Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

There is nothing that beats a bowl of freshly picked wild berries. Bliss courses through my body as I think about happy childhood days of carefree summers spent stuffing my face with bilberries, raspberries, and wild strawberries. Hands, shirt, and face stained purplish-red – I did not care. I was happy as a bear, gorging myself on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of berries. At the age of 5, life couldn’t be any better. The passion for foraging has stayed with me ever since.

Blueberries prefer an acid environment. Their natural habitat is the northern pine forests, as well as heath, and moorland. Although they can be found in the moors of southern England they are more prolific in Scotland and Wales. In the US, a closely related species is mostly found in the Rockies and other mountainous regions of the Western States. High bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosim) are widely cultivated in the coastal areas of the Northeastern US and Canada, where they are native.

Bilberries are a member of the heather family. The wiry, low-growing plants can completely carpet a forest floor. The leaves are small, elliptical with finely serrated margins. The reddish fairy bell flowers that dangle singly from the low bushes are typical of the heather family. By the end of July/beginning of August, depending on local climate conditions, the bluish-black berries appear.

To be sure, picking the squishy little berries requires a certain degree of patience. Some people use a berry rake, but it damages both the plants and the berries. Cleaning the berries can be a bit of a chore as the little stalks tend to be a bit ‘clingy’, and tedious to pick off. But the effort is well worth it. Nothing quite compares to bilberry bliss.

Blueberries, Vaccinium myrtillus

Medicinal uses:

Although Bilberries are not a prominent part of the materia medica, both berries and leaves have medicinal properties.

Parts Used

Leaves

A tea made from Blueberry leaves can lower blood sugar levels. However, recent animal research suggests that long-term use of large doses can have adverse effects.

Berries

The berries enhance the peripheral blood circulation, which among other things, improve visual acuity. This property helps diabetes sufferers and people who find it hard to adjust to poor lighting conditions. They are also hailed to improve blood supply to the brain and thus make an excellent brain superfood. These findings suggest that Bilberries make an ideal snack fruit.

They have also been found to reduce cholesterol and to fight free radicals. In fact, according to a study by Tufts University, which examined 60 different fruit and vegetables, blueberries demonstrated the highest levels of antioxidant activity due to the high levels of anthocyanin (a common plant pigment). Red wine is another well-known source of this antioxidant that is known to support heart health. However, Bilberries contain 38% more of this compound than red wine. Another antioxidant in their make-up protects against colon cancer.

Bilberries have a pronounced effect on connective tissues, enhancing their strength and stability. They are recommended as a therapeutic food to alleviate varicose veins.

Thus, they are easily not just one of the most delicious fruits, but also one of the nutritionally most valuable. Make the most of them, while the season lasts!

CAUTION:

Blueberry leaves contain oxalates, which, when concentrated in the blood can form crystals that can damage the kidneys. People suffering from urinary problems or kidney disease should avoid oxalate-containing foods. Use blueberry leaves in moderation.

Recipes 

If you are lucky enough to find a plentiful patch, perhaps mixed with other berries, such as wild strawberries, raspberries or blackberries, you can make a cold berry soup – a favorite summer treat in Scandinavian countries, very-berry ice cream, sorbet or yogurt cream, which, when stabilized with vegetarian gelatine, makes an excellent cake filling. Blueberry milkshakes are also delicious. Or, if you want to preserve them for later, try making jam or syrup.

Blueberry juice:

Puree about 1 cup of blueberries.

Add 1 cup of water (or more if you like it thinner). Simmer briefly, add sugar or honey to taste, strain through cheesecloth, and cool.

Blueberry smoothy:

Add one cup of blueberries to 1cup of milk and a ½ cup of yogurt. Whizz in a blender. Add sugar and/or lemon juice to taste.

Blueberry Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup butter

Method:

Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease muffin cups.

Tumble blueberries with a little bit of the flour, enough to coat them. Combine the remaining dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.

Cream the butter with the eggs and buttermilk; stir into flour mixture until just combined (batter will be lumpy). Stir in blueberries until evenly distributed. Fill muffin cups full with batter. Bake about 20 minutes until golden

Blueberry Pie

There are gazillion delicious recipes for blueberry pies and cheesecakes. To maximize the healthful properties of this delicious treat forget the cheesecake and just fill a pie crust with a slightly cooked blueberry mixture.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Crust:

  • 1½ cup graham cracker crumbs (or digestive biscuits)
  • ½ cup melted butter
  • cup of water

Crumble the Graham crackers and mix with melted butter. Add just enough water to create a dough that sticks together. Press into a deep 9″ pie tin.

  • 8 cups of blueberries
  • 7 Tbs cornflour or tapioca
  • 3 Tablespoons water (or grape juice)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • ¾ cup of sugar

Wash the berries. Combine corn starch, sugar, and optional spices in a mixing bowl. Add lemon juice and water and blend well. Gently combine blueberries with the cornstarch mixture and fill it into the pie crust. They may overfill the tin, but the volume is reduced during baking.

If you like, add a crumb topping:

  • ¼ cup of sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • ¼ cup butter, flaked
  • Rub together until it becomes a crumbly mixture and spread all over the pie. Cook for about one hour at 375°F or 190°C.

Serve with fresh whipped cream.

Blueberry cream

  • 2 cups of blueberry
  • 2 cups of quark (smooth cottage cheese or fromage frais)
  • ½cup whipped cream
  • Sugar
  • Lemon juice
  • Cassis

Clean and slightly bruise the blueberries, pour a little cassis over them and some sugar.  Marinate for a few hours until the sugar is dissolved and the blueberries have turned a little mushy.

In another bowl blend the fromage frais with the lemon juice and some sugar until smooth. Fold in the whipped cream and stir in the blueberries. If you add a little gelatine to the quark (follow instructions on the package) you can also use this cream as a filling for a pie crust.

Cold Blueberry soup:

Wonderful dessert/dish for a summer’s day.

Take a quart of blueberries, bruise, or mash. Add the same amount of water and a little lemon juice. Simmer, add sugar to taste. If you don’t like the seeds and skins, you can strain the liquid through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Dissolve a little cornstarch and add to thicken, but take care not to use too much. Simmer a little while longer, then allow to cool and put in the fridge. Whip some cream. When the blueberry soup is cold enough, serve with dabs of fresh whipped cream. Some people like to refine this recipe by adding a little cassis to the soup.

 

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are all around us and anyone, who has ever stopped to sniff at the roses has experienced them directly. Essential oils are aromatic compounds of plants, which not only occur in the flowers but may also be found in the leaves, roots, or seeds. Interestingly, essential oils that derive from the same plant, but from different parts of that plant can have quite different scents and very different properties.

Although they are collectively known as ‘oils’, essential oils are chemically very different from fatty oils (such as olive or almond oil). Chemically, essential oils belong to the huge family of terpenes, which are ubiquitous in the plant world. Terpenes are very complex and some form enormously long-chained molecules. Most essential oils tend to have a rather shorter sequence, known as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, or form ring-like structures called ‘benzene rings’.

Biologists think of essential oils in terms of their function – they regard them as ‘the chemical weapons’ of the plant world: they repel insects, or fight bacterial or fungal attacks. They may also play a part in the ‘sex-life’ of a plant, acting as ‘plant pheromones’ that are supposed to attract and seduce their pollinators.

Those of us, who see plants as living beings, rather than as chemical factories or sources of raw materials, consider essential oils as the fragrant essence of the plant’s soul. Their ethereal nature, concentrated as scent, is the means by which plants communicate with the world around them.

In human anatomy, the olfactory center is situated in the oldest part of the brain, which has its seat in close proximity to the area that stores emotional memories and instincts. Scents speak to us on a pre-verbal and non-rational level, which is why our reactions to them tend to be so instinctive. This explains why perfumes can be so effective in attracting the opposite sex, or why certain smells can conjure up such intense emotions and memories.

Essential Oils

Medicinal and Therapeutic Properties of Essential Oils

Medical professionals are more interested in the therapeutic properties of essential oils – many oils show antibacterial, fungicidal, relaxant, stimulating, antidepressant, and other effects that have been utilized for thousands of years. But some years ago, essential oil research has given rise to a form of therapy known as Aromatherapy, that relies solely on the use of essential oils.

