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.

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