and leaves (for all it’s fantastic qualities and immune boosting properties). Ideally given more time, we would have added Barley (for calcium and slowing of cell aging) and its taste and Ginger which is an adaptogen and would act as a diffusive agent for all the other herbs. We froze the tonic into ice cubes, so that it could be taken readily in a multitude of drinks, whilst retaining its freshness.
Comfrey, Plantain, Horsetail & Hypericum

We also created a poultice, and applied it to Amy’s sore arm, and then finally a ointment for cuts wounds and grazes, containing Comfrey, Horsetail, Plantain and Hypericum.

The afternoon was spent creating two wonderful herbal syrups, which is in essence an equal mix of sugar to plant infused liquid.  The ancient Persians considered sugar as a powerful tool in their medicine kits and indeed it is an excellent way to preserve the therapeutic properties of herbs. Syrups release their potent therapeutic extracts readily into the bloodstream, helping to boost the immune system and body’s energy reserves.
Crushing hawthorn berries

Rose-infused Hawthorn Flower & Berry Syrup:

1) Infuse 4 heaped teaspoons of Hawthorn Flowers and 25gms of Rose petals in 300mls of hot/warm water for 10 minutes.

2) Crush 150gms of Hawthorn berries (can be soaked first/overnight in a little hot water) with a pestle and mortar (or grinder) and decoct in approx 200mils water over low heat for 1 hour. (Not too hard, Amy - you might break the bowl!)

3) Strain respective liquids and measure out 500 mls.  Combine with 500gms raw cane sugar and place in pan over low heat. Simmer until sugar is dissolved and mixture starts to thicken.
Hibiscus, rose & hawthorn

Dosage: 1 tsp three times daily.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Spring Remedies

10 May 2011

We rejoined in the classroom after a long Easter break to explore the Spring bounty and get our green fingers going again. The morning was spent with Catherine, looking first at a natural first aid kit. Digging out the tinctures and dried herbal harvests of last year she assembled a table of remedies that are easily concocted and applied:

Cuts & Grazes: require first of all a rinse to clean and disinfect.

Witch Hazel Water:  Probably most well known and not to be beat as a cooling astringent wash for most superficial wounds – even better if stored in the fridge.

Calendula Tincture (made with 90% alcohol) will deliver not only the soothing and calming characteristics of the flower heads, but also the resinous qualities that deliver anti-viral and antiseptic properties.  Be careful though, the healing process is so quick that bacteria can get caught beneath the surface if not thoroughly cleaned first.

Myrrh – (again in 90% alcohol to release the resinous properties) is probably one of the most potenet in the herbalist's arsenal.  It delivers a very antiseptic wash and the resin can also be used to create a dry dusting powder for seeping or sticky wounds. Mixed with Slippery Elm, this can be used as a natural antiperspirant. In winter, try Holly berries dried and powdered to create an antiseptic dust.

Hypericum – is not as antiseptic as Myrrh, but has the benefit of promoting the healing process in the epidermal layer. St John’s Wort used to be known as Bloodwort as it was traditionally used for healing rather than depression.

 Bartram’s recipe for an easy antiseptic and healing wash is:
  • 1 tsp St John’s Wort tincture
  • 1 tsp Calendula tincture
  • Mixed in 1 teacup of water
If no tinctures are at hand, think of applying a poultice:
Comfrey – the whole leaf can be applied as a bandage
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) – can be pulped and applied in a poultice
Seaweed – Apply once wound is clean, to cool, soften and deliver iodine
Yarrow – a great all-round astringent herb

Once the wound is clean, a salve or ointment can be applied. This creates an occlusive layer to protect the fragile skin. Favourite salves are made from Woundwort (Stachus officinalis), Fenugreek (which is very mucilaginous, similar to Carragheen), Myrrh again or Chamomile (very anti-inflammatory). If all else fails or is elusive, try honey, an ancient wound dressing and natural healing agent. Honey has tiny particles of hydrogen peroxide and has a high sugar content (obviously) which makes it both acidic and osmotic, meaning it draws impurities out.  Try not to lick it off…To prevent or reduce scarring, applying Caster oil, Vitamin E oil or Rosehip oil.

Bruises –  are best treated with Arnica applied topically either in a gel or in a tinctured wash.  Liquid extract of Echinacea can also be used as it stimulates local capillary action.  And in the old days, Cowslip (either a dry flower infusion or a root decoction) is not only analgesic, but anti-coagulant and anti-inflammatory. The roots actually contain aspirin-like qualities too.

Scalds & Burns - should be doused in cold water, and not touch air.  If serious, cover with a cold poultice and go to A&E, for minor burns try Aloe Vera gel, St John’s Wort oil, Slippery Elm powder (mixed to a paste with a drop of milk), Elderflower infusion, Cucumber or Chamomile.