Aromatherapy offers a very holistic approach since it can affect the mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and a skilled aromatherapist will take all three into consideration when blending their oils.

The specific oils are usually delivered via a massage, but a client may also be instructed to use an oil diffuser or other application to benefit from the scent.

Nowadays, Aromatherapy cosmetic ranges are available for various skin types and conditions. But this practice has become a bone of contention with regulators since fragrance components are regulated under different rules than therapeutic agents.

Antique Perfumery

Ancient Origins of the Uses of Scent

The origins of Aromatherapy date back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and India. Archaeological remains of ancient stills and perfume vials have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the ancient world, fragrances were very important. Long before people had figured out how to capture the ethereal scents of plants, they burnt fragrant resins, roots, and seeds to perfume themselves or to make fragrant offerings to the Gods. The word ‘perfume’ literally means ‘through the smoke’.

It was believed that the Gods derive their nourishment from the scents that were sent to heaven in the form of incense. To burn incense was to honor the Gods and to invite their benevolence and protection. To neglect the ritual of incense burning meant the abandonment of the Gods.

When essential oils were discovered, they were at first primarily used as perfume. Good scents delight the Gods. But just where and who first discovered the art of perfumery is lost in history. There are references to perfumes in the Bible, but they are not the oldest by any means. There are also Babylonian and Sanskrit references, but the most ancient actual archeological evidence has been unearthed in Cyprus at a site that dates back to the Bronze Age. The huge site, that covers about 4000m2 indicates that perfumery was practiced here at an industrial scale.

The Egyptians were also masters of the art and scent was part of every aspect of their culture. (Some claim that this was merely to cover up the stench of rotting food or feces and that strong scents were used to cover up the stench. However, this may say more about our modern prejudice, and may not necessarily fit the ancient reality. It would fit the image of life in Medieval Europe, though.)

In Egypt, fragrant roots, barks, berries, and resins played an important role in their cult of the dead. Huge amounts of these special and precious substances were used to embalm the bodies of the departed royals so they would be well received by the Gods. Perfume vials were even placed with the bodies as funeral gifts.

 

How Essential Oils are produced

Essential oils are very volatile. They can evaporate at room temperature. Some have a very low ‘flashpoint’, which means that they must be extracted very carefully so as not to lose some of their complex aromas, or causing an explosion.

Essential oils are soluble in both fatty oils and in alcohol. they are usually captured by steam distillation. But some can also be cold-pressed.

Although essential oils are ubiquitous and occur practically in all plants and plant parts, the actual quantities they produce tend to be minuscule. Thus, vast amounts of plant materials are required to produce even small amounts of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely highly concentrated and their power should never be underestimated.

Distilling Essential Oil

Extraction methods

Enfleurage

This is the oldest and simplest, but also the least efficient method of extraction. This method is particularly suitable for the fragile flower petals. In this method, the plant materials are macerated in a scentless fatty solvent base. It can be done as a cold or hot process. Heat facilitates the release of the essential oils, but it can also easily destroy them. In this process, a large glass surface is covered with a blend of the solid vegetable fat that has been mixed with the plant material. After three days the spent plant parts are removed and fresh material is added and macerated for another 3 days. The saturated fat is now called a ‘pomade’. To extract the essential oil the fat is ‘washed out’ with alcohol, which is then evaporated in the next step, leaving a pure essential oil behind. Some fragrant parts remain fixed within the solid fat residue which is sometimes used in soap making.

Distillation

This is by far the most common process of essential oil extraction. There are several different methods, although all of them basically involve heat and water. The more elaborate process is done by heating water and passing it as steam through a vessel that contains the plant materials. The steam causes the oil glands to burst and carries the volatile substance with it. A cooling coil is attached to the other end of the vessel, which causes the steam to condense and drip down into a collection vessel. The essential oil and the water separate and the oil, which has a lower density than water, floats on top and can be siphoned off.

The old alchemists used a similar but simpler method. They placed plant materials and water in the same vessel, which was then heated so that the oils would be released into the water. As the water heats up and turns into steam it is captured by the cooling tube, where it condenses and separates as in the example above. This is the oldest method of extraction and some sophisticated versions are still widely used.

The problem with this method is that the heat may be too intense, thus destroying some of the more fragile components of the essential oil, or worse, the kettle can run dry, which would burn the herbs. In the worst case, the still can crack or the resulting oil will smell burnt.

Flowers are almost invariably too delicate to be subjected to this process, as it destroys many of their aromatic components. Sophisticated technological advances have made it possible to distill at very low temperatures, repeating the process several times – a time-consuming process, which makes it expensive.

A byproduct of steam distillation is the so-called hydrosol (flower water): the distilled water, which retains some of the fragrance, is often used in cosmetics.

Solvent Extraction

Some essential oil components are extremely fragile, which makes it very difficult to extract them by distillation. In such cases, a solvent such as hexane is used. The hexane dissolves the essential oils as well as other extractable substances (e.g.wax and pigments). This solution is then filtered and subjected to low-pressure distillation, which produces a highly fragrant, waxy substance known as a ‘concrete’. The hexane has thus been ‘cleaned’ and can be used again.

In a further extraction process, this time using heat and ethanol, the concrete is broken down. The essential oil combines with the alcohol, leaving the wax behind. However, the resulting mixture still contains some waxy parts and other impurities and must be further purified and separated. It is a lengthy process involving freezing and agitating the mixture, which promotes the precipitation of the wax particles. The resulting oil is called an ‘absolute’. Most flower oils are produced by this process and are available as absolutes. But Aromatherapists don’t like working with them as they still contain some solvent particles and impurities. Perfumers are less fussy. They work with alcoholic extracts all the time.

CO2 Extraction

This is a newer method of extraction and much ‘cleaner’ than solvent extraction. CO2 is gaseous at normal pressure, but at high pressure, it transforms into a liquid. In this liquid state, it can be used to extract volatile oils. When the CO2 is depressurized, it reverts to its gaseous state, leaving no trace behind in the essential oil. This process has made it possible to extract oils from plants that previously had never been distilled. It is no possible to extract essential oils from calendula, coffee, or even rosehip seeds, to name but a few. CO2 extracts are more complex as it allows for more of the fragrant components of a given plant to be extracted. Some of the waxes are also extracted, often producing a rather pasty substance.

Potentially this is the cleanest method of extraction, although in some instances the plant material is first subjected to hexane extraction to produce a concrete, which is then processed using the CO2 extraction method. This method is often used in floral CO2 extracts, such as Rose or Jasmine. The equipment needed is also quite expensive, which is reflected in the price CO2 extracted oils.

Cold-Pressed Oils

This process can only be used for plants that literally ooze with essential oils, such as citrus fruits. Their peel is so densely covered with oil glands that mere pressure is sufficient to extract them. In this process, the peels of the citrus fruit, (e.g. orange, bitter orange, lemon, lime, mandarin, tangerine, and grapefruit) are chopped into small pieces and subjected to pressure, while simultaneously being cooled. (Intense pressure produces too much heat, which would destroy the oils). The resulting liquid is a somewhat watery essential oil. This hydrous component is the reason why cold expressed citrus oils don’t keep as long as other oils.

Essential Oil Diffuser

Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils are used in a myriad of household products: as a flavoring in the food industry, and fragrance for cleaning materials, soaps, detergents, and cosmetics. At the higher end of the market, they are the foundation of perfumery. Unfortunately, many natural oils are replaced by synthetics – which are supposed to be aroma identical, but of course, are not. There is a chemical reason for this that is too complex to explain here. Suffice to say that man has just not yet been able to reproduce nature’s tricks. Although chemicals can be produced with much greater consistency than pure essential oils, they lack the complexities and depths of their natural counterparts.

The specific qualities of the oil vary depending on the growing conditions of the plants that are used, harvesting times, and the weather conditions that a particular batch has been exposed to – much like good wine, essential oils have a ‘vintage’. No two oils will ever smell the same.

Safety

Despite their widespread use, there are a number of safety concerns. Essential oils are very highly potent and some of their components may be carcinogenic, phototoxic, photosensitizing, or allergenic. Currently, there is a raging conundrum over ‘safe levels’ of certain chemical components within various products as well as over particular oils themselves.

