Monday, 27 June 2011

James Wow-ng!

Our celebrity guest this week was Grow Your Own Drugs star (and Chelsea Gold Medal winner) James Wong.

Now don't get the impression that we have a celebrity guest every week (although,  I wouldn't be surprised if some of our lecturers were closet B-listers...) but this was a very special visit. James flew up specifically just for the day, braving Edinburgh's finest display of summer weather (torrential rain and freezing temperatures) to give us a talk on the latest and greatest herbs he's encountered and to share his knowledge with us in making potions, lotions, concoctions and brews (stay with me!).

But first we initiated him into the ways of Herbology.  Catherine had collected some beautiful Sambucus negra ‘Black Lace’ and so off we set on making trays of Elderflower & Hibiscus Turkish Delight.
James grew up in Malaysia where there are no boundaries between the concepts of food, medicine and therapeutic and even cosmetic preparations – all are done for the good of the body and health of the individual. He trained as Ethnobotantist focusing on how medicinal plants were used by different cultures across the world. Surprisingly he found that many of our familiar friends have traveled far and in the wake of European colonisation established residency in ancient traditions. So for example, in Ecuador, shamans who look and practice in a seemingly unique and indigenous way are actually using the same herbs we use: dandelions, nettles, daisies and hedgerow plants.

Catherine Conway-Payne & James Wong

His research, both independent and in tandem with Kew Garden experts, continues to embrace a global exchange of knowledge and he actively advocates changing what we grow in our gardens. In fact by introducing foreign plants we can reap benefits of not only health but of wealth too. A few topping his list:

Actinidia arguta 
Replace Gooseberries with Kiwis. Not your run of the mill kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa), but the smaller  Actinidia arguta (one of 96 other kinds of known Kiwis). It is a prized ornamental shrub and yields small strwabery size fruits. Older Japanese tradition considers them a poor man's food, but they are hugely antioxidant and can be used to counteract stomach upset and have excellent exfoliant properties for skin.

Wasabi japonica
Grow Wasabi not Cabbages. Wasabi naturally grows on chalky soil, in cold, freezing, wet conditions - an environment most definitely found here.  The peas, plants and stems are all good for you and sell for an enormous amount (stems = £10 each) in world markets, but can hardly been bought for love or money in the UK. Covent Garden would sing if you arrived with a basket of these.

Stevia rebaudiana
Ditch the Mint and plant Stevia.  Stevia 30 times sweeter than sugar – a fact not gone unnoticed by Japanese diet soft drink producers who use it instead of Nutrasweet (now in liquidation as a result in New Zealand and Australia).  Stevia is also anti-bacterial and -even better- good for your teeth! At the moment it is illegal to grow or sell in the UK/EU but that all changes in a month or two…

Crocus sativus
Cultivate Crocus instead of Onions. These beautiful Fall croci yield Saffron in the form of their stigmas – more valuable ounce for ounce than gold. Saffron used to be widely grown in Britain (Saffron Walden, Saffron Hill, etc).  Added to a Martini it releases a natural mood enhancer and in Turkey is used for erectile dysfunction...a real party animal.

Acmella oleracea
Plant borders with Sizhuan Buttons not Daisies. The tiny yellow button flowers of the Acmella oleracea contain alkylamides which are immune enhancers, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. They also explode in your mouth like natural space dust or pop rocks. Applied in formulations to your skin they act as a natural Botox relaxing the facial muscles and in fact are used in products such as Tri-Aktiline, sold over the counter at Boots.

James Wong making Lemon Balm Cordial
We used the afternoon to show off our herbal beds to James despite the torrential downpour (sorry, guys....). James was entirely diplomatic about it and soaked and sodden as the rest of us....  However we redeemed our character by whipping up a Lemon Balm cordial and passing round the Elderflower Delight.

Herbologist paparazzi encountering Elderflower Delight
We even made a brief appearance in the Twittersphere...and the recipe can be found on James' website.

Thank you for a

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Electuaries & Algae


Facing one of our last days in the classroom we elected to make electuaries – traditional homemade lonzenges of honey and medicinal herbs.  Too tempted by all the possible combinations, we could not agree on one only, so decided to make two different mixtures: one for the digestion and the other for soothing sore throats and aiding sleep. Both are made in the same fashion – very simply indeed:

Melt together over low heat, allowing to simmer gently until it starts to set:

Digestion Drops
½ jar of Honey (preferably a firm, crystalline set honey)
¼ tsp ground Cinnamon
¼ tsp ground Allspice
6 whole Cloves

Of course honey is fantastically good for you in its own right (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, anti-bacterial, antiseptic and a nutraceutical) - and the combination of honey and cinnamon is even better. Articles abound on how it can prevent arthritis, boost your immune system, battle a common cold, fight or cure cancer and increase your lifespan.