The Spring Remedies
The renewal of spring brings about an opportunity for detoxification, cleansing and replenishing the body.  Many of the  spring herbs growing on wayside verges and in corners of the garden are excellent for this, made into teas and tinctures, they can provide a healthy and inexpensive alternative to high street brands.

Seven Synergystic Effects (of Garden Weeds)
Most of the herbs we looked at had some, or all, of the following effects on the body. Some are used in isolation to work on one specific organ, others combine to deliver a synergistic effect. Most are found in my garden (and emphatically dug out) but herbalists make remedies for the following effects:
  • Eliminative (diuretic, laxative, diaphoretic)
  • Depurative (removes congestion)
  • Alterative (cleans the blood)
  • Blood Circulatory Stimulant (re-oxygenates and enhances uptake of others)
  • Lymphatic (works on lymph nodes, removes congestion)
  • Bitter or Hepatic (works on alimentary tract, liver and gall bladder)
  • Astringent / Tonic (for tightening and toning body tissues)
  • Re-mineraliser (replenishment of essential minerals and salts)
A few of the herbs we looked at were:
Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliate )– a bitter hepatic tonic with cooling and anti-inflammatory properties, yielding bitter Iridoids (most bitter plant compounds) with good levels of vitamin C.  Use the leaves as a poultice under the arms to reduce breast node swellings.

Nettle (Utrica dioica)– highly nutritious, with quantities calcium, iron and vitamin C. It is a natural antihistamine, is anti-rheumatic and hypotensive, and is an excellent detoxifier. Pick the crowns of young leaves at the tip just before flower buds appear in early Spring. Later picking runs risk of higher formic acid content.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) – excellent eliminative and detoxifier working primarily on the liver and gall bladder, but also good for clearing skin, helping with anaemia and re-mineralising (swathes of vitamins A, C. D and B-complex, Magnesium, Zinc, Potassium. Iron and Calcium). Pick young leaves to make a tea, use leaves fresh or dried, or use roots (fresh or dried) to make a tincture.(James Green, in his The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook, recommends making a tincture of the whole plant.)

Sticky Willy (Galium aparine) – menace to gardeners, this is a surprisingly good thing to pull out of the ground and make into a tea. A great lymphatic, alterative and detoxifier, it works to lower blood pressure and is very good for reducing enlarged lymph nodes around the body. Used tradtionally to calm urinary disorders and obesity, ‘...Galen wrote that it could makes fat folk lean’ (Bertram).

Bistort (Polygonum bistorta)- very old fashioned Spring herb, part of the Dock family and similar to Sorrel. A powerful astringent, with anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal, anti-diarrhoeal and anti-oxidant properties. This was used for nosebleeds until recently. The root and rhizome are the parts used to make tinctures or decoctions.

Others in the repertoire included:
Wild Bear’s Garlic
Blue Flag Iris
Wild Pansy
Red Clover
Mountain (Oregon) Grape

Bartram’s Spring Medicine: Equal parts Nettles, Dandelion root and Lemon Balm. Mix 2 teaspoons to each cup boiling water; infuse 15 mins, take 1 cup 2-3 times per day

Catherine also gave us a recipe for a Spring Pudding that was made by her mother and grandmother in Cumbria. Made with fresh leaves collected from hedgerows and herb gardens it was a rich nutritious infusion of spring goodness.  It’s main ingredients are: pearl barley, nettles, dandelions, bistort, cabbage, leek, onion, butter, egg and water.

Curiously barley is described by Bartram describes this as an almost perfect food. It is high in fibre, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium as well as Lysine, an essential amino acid. It is also high in the enzyme that slows aging of cells (superoxide dismutase SOD). Better get cooking!

The afternoon was spent digging up some of the main Physic Garden herbs under the guidance of Erica, a RBGE horticulturalist who taught us the art of properly dividing and separating clumps and then, in the hort workshops, to take and root cuttings from soft stage plants. The essential ingredients being: cool conditions, sharp knives, water sprays and fast work.  

We then moved up to our practical beds and weeded with abandon until the end of the day.

Monday, 9 May 2011


5 April 2011
We had our last class with David Pirie to look at nervines. Now, if I look up ‘nervines’ in the index of any of my small (but growing) library of herbal books it doesn’t readily appear.  But as David pointed out, the terminology of herbalism has become more scientific over the ages.  In years gone by a herb now known as an 'anxiolytic' or a 'nervine' could have been called soporific. Herbs traditionally held in this group can also be found in the ‘energetic systems of medicine’ where they are categorised as being  heating or cooling, drying or moisturising.
Scutellaria laterifolia

This can also associated with genetic types. A person described as ‘hot and dry’ will typically display symptoms such as a dry tongue, skin and hair, general redness, have an aversion to too much heat all of which is exacerbated by alcohol, strenuous exercise, and they tend to become hotter and dryer as they age. This naturally draws them to cooling herbs, whereas a ‘cool person, identified by paler skin, cold skin, etc will benefit from warm ones.