This hysteria is due to the fact that scientists have a tendency to regard the action of component parts as equal to the sum total of all parts. In other words, it is assumed that if an oil contains a certain compound, say a ketone, which is lipolytic, mucolytic, and sedative, the oil that contains ketone as a component will also have these characteristics. But in real life, the sum total of the ‘component parts’ creates a unique synergy, which may or may not actually produces any of these effects. As essential oils are extremely complex compounds, containing both known and unknown components, it is impossible to judge their effects and safety from an analysis of its known parts alone. Another problem is the fact that essential oils are tested on animals with the assumption that the metabolism of rats and humans are sufficiently similar to draw parallel conclusions. While that is sometimes true, it is not always the case and some oils that may be toxic to rats can be perfectly safe for humans, or vice versa.

Certain precautions should always be taken:

  • Use oils only in dilution, and, if you are unfamiliar with a particular oil and don’t have any experience with its effects on you (everybody reacts differently), use the skin patch test: dilute the essential oil in base oil and apply to a small area of the inner arm. Wait at least 6 hours to observe your skin reactions. If you notice any adverse signs (e. g. itching, redness, rash), do not use the oil.
  • Some people may even be sensitive to diffused oils. If you notice any ill effects, e.g. difficulties in breathing, headaches, itching, etc. do not use the oil in an infuser either.
  • Remember that a little goes a long way. Even just one drop of essential oil can contain the equivalent power of a kilo of its source plant.
  • People who use essential oils professionally, e.g. perfumers or aromatherapists, or people who make their own cosmetic products should be especially careful:
  • Keep essential oils well away from children or animals
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Wear goggles (to safeguard against splashing)
  • Don’t handle essential oils in the presence of naked flames,
  • Before heating them to any degree take note of their flashpoint.
  • Certain oils must be avoided during pregnancy and while nursing or if suffering from certain medical conditions (e.g. hypertension)
  • Anybody who wishes to use essential oils for medical reasons should consult with a qualified aromatherapist.
Plant Profile: St. John’s Wort

Plant Profile: St. John’s Wort

Hypericum perforatum (Clusiaceae)

St John’s Wort is the kind of herb that gladdens the heart just by looking at it. Many magical and medicinal properties have been ascribed to it and even its name alludes to certain divine connotations: it was named in honor of St. John, the Baptist, who’s saints day is on June 23rd. He presides over the Christianised version of the Midsummer Feast, the most important feast day of the ancient pastoral calendar. Yet, it is often considered a noxious weed, particularly in agricultural circles. Let’s take a closer look.

Description:

St. John’s Wort is a perennial herbaceous plant that can reach a height of up to 2ft. The stem bears two raised lines along their length and branches in the upper parts. The opposite, sessile leaves are ovate to linear and are covered with numerous translucent dots where its essential oil is stored. The margins are entire and show tiny black dots around the edges, the oil glands that produce the red colored oil. The five-petaled, yellow flowers look like little stars or suns. They burst out in clusters that flower from June to September. The tiny seeds are borne in capsules. The taste is aromatic, bitter, balsamic. The flower-bud, when pressed stains red. This is a good way to verify its identity.

Habitat:

St. John’s Wort grows throughout central Europe and the British Isles. Its habitats are verges, meadows, hedgerows, wood clearings, and waste places. It has become naturalized in many parts of the US, where it is regarded as a noxious weed.

HISTORY

The Doctrine of signatures assigns this herb to the Sun, not only because its flowers look so sunny, but also because its flowering-  and gathering season coincides with the zenith of the Sun at Midsummer. At this time its potency is at its peak. The reddish oil has been associated with blood, the sacred juice of life. Saint John’s Wort has long been revered as a magical herb that was said to ward off all kinds of witches and devils and was even often offered as a Midsummer sacrifice to ensure the continuity of life.

Some sprigs were cast on the solstice bonfires, others were blessed and hung above the doors, and into the rafters of stables and barns. This custom was believed to offer protection against the hazards of the burning power of the sun: fires, lightning, and droughts, and to ward off witches and demons.

St John’s Wort enjoyed its greatest glory during the Middle Ages when it was known as ‘Fuga Daemonium’ and it was deemed a protective force against all types of evil.

All efforts of the Church to demonize the herb had failed and so it was absorbed into Christian mythology and given to St. John, the Baptist, who’s Saints Day falls on June 24th, right at the height of the herb’s flowering time. The red oil was said to be a reminder of the Saints martyrdom.

Many of the old Pagan traditions were absorbed into the new faith but reinterpreted to fit its own mythology: It was probably the only herb to have been used in the Witch trials as a means of identifying witches, using talismanic magic:

The formula:

SATOR

AREPO

TENET

OPERA

ROTAS

was written on a piece of paper and placed on a piece of leather along with some St. John’s Wort that had been gathered during the first quarter of the moon. This talisman was supposed to reveal the true identity of a witch since no witch could disguise her identity in the presence of such a forthright and radiant herb. It had the power to banish all evil powers  (Just how it did so is not clear).

Today, St. John’s Wort’s magical associations have largely been forgotten. But it continues to play an important role in medical herbalism, especially as a natural anti-depressant. But not all consider it benevolent. In the US, it is considered a noxious weed that is dangerous to cattle. The allegations are that its photosensitizing properties are hazardous to humans and cattle alike.  

St. Johns Wort does have photosensitizing properties. It is most likely to harm grazing animals that may consume great quantities of it while being exposed to intense heat without access to sheltering shade. This problem can be particularly severe in the overgrazed southwestern parts of the US. Internal use of St. Johns Wort herb (rather than potentized pills) rarely poses this threat to humans, (although it is conceivable). It is therefore recommended to avoid St. John’s Wort if one spends a lot of time in the sun or in the solarium.

Caution is also advised when using it in the treatment of depression. St. John’s Wort affects the serum-levels of the Neurotransmitter Serotonin, which may produce negative effects when it is used in conjunction with other anti-depressant drugs that also impact the metabolism of neurotransmitters. Finally, St John’s Wort is a powerful liver cleanser. It cleanses the liver eliminates all kinds of toxins – including pharmaceutical drugs and birth control pills, rendering them useless. Thus it is always advised to consult with a qualified and knowledgeable practitioner who can advise you on any drug interactions or other ill-effects, before attempting to use St. John’s Wort medicinally.

Medicinal Uses

PARTS USED: Aerial parts, collect when in flower, for the oil usually only the flowering tops are used

CONSTITUENTS: Essential oil – caryophyllene, methyl-2-octane, n-nonane, n-octanal, n-decanal, a-and b pinene, traces of limonene and myrcene, hypericin (photosensitizing), hyperforin, Glycosides (rutin), tannin, resin, pectin

ACTIONS: Antidepressant, sedative, nervine, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, astringent, vulnerary, diuretic

MEDICINAL USES:

Internal Use:

St. John’s Wort is a tonic for the whole body:  a gentle cleansing remedy that improves overall function and tones the vital organ systems. It improves and regulates the metabolism and tones the stomach, liver, and kidneys, thus helping the body to clear out toxins. Internally, a small amount of the oil or better still, the expressed juice, taken on an empty stomach has been used for treating stomach ulcers and gastritis. Freshly pressed St. John’s Wort juice also has a history of use as an astringent to stop internal bleeding, spitting of blood, and (bloody) diarrhea.

St John’s Wort is also an excellent nervine. Its calming and sedative properties soothe the nerves and alleviate headaches and migraines. It can also be used to treat anxiety, melancholy, and irritability, especially during menopause, or PMT. Old herbals also recommend it for ‘shaking and twitching’ (Parkinson? Epilepsy?). It is considered a specific for curing bedwetting in children, especially when this is due to anxiety. For this purpose, 1 tablespoon of the infusion, given at bedtime, is said to suffice.  As a diuretic, St. John’s Wort assists the kidneys to flush waste materials and toxins from the body. The tea is effective for indigestion, stomach catarrh, and as a vermifuge. For therapeutic purposes, it is best to use the fresh herb or tincture, as the dried herb has lost much of its potency.

External Use:

In the past, the external use of St. Johns Wort was much more common. It was cherished as an excellent wound healer that could cleanse the wound and ‘knit the skin together’. It was not only applied to wounds and cuts but also to bruises, varicose veins, and burns. For this purpose, the expressed juice, or a compress made from the fresh bruised herb was used. Modern herbalists tend to prefer a diluted tincture. Tabernaemontana reports that the powdered dried herb can be strewn directly into ‘foul’ wounds to clean and heal them. In his days, midwives also used the herb as a fumigant, to help women who encountered severe problems with their pregnancies or during childbirth.