Sleepytime Soothers
½ jar honey
Grated zest of ½ lemon
1 tablesppon of toasted white poppy seeds (soporific and sedative)

Once mixture thickens (and has fudgy consistency in the mouth – yum) pour quickly into moulds and allow to set for a couple of hours.  Remove from moulds and dust with Slippery Elm (soothing) powder before storing (or eating…)

Next on the agenda was a visit to the RBGE Herbarium to have a look at the seaweed collections (I need a bit of help with my identifications...), Helen Hoy greeted us and very kindly gave us free rein to explore the Algae. With the austere corridors of the Herbarium hallways are innocuously titled enormous tin cupboards that contain worlds within worlds of life, history and art.  

We delved straight into the 'Miscellaneous' drawers and extracted a 19th century collector's journals of Pacific & South Sea plants and algaes. Beautifully inscribed in cursive ink script, they retain a ghostly beauty and glimpse of sunny days gone by. Further notebooks revealed sojourns along Scottish and Irish shores and whimsical collages of seaweed baskets.

Our final hours were spent out in a patch of glorious sunshine, weeding and tending our herbal beds. They have taken on a new life with the rains of last week and several hours were spent quelling the boisterous growth.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Finding Comfort

7 June 2011

Artistic ingredients for Linctus
Our team was substantially reduced today, so Catherine, Christa, Amy and I took our time in a luxurious, leisurely way to tie up some loose ends and play in the gardens and laboratories of the RBGE.
Christa & Catherine preparing Spirit Collection

Christa was off with a start to complete her Herbarium Spirit Collection.  Arriving with a beautiful Columbine flower, she suspended it upside down, piercing the stem into a thin honeycomb seal and neatly bottled it in Copenhagen spirits.

Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace'
We then set off through the main gardens towards the West Gate in search of the elusive Black Elderflower, Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ in order to concoct a linctus this afternoon.  Having searched high and low we found the one garden specimen in the throes of a sharp pruning exercise at the hands of the trainee horticulutralists. Scrambling through the severed branches we were able to retrieve a handful of the delicate pink purply flowers – just enough for our purposes. 
Children playing at the RBGE
A quick stop at the Herbarium, allowed us a brief meeting with Kate Eden who was busy mounting up new species, but who loaned me an exquisite book on mounting seaweeds and mosses, 'The Pressed Plant', published in 1881. There are not many seaweed specimens in the Herbarium it seems, and this Victorian tome is still the most instructive manual in use. 

Wild harvested Elderflowers 
In the afternoon we made our Elderflower Linctus.

1) Infuse a handful of crushed and pounded Linseeds in 1 cup of very hot water for 1 hr or more. Add about 10 umbels of Elderflowers to infusion and another ½ cup of hot water and infuse for 30 mins to 1 hr.

2) Strain infusion and measure out 1½  cups into big pan.

Linctus ingredients
3) Crush in pestle and mortar 1 cup Gum Arabic and add to infusion. Heat gently until dissolved. Crush a handful of mixed spices (equal amounts of Star Anise, Allspice, Cinnamon, Cloves, etc)  along with 3 dessert spoons of dried Elderberries. Add to pan and allow to simmer 5 mins.

Elderflower goo
4) Strain mixture and return to pan. Add 2 cups icing sugar (or honey/raw cane sugar) and dissolve slowly.

5) Blend 1 cup Slippery Elm powder with 1 cup very hot water and mix to paste. Gradually add to linctus mix.

6) Simmer until mixture thickens and has a syrupy consistency.

7) Remove from heat and allow to cool or spoon directly into sterilised glass jars.

Finished product - Black Lace Linctus

Amy at her weeds!

The last hours of the day were spent back up in the Herbal nursery beds, continuing the perpetual weeding process and taking stock of what we had in the ‘cupboard’ for our exam preparations.

Recommended reading for the week
Fascinating ideas and images of the transformation that takes place in water when exposed
to positive and negative messages and meditation....
The Hidden Messages in Water
The True Power of Water
both by Masaru Emoto

First Aid

31 May 2011

We began the week with a look at vulnerary remedies: antiseptic rinses, poultices, compresses, ointments and salves. The idea being to create the component parts of a First Aid kit or to be able to knowledgeably apply specific herbs when in the field. But first we had a tasting of Ally and Christa's Bogbean Brandy to get us going
Herbologists with Bogbean Brandy
Antiseptic Rinses
Really a wash with antiseptic and astringent properties to clean, disinfect and in some cases start the healing process.  Most commonly used are a mixture of a herbal tincture and water or ‘tea’ for:
Skin: Myrrh, Goldenseal, Marigold, Thyme, Sage, Spagnum moss, Witch hazel
Eyes: Marigold, German Chamomile
Nose: Yarrow, Eucalpytus oil
Throat & mouth: Goldenseal, Sage, Cinnamon
Mucuous membranes: Goldenseal, Echinacea, Myrrh

Poultices: A classic poultice is defined as a direct topical application of herbal matter to a wound. Traditionally this is done by preparing an infusion of dried or fresh herbs in hot water (or steaming them as you would spinach) and then wrapping them in muslin and applying this to the skin.  The choice of whether to apply the poultice hot or cold will depend on the type of wound.