Back to the point. Nervines, are probably the most commonly prescribed herbs by herbalists. They work on the nervous system, but they are often combined with adaptogens, which act through the hormonal system to allow the body to adapt to stress  and bolster immunity.

Well known adaptogens (Siberian Ginseng, Shiitake mushrooms, Schizandra, Roseroot) have been used for centuries on fit people to give them greater strength, vitality and resistance to disease. Others such as Borage and Liquorice have the same effect but on a shorter term, ‘tonic’ herbs are specific to a tissue or organ helping to improve the integrity of all cells in that organ and improving tone generally, while ‘tropho-restorative’ herbs are those that give nutrients to the system:

Plantain - blood
Goldenrod - bladder
Oats - nervous system

Milk Thistle - liver

Experiments with Nervines
We then did a Goethean experiment, tasting different herbal teas and describing them in terms of smell, taste, potential habitat and what kind of or person it represented. Findings were mixed - our first was Skullcap

(Scutellaria laterifolia) which is useful for someone who thinks too much or worries unduly. Take 3-4 cups of tea a day, made form the ariel parts - this will act as an excellent sedative and is anti-spasmodic and a diffusive, working on nervous tension, anxiety and overexcitiablitly.  Can be used in conjunction with
Pulsatilla (for female nerves)
Passiflora (helps with sleep)
Blach Cohosh (a natural source of salicylic acid)

The nervous system itself is divided into the central nervous system (brain and spine) and the peripheral nervous system (all nerves extending from spine to all organs and muscles). The brain also has a peripheral system of cranial nerves. These form the ‘sensory’ system which deliver information from touch, scent, taste, sight, hearing and spatial awareness. The autonomic nervous system on the other hand controls how our body reacts to sensation; heart rate, breathing, digestion, most evident in ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Not surprisingly the fight or flight mode has a dramatic effect on the whole body: the digestive system shuts down, adrenaline is released, there is vasodialation of all major organs, the body sweats, and skin goes pale..  this can only be sustained for a short time as the stress on the adrenal glands and cardiovascular system is enormous and a there is a huge release of inflammatory agents (lucatines) into the body. Those inflammatory agents keep popping up as one of the major barriers to healthy tissues, organs and systems…

The Brain
We also looked at the brain and its amazing structure. Physically it is composed of the Reptilian brain (controlling essentials such as sex, fighting and breathing… in that order), the Emotional brain based within the limbic system and hippocampus; and the Thinking brain, providing us with rational thought - all housed within a big fatty mass with millions of nerve fibres. These nerves are extraordinary, communicating their messages through neurotransmitters at synaptic junctions - the permutations of connections being greater that the number of atoms in the universe.
Brain cells - (from  Dr. Kristen Brennand)
Damage to nerves, myelin sheaths in the case of MS, Parkinsons and Motor Neuron disease, or plaques of protein in the case of Alzheimer’s, can affect our long term health immensely. And the impact of chemical constituents both in the destruction and health of the nerves is not to be overlooked.  Many herbal remedies, nervines amongst them, have been found to be efficacious in restoring and promoting good health. These have been classified as:
Tonics – Verbena, Oats
Analgesics - St John’s Wort, Yarrow, Willow Birch, Meadowsweet
Astringents - Evergreen Jasmine, Latuca, Calfiornia Poppy
Anodynes -  Avena sativa, Hypericum, Salix alba, Eschscholsia californa
Sedatives – Valerian, Passiflora, Geleseminum sempervirens
Narcotics – Atropa belladonna, Latuca, Papaver sominiferum (opium)
Antidepressants – Hypericum, Rosa damescena, Verbena officinale

In any case, all are dose dependant, and can have the opposite or a detrimental effect if taken in the wrong way, wrong time, or by wrong person. One of the best things we can take for our nervous system is vitamin B, found naturally in animal products, pulses, greens, germs of seeds and in a marvellously named Hemp, Hemp Hooray oil.
Native American Indian woman shaman
But herbal remedies are not always enough alone and the capacity of the mind to heal itself through thought, both cognitive and meditative, is extraordinary too. So our late afternoon was spent mulling the mystical healing practices of Native American shamans, Indian yogis and Chinese masters with a cup of Stachus officinales (Wood Betony) in hand.

For further searching…
Metamorphosis of Plants – Goethe
Herbal Medications – AW Priest & LR Priest