St. John’s Wort Oil

Traditionally, the flowers were steeped in Poppy seed oil to produce a bright red oil. However, since Poppy Seed oil has become very hard to find, Olive oil can be substituted. After gathering the fresh tops, spread them out on a baking sheet and let them wilt for a few days. This will evaporate most of their water content. Fill a jar with the wilted flowering tops and cover with oil. Macerate for 4 weeks in full sun. Strain the oil, repeat the process using the same oil but adding fresh flowers. This oil is used for treating sunburn, other mild burns, neuralgia, sciatica, and rheumatic pain, as well as sprains and strains, cuts, wounds, as well as muscle aches and nerve pains. It is also said to reduce scarring. Tabernaemontana mentions an elaborate recipe for a compound oil, which, among other things, includes various gums and resins, such as frankincense, myrrh, mastic and other herbs, including Plantain leaves, Yarrow and Tormentil, which he claims, will be a superior oil, effective for treating just about any kind wound.

CAUTION:

Since St. John’s Wort contains the photosensitizing agent hypericin, avoid direct sunlight after either internal and external use of St. John’s Wort. If you are taking pharmaceutical drugs, especially anti-depressants, consult with a knowledgable doctor regarding the possibility of negative drug interactions. The efficacy of birth control pills can not be taken for granted if St. John’s Wort is used orally at the same time.

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

At Midsummer, the life-giving power of the Sun has reached its climax. We celebrate the longest day of the year! In pre-Christian tradition, it is said, that during the 12 days of Midsummer and the 12 days of Christmas the veils between the world are thinnest. At this time spirit beings can easily cross the threshold that separates our worlds. Likewise, those who are particularly perceptive to the ‘otherworldly vibes’ can receive magical gifts, or catch a glimpse of the spirit folk. It is a time of celebration, but also for making offerings to the Gods, to ask for protection of the harvest, and to receive blessings. The wisdom-keepers would use it for scrying, to determine the signs of the times. But for most people it was a festive time, celebrated with gatherings around huge bonfires fires. Dancing, feasting, and merry-making were the order of the day – the Sun-God and the Earth-Goddess were celebrating their wedding day and consummate their love. The people joyously join their celebration and thus ensure fertility and abundance for all.

At Midsummer, Bel, the young Sun-God has reached his climax and exhausted his power. Lugh takes over the reign. We are at the turning point of the year and about to begin our long journey of descent through the dark half of the year.

This is a good time to cherish the gifts of nature, to count our blessings, and to give thanks for all that we have. It is a time to share our blessings and to join in the spirit of celebration with friends and kin.

For herbalists, it is the prime time for gathering healing herbs. This is also a good time to seek council from the spirit world or to embark on a vision quest.

Plant Profile: Medicinal Uses of Rose

Plant Profile: Medicinal Uses of Rose

Medicinal uses

Parts used:

Petals, essential oil, fruit

Harvest:

Petals: Early morning, before the sun reaches the zenith, but after the dew has dried
Rose hips: After the first frost.

Constituents and Actions:

Petals:

The petals are the source of the essential oil, which gives the rose its characteristic scent. But, the amount of essential oil they contain is tiny. Extracting the EO by distillation requires 5000kg of rose petals to yield 1kg of the precious oil. To put that into perspective, it requires approximately a bathtub full of petals to yield 1ml of the oil. The concentration of essential oil actually fluctuates throughout the day and is at its peak in the early hours of the morning, before the sun has reached its zenith. Flower pickers work from dawn to midmorning to pick the flower heads.

Rose Absolute is obtained by solvent extraction which is more efficient. It yields 10 times as much essential oil and also preserves some of the more fragile compounds. However – in Aromatherapy Absolutes are often avoided as they can contain residues of the hexane solvent. 

Rose Oil

Rose essential oil consists of a highly complex combination of more than 300 different compounds. Chemists have not been able to imitate most of them in the laboratory. Among them are: citronellol, geraniol, nerol, linalool, phenyl ethyl alcohol, farnesol, stearoptene, and many other trace constituents

Each species used for oil production has a different chemical profile and thus, a different scent. Moroccan Rose Oil (Rosa centifolia) is rich in Phenylethanol (63%) but contains less Citronellol (10-15%), Geraniol, and Nerol (8%).

The Bulgarian type (Rosa damascena) is naturally rich in Citronellol (35-55%), Geraniol, and Nerol (40%) but has only 2% Phenylethanol. Although traditionally Rosa gallica was used for medicinal purposes, today it is very difficult to verify the exact species of petals one might find on the market, as there is much adulteration going on. Rose petals used for medicinal purposes should be deep crimson in color and have a strongly aromatic scent.

Rosehips:

Rosehips are very rich in vitamins and minerals. Their vitamin C content surpasses that of oranges or kiwis. For many years they were ‘official’ in the pharmacopeias but nowadays they have been demoted to the status of a mere ‘flavoring agent’. Rose hips are a common ingredient of fruity tea blends. The seeds yield both, cold-pressed essential fatty acids and essential oil, which is obtained by CO2 extractions

The cold-pressed oil contains gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA), which is highly beneficial for the skin as it stabilizes the barrier function, thus reducing the loss of moisture. GLA is also a hormonal precursor and used to alleviate symptoms related to decreased estrogen levels. The oil is not used internally but is very valuable as an ingredient of therapeutic cosmetic products. GLA’s help to tone skin that is dry, inflamed, and tired from excessive UV radiation. Unfortunately, the seeds are very hard, and pressing oil from them at home is not feasible.

Medicinal uses

The following information is largely historical as neither rosehips nor rose petals are used medicinally today.

Ancient herbalists observed the plants they used very closely. Tabernaemontana describes in great detail the different qualities of various types of roses. He notes that the Apothecary’s Rose is astringent and slightly bitter, not as noble as some of the other types. Fresh rose petals are more bitter than dried ones, which tend to be more astringent. He recommends them mostly for mild diarrhea.

Culpeper also recommends them for their astringency:

The Decoction of Red Roses made with Wine and used, is very good for the Headache, and pains in the Eyes, Ears, Throat, and Gums, as also for the Fundament, the lower Bowels, and the Matrix, being bathed, or put into them. The same Decoction with the Roses remaining in it is profitably applyed to the Region of the Heart to eas the Inflamation therin; as also St. Anthonies fire, and other Diseases of the Stomach. Being dried and beaten to Pouder, and taken in steeled Wine or Water, it helpeth to stay Womens Courses. The yellow threds in the middle of the red Roses (which are erroniously called the Rose Seeds) being poudered and drunk in the distilled water of Quinces, stayeth the overflowing of Womens Courses, and doth wonderfully stay the Defluxions of Rhewm upon the Gums and Teeth, preserving them from corruption, and fastning them if they be loose, being washed and gargled therewith, and some Vinegar of Squils added thereto.

Rose petals have been used to stop bleeding and to inhibit unnatural fluxes. The tea or decoction has been used to treat colds, bronchial infections, gastritis, diarrhea, and as a tonic to lift depression and lethargy.

Externally, rose petals been used as an eye-wash to treat eye infections, as a gargle for sore throat, laryngitis, and stomatitis. The decoction can be used to wash minor skin injuries or inflammatory skin conditions. The old herbalists used them to treat ‘the rose’ (Erysipelas). Roses were thought to be ‘cooling’ which made them suitable for treating ‘hot’ inflammatory conditions. 

Rosewater was also popular, and not just as a cosmetic agent. It was also used for treating sore and inflamed eyes and for inflammatory skin conditions.

Today, Rose Essential Oil is the most valuable as a therapeutic agent, particularly for female issues, such as menstrual and menopausal problems. In Aromatherapy, it is indicated for female hormonal problems that have a distinct emotional component. Rose oil is said to ‘open and to balance the heart chakra’ and to gently unclog congested emotional energy that may lie at the root of such ‘female troubles’. Rose can be used to help promote inner peace and self-acceptance. It seems to subtly influence emotional conflicts between giving and taking and can help with deep-rooted sexual repression. Rose oil is said to soothe emotional pain that arises from insecurity and a lack of self-love: jealousy, possessiveness, disappointments, and sadness caused by inappropriate or excessive attachment, fear of letting go, heartache, and depression.