Hot poultices are best for superficial wounds.  The heat helps to draw blood to the surface, open the pores and assist the assimilation of the herbs through the skin.

Cold poultices are best for deep wounds (contusions, bruises, fractures, etc). the affected area will usually feel ‘hot’ and so the coolness of a prepared poultice (made either by preparing herbs with cold water, or by cooling a previously prepared one)  will act as an analgesic, and help to draw the beneficial effects of the herbs down deep into the tissue.

Some herbs lend themselves to direct application, such as Comfrey, Bogbean and Primrose. Depending again on the desired affect, placing the veiny side of the leaves against the skin will draw poison away from the tissue (through osmosis), whereas the soft side of the leaf will send healing elements downward, and protect the skin. Poultices can also be used to comfort, such as those applied to sooth bronchitis, rheumatism or menstrual cramps.

Compresses: are best described as a cloth soaked in a herbal infusion. The infusion can be hot or cold, and before applying the cloth is squeezed fairly dry - they should be changed frequently to maximise effect. Compresses are best applied to ‘open’ wounds, specifically where there is a requirement for bandaging or swabbing prior to subsequent treatment. Chamomile, Calendula and Hypericum are all good compress herbs, helping to cleanse and to start the healing process.

Ally working on herbarium specimen
Vulnerary Herbs

Arnica Montana (Wolf’s Bane). The dried flower heads are used to prepare topical preparations, usually as a rinse or lotion (mixed with Witch Hazel water) where skin is unbroken.

Comfrey (Syphytum officinale)  use root and leaves. Comfrey has allantoin in with which really helps to repair tissue at cellular level; good for lacerations and bruises.

Chamomile – is an excellent anti-inflammatory agent and relaxant. German or wild (Matricaria recutita) is stronger and most commonly used, although Roman (Chamomile nobile) can be more appropriate for children.

Chickweed (Starflower) – best for its anti-itch properties (use the whole plant) it also imparts a coolness to tissue, working well as a cold compress, and combines beautifully with Chamomile.

Hebridean Moss (Carragheen) use fragments and fronds to make an extraction of the gel and freeze.

Goldenseal (Hydrastus canadensis) is the most potent antiseptic after Myrrh,yielding a beautiful yellow pigment from the resinous roots. Use as a replacement for iodine.

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) 'Pewterwort' is a natural source of silicic acid, which helps to preserve the elasticity of connective tissue and is essential for skin, nails, hair and teeth.  It also increases coagulation of blood, stimulates white blood cells, and is a remineraliser (silica, selenium, zinc).

Marigold (Calendula officinalis) helps to stop blood flow, especially in tinctured form and is superb for beestings.  Tinctured in 95% alcohol, flowers will release their resinous properties thus increasing antibacterial and antiseptic potential.

Others include:

Marshmallow – excellent demulcent and mucilage
St John’s Wort – oil is antiseptic and acts as an analgesic on nerves
Slippery Elm – super to mix with other herbs as emoilient, and demulcent
Oats – excellent skin softerner for irritated, tickly skin
Self-heal – high in vitamins A,B, C and K
Linseeds – traditionally used for coughs (as poultice on chest) and in linnament for burns and scalds
Woundwort – has allantoin (like Comfrey) and is quite easily found in the wild
Yarrow – a classic astringent for open wounds

Gardeners' Salvation
We then set off to make our own salve to combat the battery of cuts, grazes and contusions faced by gardeners.

1) Place a handful of dried Calendula flowers in 200 mls of Sunflower oil and heat slowly in a bain-marie for 40 mins. 
2) Infuse a good handful each of: Chamomile, Chickweed and Marshmallow root in 100 mls hot water.
3) Strain Calendula oil and return to clean bowl, add 40 gms beeswax and melt together slowly. 
4) Remove from heat and add 2-3 drops Goldenseal oil
5) Whisk oil together with strained herbal infusion and jar quickly before setting point is reached. 

Busy Bees
Our afternoon was spent with Alan, the RBGE’s Communications maestro, but for 36 years also its Head Beekeeper.  Bees hives have however been banned from the main gardens in recent years due to helath and safety, but Alan still keeps a hive going up at the nursery beds. So we spent the afternoon following their activities regaled by Alan’s stories of capturing wandering swarms and terrifying trips in cars with bees on the loose.