Rosehips:

Rosehip tea is a standard children’s drink, and for good reason: it is refreshing and full of vitamins. Rosehips are especially rich in vitamin C, A, and K. The red pigment is due to lycopene, the same substance that gives tomatoes their color and beneficial properties. Lycopene has been investigated as a cancer-inhibiting substance. Rosehips are a great immune system booster and free radical scavengers. In northern countries, where citrus fruit has only been introduced relatively recently, rosehips once were an extremely important source of vitamin C. All kinds of recipes can still be found in old country herbals and recipe books:  rosehip syrup, rosehip soup, rosehip jelly, rosehip butter, and even rosehip wine have long been popular. However, speedy processing is all-important as an enzyme present in the rosehips quickly initiates a process of deterioration, as soon as the hips are cut. The vitamin C oxidizes and becomes worthless. To prevent this, the hips immediately submerged in hot water, once they have been cut, thereby killing the enzyme.

The most tedious part of processing rosehips is to clean them and to scrape out the fine hairs, which are irritating if ingested. 

Rosehip Seed Oil

Chilean researchers have found Rosehip seed oil to be extremely nutritious and healing for the skin. The oil is very rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially GLA. This oil is obtained from a variety of roses that are native to the Chilean Andes (Rosa moschata and Rosa rubiginosa. Due to their high concentration of essential fatty acids (80%), the seeds yield a light, gently astringent oil with excellent nourishing, moisturizing, and toning qualities. Rosehip oil is not used for culinary purposes, but its oil is excellent for cosmetic uses. It is particularly recommended for facial blends and lotions to nourish tender tissues around the eyes and to maintain skin tone (Anti-aging creams). It is also used in ‘after sun care lotions’, on stretch marks, for seborrheic dermatitis, inflammatory, and aging skin, as well as on scars, wounds, and burns.

Edible uses

There are many ways to use rosehips or rose flowers to make delicious syrups, conserves, jams etc. 

Rosehip Soup

This is a Scandinavian recipe, where berry soups are a normal part of the diet.

  • 100g rose hips
  • 100g honey (or sugar)
  • 50g starch
  • 1 lemon
  • 1l water

Mash the Rosehips in a grinder or food processor and immediately add to the boiling water. Strain through a cheesecloth and add the juice and zest of an organic, untreated lemon. Dissolve the starch with a little water and stir into the liquid. Bring to the boil while stirring continuously until it thickens slightly. Other spices may be added, e.g. vanilla, cinnamon, or clove.

Rose Petal Syrup

This syrup can produce widely varying flavors depending on which kind of rose you use. I prefer the less perfumed ones, like ordinary Dog Rose. Others prefer the strong flavor of R.gallica.

  • 30g Rose petals (R.canina)
  • 700g sugar
  • 1l water

Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Pour over the Rose petals and return to the heat until it has reached boiling point again. Cover, turn off the heat and allow to macerate for 12h. Finally, strain out the petals and return the liquid to the heat once more. When all the sugar has resolved and the liquid is simmering fill it into sterilized jars.

Face Mask for oily skin

This is a deep cleansing face mask that draws impurities, tightens the pores, and drys oily skin. Should not be applied more than once or twice a week.

  • 1 Tablespoon of Green Clay or Fullers Earth
  • 2-3 Tablespoons of Rosewater
  • ½ teaspoon runny honey
  • 1 drop of Rose Otto
  • 1 drop of Geranium oil

Moisten the clay with the rosewater and honey to make a paste. Add the essential oils. Apply to the face and neck and leave for about 10 minutes. Wash off with plenty of warm water. Dapple skin with rosewater and apply a gentle, soothing oil, such as almond or peach kernel oil.

rose cream

Plant Profile: Rose History (1)

Plant Profile: Rose History (1)

.’“But he that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose.” – Anne Bronte

It is almost superfluous to describe such a well-known and much-loved plant as the rose. Everybody knows and loves the thorny, but beautiful rose, although we are most familiar with the cultivated varieties. They have come to be recognized as an almost universal symbol of love and adoration.

Description:

Wild roses can be found in every hedgerow. But they are a much humbler breed. There are about 150 species of wild roses that mostly occur as shrubs and climbers. They are at home in the northern hemisphere. Wild rose species can be recognized by their fragile flowers consisting of 5, quite large white or pinkish petals that guard a profusion of yellow stamen in their center.

By contrast, cultivated varieties can take on many different flowering patterns and color variations – they come large or small, with packed or single flowers, scented or unscented, and in almost every shade of color from burgundy red (almost black) to pink, yellow and white.

Wild Rose shrubs can grow as low as 80 cm or climb some 30m high, sprawling over other plants and trees. They are prickly fellows and although the thorns of natural varieties tend to be much finer than those of the hybrids, they are no less sharp.

The leaves tend to be pinnate, with stalked, ovate leaflets, and finely toothed margins. The stems and leaves bear thorns.

In autumn, they produce bright red, pear-shaped seed-capsules with a hard, thin, outer skin. Their center is filled with small triangular seeds that are embedded in a cozy nest of scratchy fluff, which children utilize as ‘itching powder’. These fruits are known as ‘rose hips’, famous as a rich source of vitamin C.

Ecology:

Wild roses are not as picky as their cultivated cousins. They grow in open woodland, fields, and heaths, or even on dunes and sandy soil. Their thorny bendy bows provide effective shelter for small animals. It’s a habitat with a built-in security system. The thorns effectively ward off predators and human intruders. They are often planted in the hedgerows and provide winter nourishment for many birds and small animals. They are not so keen on the hard shells, but once the frost has bit the hips the cortex turns soft and more palatable for the little critters. Thus, bright red hips can often be seen to adorn otherwise bare hedges, even in the midst of winter. Rose-hips are not a ‘snack-fruit, but the rich content of vitamin C makes them very valuable to humans as well.

Distribution:

Wild roses occur naturally throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, from China to North America. However, Asia boasts the greatest species variety.

 

rose culivarsHistory & Mythology

Roses are most famous as a universal symbol of love. And most of the ancient stories focus on the old cultivated varieties. Rosa gallica, a deep red, fragrant flower, also known as ‘Provins Rose’ has garnered most of the attention. (It has been named after a small town near Paris, France, which was once was a center of Rose cultivation and trade, not to be confused with ‘Provence’, a region in southern France famous for perfumery and vast Lavender fields).

For some reason, the humble rose has long inspired horticultural passions. It has been under cultivation since ancient times (at least since 3000 BC), which makes it extremely difficult to trace the family tree of a specific variety.

Roses were among the first plants (if not THE first plant) that were grown for their beauty’s sake alone, a practice that flourished in Asia and the Middle East long before such a thing had ever been heard of in Europe. A garden surrounded by fragrant roses was the epitome of sanctity – it was seen as an earthly representation of the Garden of Eden itself. Thus, roses adorned the patios and pleasure gardens of palaces, as a floral symbol of female virtue.

In ancient Greece, the Roses was an emblem of the Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. According to some stories, the flower sprang from her tears as they mingled with the blood of her dying lover Adonis. But others have claimed this story for the origin of the Scarlet Pheasant’s Eye, (Adonis annua).  Judging by its ancient associations with various funeral cults, Rose is the more likely candidate.

Rose symbolizes eternal love – beyond the grave. It has long been used to signify the approaching death and a ‘rose garden’ is often regarded as synonymous with the’ final resting place’. This symbolism is echoed in fairy tales, such as the Sleeping Beauty, who is overcome by a ‘magical sleep’ after pricking herself with the spindle. The entire castle and all within it become engulfed in an impenetrable mass of rambling Roses until she is finally brought back to life by the love of her prince.

Ancient myths often mesh the symbolism of life, death, and love – reminding us that they are closely related. The red Rose symbolizes blood, the magical conduit of the life-force itself. In dualistic philosophies, life and death are seen as mutually exclusive opposites rather than different phases of a process that consists of both and is cyclic in nature. Love engenders life and life engenders death. But death is a phase of recomposing, Once rejuvenated the soul returns when love calls.

Since the earliest times, Arab perfumers knew the secrets of this beautiful flower and incorporated its scent into their perfumes and cosmetics. The Damask Rose, a crossing of Rosa gallica with either Rosa phoenicia or Rosa moschata, is the source of Rose Otto, the highly prized ‘perfumer’s gold.

In case you ever wondered why anything to do with roses should be named Otto – the word derives from the original ‘Attar’, which is the western phonetic rendering of the Arab root ‘itr’ – meaning ’essence’. Thus ‘Rose Otto’ means ‘the essence of the rose’. However, these days the term is steam distilled rose oil.

Although it is said that Avicenna invented the art of distillation in the 10th century, remnants of essential oils have even been found in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and in pre-historic alembic stills dating back thousands of years BC.

Perhaps the oldest method of oil extraction was to simply macerate fragrant flowers in a fatty oil base, a simple form of enfleurage. Another story claims that rose oil was discovered accidentally – in a most romantic fashion, of course: the waterways that meandered through the palace gardens had been filled with rose petals in preparation of a royal wedding. Engulfed by the heavenly scent, the couple floated through this sea of roses in their barge, when suddenly they noticed a layer of oil on the water – the heat of the midday sun had extracted the oils naturally and thus the essential oil of rose was discovered.

 rose garden

The Ladies in those ancient days were crazy for the heady, warm, sweetly-spiced scent of Roses. Then as now, this sensual aroma is thought to inspire love, a power that even Cleopatra had no shame to exploit as a means of seducing Mark Antony. She filled her bedroom with a carpet of rose petals 2 ft deep and Mark Antony succumbed.

During their most decadent era, the Romans were famous for their lavish (some would say ‘wasteful’) use of rose petals. They used the petals like confetti to shower returning warriors, they poured them over banquets to the point of almost suffocating their guests, and covered floors and beds with the fragrant petals. Perhaps this was the origin of ‘strewing herbs’. They also worked them into a myriad of medicinal concoctions, cosmetic applications, and even culinary treats. Roses had become so important to them that they ripped out the fruit orchards to make way for rose cultivation.

One of the oldest cultivars or rose is R. gallica – the apothecary’s rose. This variety is highly fragrant but only has one flowering season. It seems most likely that the Romans first introduced this Rose to northern Europe, but it may have been lost and forgotten again until the crusaders brought it home with them during the 10th century, as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Monks began to care for them in their monastery gardens, tending to them with devotion. They tried hard to give this most sensuous of flowers, the emblem of female sexuality and love, a chaste Christian image. They presented it as a symbol of pure love, embodied by the Virgin Mary. But the Rose never lost its associations with romantic, and carnal love. Sales figures on St. Valentine’s Day prove the point.

By the 15th century, the rose had turned into a dynastic royal symbol in Britain. That association is commemorated in the tales of the power struggle between two royal houses. Their conflict became known as ‘the War of the Roses’. The house of Lancaster was represented by a red rose (Rosa gallica?),  while the house of York had adopted the white rose (Rosa alba?). After many battles, peace was eventually returned to the land when the two families were joined by the marriage of Henry VII (house of Lancaster) and Elizabeth (house of York),. The joining of their roses begat the Tudor Rose, which has become emblematic as the ‘Rose of Britain’. However, this Rose is an idealized symbol and remains a horticultural fantasy. Although scores of rose breeders have attempted to create a rose that would bear both red and white petals, none have so far succeeded.

At one stage, there was such a fascination with all things ‘rose and beautiful’, it was only natural that the apothecaries of the day developed a Rose cult of their own. They invented an entire pharmacopeia based on the rose. John Gerard, the famous British Herbalist writing in the 15th century devoted some 13 pages to extolling the virtues of roses. Rose petal tea, syrup, jelly and preserve, powders, pomades, pastilles and electuaries, liqueur, tonic wine, and honey, rosewater, and oil were all part of their repertoire. Some of these have survived to this day, although generally roses are no longer used medicinally. However, they do still feature as flavoring agents to sweeten medicines, or as a therapeutic ingredient in manifold cosmetics.

Folk-medicine utilized roses ‘according to ‘to the doctrine  ‘like cures like’, to stay the flow of blood and to soothe inflammation and burns.

Read more about the medicinal uses of Roses next week

Foraging Wild Strawberries

Foraging Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

I adore wild strawberries! As far as I am concerned they are the ULTIMATE wild food. I love bilberries too, or raspberries, or blackberries, for that matter, but nothing on this earth beats wild strawberries. When their season comes, I eagerly check all my favorite gathering grounds to make sure they are progressing nicely. I try to restrain myself, but inevitably I end up picking some prematurely, not half the delight as the fully ripened berries – so I leave them be and just keep coming back to see how they are progressing. Happily, wild strawberry is one of those plants whose season is quite prolonged. Depending on factors such as exposure to sunlight and altitude it is possible to harvest them over a period of a couple of months. Of course, competition from birds and slugs can be tough.

It is not just the flavor I love about these precious little berries – it’s everything: The innocent appearance of their dainty little flowers would never lead one to suspect the scrumptious surprise their cute little berries will yield. Some foragers find picking them a tedious task – this may be true, but the effort is so richly rewarded. Unfortunately, I rarely manage to gather enough to take home for later. Most of them go straight from the plant to the gullet, without much further ado. I just can’t help myself. I have convinced myself that they don’t last very well and that even in the short space of time it would take to get them home they would lose too much of their deliciousness. Best to just eat them on the spot. This is the true and honest reason why I can’t give any recipes that I have actually tried and tested myself. But I am quoting other sources who evidently have a larger patch closer to home, or are simply more disciplined. My personal recommendation would always be to eat them on the spot whenever you can and don’t tell anybody.

Medicinal properties

Dried strawberry leaves make a very good breakfast tea. The fruit are cooling and refreshing and are very useful for cooling feverish conditions. According to Linnaeus, they are also useful in the treatment of rheumatic gout. Particularly the leaves are highly effective in washing out uric acid crystals.

These days the plant is largely ignored in medical herbalism. The little berries are simply appreciated for their taste. But Hildegard von Bingen never liked the plant:

‘The herb on which wild strawberries grow is more warm than cold. This herb brings mucus to the person who eats it and is not as beneficial as a medicine. Indeed, the berries themselves make the mucus in the person who eats them. They are not good for a healthy or sick person to eat because they grow near the earth and because they also grow in putrid air.’

Respectfully, Frau von Bingen, I most profoundly disagree!

Mrs. Grieves has a greater appreciation, although she found it a bother to gather the little berries. She mentions an interesting cosmetic use of strawberries:

How to remove stains from teeth.

‘If the juice is allowed to stay on for about five minutes and the teeth are then cleansed with warm water to which a pinch of bicarbonate of soda has been added.’

Wild strawberries are also said to be effective in removing plaque and tartar from teeth.

Recipe

Mrs. Grieves also gives an old, somewhat elaborate recipe, which someone here might like to try:

‘Gather strawberry leaves on Lamas Eve (1 Aug) press them in the distillery until the aromatic perfume thereof becomes sensible. Take a fat turkey and pluck him, and baste him, then enfold him carefully in the strawberry leaves. Then boil him in water from the well, and add rosemary, velvet flower (?), lavender, thistles, stinging nettles, and other sweet-smelling herbs. Add also a pint of canary wine, and half a pound of butter and one of ginger passed through the sieve. Sieve with plums and stewed raisins and a little salt. Cover him with a silver dish cover.’

CAUTION: People prone to allergies should avoid strawberries.

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

All about the Elder-tree – its myths, magic, and medicine

The Elder tree – medicine cabinet of the country people

This much loved, bushy tree is a common sight throughout Britain (especially in southern England) as well as in most parts of central and southern Europe. Its multiple stems branch frequently, giving it a somewhat sprawling appearance. The light grey bark is fissured and covered with many lenticels (breathing pores). The branches are bendy and contain a core of very light, almost cork-like pith, which can easily be removed. Generations of children have taken advantage of this property, making pipes and pop-guns from hollowed-out twigs. The pinnate leaves have opposite, ovate leaflets with serrated margins and one larger terminal leaflet. The flowers appear in May, forming big umbel-shaped bunches of tiny 5-petaled, cream-colored star-shaped flowers. They exude a heavy, sweet, slightly intoxicating scent, especially at dusk. By the end of the summer they develop into drooping bunches of small purple-black berries that are extremely popular with the birds.

HABITAT:

As a nitrogen loving plant Elder commonly grows near farms and homesteads and thrives near organic waste disposal sites. Elder is often grown as a hedgerow bush, since it takes very fast, bends into shape easily and grows quite profusely, hence its reputation as an ‘instant hedge’. It is not fussy about soil type or pH level and will grow wherever it gets enough light.

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

SYNONYMS:

Pipe tree, Ellhorn, Black Elder, Bore Tree, Bour Tree, Eller, Holler, Hylder, Hylantree, Holunder (German), Sureau (French)

The name ‘Elder’ probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’, for ‘fire’, which starts to make sense when we look at another old name for Elder, ‘Ellhorn’. This name derives from the use of hollowed Elder branches as blow furnaces.

Old names, like Holler, Hylder, Hyllantree, and the German word ‘Holunder’ all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess known in Denmark as ‘Hylde Moer’. In the old days, Elder was considered sacred to this Goddess. Elders were often thought a little spooky. They were believed to be inhabited by a ‘tree dryad’, a kind of tree spirit that represents the soul of the tree, or even an aspect of the Goddess herself. If treated well and respectfully the dryad appeared as a most benevolent spirit that blesses and protects those who care for it. Elders often grow close to human habitations and since they never get struck by lightning, they were thought to protect the homestead against this danger as well. There has long been a widespread taboo against cutting down Elder trees or burning any of their wood. It was thought that the dryad would take revenge and punish the offender with bad luck – or, toothache (Romania). According to ancient folk beliefs, toothaches are seen as ‘supernatural’ and understood as a form of divine punishment. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an Elder tree or to take any part of it, was to use it for medicine, or as a protective charm. To this end, the dryad was asked reverently and asked for permission.

With the head bared and arms folded, the following was recited:

‘Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.’

With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree worship the sacred Elder tree became a witches tree and the old stories were reframed to suit the narrative of the new religion. In Christian mythology, Elder was portrayed as a tree of sorrow, because Judas was said to have hung himself from the branches of an Elder tree and this is supposed to be the reason for its stooped appearance and bendy branches: never again should anyone commit suicide with the help of an Elder tree. And to make matters worse, the cross upon which the Savior was crucified was said to have been fashioned from Elder wood. Such a disgrace the Elder tree could not bear and so it has never again been able to grow upright and tall as other trees do.

Nevertheless, some of the older beliefs have lived on and country folk continued to use Elder for protection of house and barn. They pinned the leaves above the doors to ward off evil witches, daemons, and other nefarious influences.

During the Middle Ages such folk magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious customs evolved as pre-Christian and Christian believes got muddled and merged. But without the proper context of the ancient beliefs they turned into superstitions, For example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed if one was to cut the inner pith of the twigs to make flat disks. These were dipped in lamp oil and set alight to float them in a glass of water. However, the magic trick only worked on Christmas Eve.

Conversely, one could also use the Elder to enlist the devil for one’s own purposes. On the January 6th (Bertha Night), when the devil is said to go about ‘with special virulence’, one could try to obtain some of his ‘Mystic Fernseed’, which was believed transfer the strength of 30 or 40 men, to the keeper, protect furniture from woodworm, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothaches. To obtain this magic substance, one must cast a magic circle for protection, the boundary of which one must not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection was offered by carrying some Elderberries that had been gathered on St. John’s night. But since Elderberries are not ripe at this time of the year this practice appears a little spurious. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with a magic wand made of Elder wood.

Elderflowers

Elderflowers

Note: In the old religion the 12 nights of Christmas were regarded as the turning point of the year when the battle between light and darkness culminates and the Sun is reborn. They correspond to the 12 days of midsummer, at the summer solstice, which in the Christian calendar is celebrated on St John’s Day. These periods were the most important time in the ancient pre-Christian ritual calendar. It was said that at these times the veils between the worlds are thin and spirits come and go easily between the spheres of existence. It is for this reason that superstitious practices involving clairvoyance and fortune-telling were often practiced at these times.

Elder’s reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be ubiquitous and can be found from Russia to Romania and from Sicily to Scotland. A less common custom comes from Serbia, where Elder twigs used during nuptial rites, were believed to bestow good luck to the newly-weds. More recently, in Victorian Britain, it was thought that a couple who shared a glass of Elder-infused Ale would marry within a year.

The ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of life, from the cradle to the grave. However, she was also believed to bestow the power of regeneration and ultimately, of rebirth. Her rhythms were reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon and the cycles of the seasons. As above, so below, as within, so without. Naturally, her rhythms were also applied to the human life-span. Thus, the Goddess of life is also the Goddess of the Underworld, who protects and regenerates the souls of the departed. At funerals, green Elder twigs were often placed into the coffin for protection on the journey to the Otherworld. Christian and pre-Christian beliefs often merged into compounded folk customs with elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for example, Elders were planted on graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. When the tree starts to flower, the soul was believed to be happy.

An interesting custom from Romania illustrates the Goddess’s power of regeneration. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig. The pig’s inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and an Elder-tree was believed to sprout from its grave in the following year. Easter/ Spring Equinox is the time of regeneration, the time when the Earth-Goddess awakens the land and blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (as an emblem of self-sacrificing motherhood and the principle of nurture) and Elder trees were deemed sacred to this ancient Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.

In Denmark, Hylde-Moer, as the Goddess was known, presided over the fairy realm. Fairies are creatures of the Otherworld, but from time to time, especially at the summer solstice, they venture into our world. To watch them on their way to their Midsummer night’s feast, one could hide out in a grove of Elder trees. (Drinking ample quantities of freshly made Elderflower champagne whilst hiding in the bushes might enhance the experience).

Elderberries

The Elder tree has often been described as the medicine chest of the country folk. But even today modern herbalists employ many of its medicinal uses. In 1644 a book dedicated entirely to the virtues of the Elder was translated from Latin to English: on 230 pages the author sings its praises. The book was so popular that it ran through several editions in both its English and Latin versions. According to the author, every single part of the plant was deemed medicinally useful. It even references an edible fungus known as ‘Judas Ear’ (alluding to the above-mentioned myth), which grows on Elder trees. It should come as no surprise that its medicinal powers were said to be effective for quinsy, sore throat, and strangulation (!).

Judas-Ear

Judas-Ear fungus

 

The elder itself was considered a panacea capable to relieve almost any ailment, ‘from toothache to the plague’. It seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that could be produced from its various parts: ‘a rob or syrup, a tincture, a compound mixture, an oil, or ointment, a distillation, and a distilled flower water, a liniment, an extract, a salt, or a conserve, a vinegar, an oxymel, a sugar, a decoction, a bath additive, a cataplasm, and a powder’, made from one, several, or all parts of the plant. However, in the old days, it wasn’t just the biochemical activity that was considered medicinally active. The plant’s subtle energy also played an important role, especially in the many folk healing practices that were based on sympathetic magic.

Rheumatism, for example, could be treated with a charm or amulet that was made by tying several knots into a young Elder-twig. This charm had to be kept close to the body to unfold its power. Elder was also believed to cure warts: the wart was to be rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which was not carelessly discarded, but buried in mud, where it was left to rot. Other, more forms of ‘transfer magic’ were also common. The imagination at the root of such practices was that trees in particular are much stronger and resistant than the feeble human body. They were thought capable of absorbing and thereby to neutralize the evil energies that were thought responsible for the disease. Many trees were used similarly, depending on the symptoms of the disease and the availability of various species of trees.

CONTEMPORARY MEDICINAL USES

Elderflowers and berries are still used modern herbal medicine but since heroic medicine went out of fashion, the use of other parts, such as the leaves or inner bark, has been discontinued.

PARTS USED:

Flowersdried or fresh

Berries: best preserved as cordial, syrup or wine

CAUTION:

The fresh roots of the American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which closely resembles Sambucus nigra, are extremely poisonous and can cause death if ingested.

Native Americans value a close relative of Sambucus nigra known as ‘American Elder’ (Sambucus canadensis), with very similar medicinal properties. Many of its reported uses closely resemble those of S. nigra in the Old World.

elder flower

FLOWERS

HARVEST TIMES: Early summer

CONSTITUENTS: Triterpenes, fixed oil containing free acids, alkenes, flavonoids

ACTIONS: Diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant

INDICATIONS:

Elderflowers have long been used as a treatment for various inflammatory and congestive conditions of the respiratory system, especially when these are accompanied by fever. An infusion is given for cough, colds and flu, asthma, and hay-fever. The diaphoretic action helps to reduce the fever, which makes it useful in the treatment of infectious diseases such as measles, and scarlet fever. Externally, an infusion of Elder-flowers can be added to the bath-water for a wonderfully refreshing effect, to soothe irritable nerves, and to relieve itchy skin. Cooled, the infusion can be used as an eyewash for sore, itchy and inflamed eyes. Earache may be relieved by means of a poultice made from the flowers. For this purpose a small linen bag is filled with the flowers, dipped in hot water, and squeezed to press out any excess liquid before it is applied to the aching ear.

elderberries

BERRIES

HARVEST TIMES: late summer, early autumn

CONSTITUENTS: Viburnic acid, odorous oil, tyrosin, inverted sugar, tannin, vitamin C and P and B2

ACTIONS: Aperient, diuretic, source of nutrients and vitamins

INDICATIONS:

The berries are rich in vitamins and minerals and are best used as a tonic to ward off winter ailments, which boost the immune system. Vitamin B2  in particular is indicated as effective in the treatment of pneumonia. Elderberries are a valuable alterative remedy that can be used to combat rheumatic conditions. They also soothe sore nerves and help to improve poor circulation.

GENERAL USES

Hedging:

Elder is a familiar hedge plant. The bendy branches can easily be trimmed and laid, thus creating effective protection against wind and erosion.  Such a hedge also makes a wonderful wildlife habitat, especially for birds, who love the berries. Country lore testifies to the popularity of Elder as a hedging plant. An old proverb praises its durability:

‘An Elder stake and a blackthorn ‘ether will make a hedge to last forever.’

Tool-making:

Whilst the branches are bendy and flexible, the heartwood and rootstock are extremely strong and have been used for making handles, stakes, fences, combs, and even instruments. According to country lore, a stake of Elder wood driven into the ground will last longer than an iron stake of the same size. ‘The Latin name of the plant, ‘sambuca’ refers not to the high-octane alcoholic drink of the same name (although this too is a product derived from Elder) but to an ancient musical instrument that resembled a harp. It is likely that Elder wood was once used to make these instruments.

Insect and vermin repellent:

Cattle appreciate the presence of Elder in their pasture and seem to instinctively recognize its insect repellent properties. Cows often rub themselves on the stem and branches and stay in its shade to discourage insects. In the past, when fieldwork was still done with the aid of horses, it was a common practice to fixate some Elder leaves to the harness to ward off flies just as fieldworkers fixed the slightly bruised leaves to their hats for the same effect. A decoction of the leaves can be also be used as an insect repellent. The smell of the leaves has been likened to that of mice nests. Mrs. Grieves (A modern herbal) mentions their use for repelling mice and moles.

Young Elder shoots are thought to be effective against blight. A recipe including Elder leaves, iron and copper sulfate, soft soap, nicotine, methylated spirit and slaked lime has been used for this purpose, although organic gardeners just use a decoction made from the young shoots as an insecticide to combat aphids and small caterpillars.

Cosmetics:

In Victorian times, distilled Elderflower water was a highly valued emollient lotion. It was said to cleanse the skin, keeping it young and free of freckles and blemishes. Hard to find, nowadays, but there has been a revival of interest in Elder products and Elderflower water is once again produced commercially.

Dyes:

The bark, leaves, and berries can all be used for dyeing. The bark yields a black dye, a decoction of the leaves with alum produces a green, whilst the berries with alum, dye purple or, if salt is added to the mix, produce a lilac color.

Fodder:

Not all domestic animals are keen on Elder as forage. Sheep and cows don’t seem to mind it, but horses and goats have no taste for it. Sheep suffering from foot-rot are said to deliberately seek out Elder trees for self-medication. Wild birds love the berries, but chickens do not take to them.

Culinary uses:

The best-known culinary uses of Elderflowers and berries are the many delicious drinks that can be made from them. Numerous recipes for country wines, syrups and cordials have never lost their appeal and are still widely used in country areas in Britain and Europe. Such drinks are not simply delicious but are also medicinally valuable.

Elderflower Fritters

The flower heads, dipped in batter and deep-fried, make delicious fritters and can be served with maple syrup and lemon juice.

Hedgerow Jam

The black, fully ripe berries can be made into a delicious hedgerow jam, but the green, unripe berries are poisonous and should be avoided. Even the ripe, fresh berries retain some of this poison, which it is recommended that the berries are not eaten fresh off the bush. They should be heated to 100°C prior to consumption.

elderflower-fritters
The Old Tree and the Carpenter

The Old Tree and the Carpenter

One day, a carpenter and his apprentice were traveling through the countryside. They came upon a beautiful ancient tree standing by an earth altar. The carpenter’s apprentice was admiring the ancient being but the old carpenter exclaimed: look at that useless old tree, it is no good for anything. If one was to cut it down to build a ship with it, the ship would soon sink or if one were to make tools from it they would soon rot, it’s a completely useless old tree.

Later that night the two retired at an inn nearby. During the night the old carpenter had a dream. The old tree appeared to him and spoke: You want to compare me with your domesticated trees, like hawthorn, pear, apple or cherry or whatever else bears fruit for you? No sooner as they produce their crop for you they are abused and violated. You cut their branches and slice their bark. Thus their generosity is their own demise. By merit of their gifts, they endanger their own lives and rarely reach their ripe old age. Such is common practice. Therefore I have long since tried to be as useless as possible. You, mortal! What if I had some use to you – I would never have reached this age and size, I would have been cut down for my wood a long time ago. And besides, you and I are creatures alike, why should one creature pass judgment upon the usefulness of another? What do you, a mere mortal and useless human, know about the ‘useless’ trees?

When the carpenter woke from his dream the next morning he thought deeply about its message. When his apprentice later asked him why this tree, in particular, came to serve at the earth altar the carpenter answered: quiet, now, let’s not speak about it anymore. The tree chose to grow there because otherwise, those who did not know him would have abused him. Had he not grown by the earth altar surely he would have been cut down for his wood and died.

We tend to place more value on the things that can be fashioned from plants than on nature herself, or the plants on which we depend. But, all of nature is sacred and has an innate and inalienable value, which it is not for us to judge. 

 

Burdock – Arctium Lappa

Burdock – Arctium Lappa

Foraging Burdock

Burdock may not be the prettiest herb, but it is certainly one of the most eye-catching: With its huge heart-shaped leaves that form an impressive rosette during the first year and tall stalk that forms in the second year often reaching a height of more than 5 ft tall, it is hard to overlook this plant. Even if you are oblivious to the plant-life around you, if you have a dog, chances are that you have at least made acquaintance with Burdock seeds. The sticky burs cling to fur by little hooks and are quite difficult to brush out.

Velcro – biomimicry at its best

Ingeniously, Burdock’s burs have inspired the invention of Velcro. The sticky tape has been modeled on Burdock’s hooks. This is a fine example of biomimicry. Nature has invented so many incredible forms to serve all sorts of functions. And she solves such tasks often far better than we could invent. 

But this is only one of the amazing properties that this Cinderella plant has to offer. Burdock is rarely welcome in the yard, much less in carefully groomed gardens, despite the fact that bees and butterflies just love it for its generous supply of nectar.

If you keep your eyes open in early spring you will notice Burdock’s leaves first. The huge rosette of heart-shaped, somewhat wavy leaves, sprouts as an expansive rosette that somewhat resemble rhubarb leaves, but grow much more closely to the ground. Burdock is biennial, which means that it does not send up its flowering shoot until the second year.

When to gather Burdock

Foragers diverge in their opinions as to the best time to collect Burdock. Roots are usually collected either in spring or in the autumn. The autumn roots are best as ‘foraged food’. In spring, the vital power has risen into the stalk, leaving the root a bit depleted. However, the actual medicinal compounds are more concentrated in the roots at that time. For foragers, autumn gathered roots and spring /early summer gathered leaf- and flower-bearing stalks are best. Don’t leave it too late lest they get tough.

The leaf stalks can get quite stringy. It is best to peel and cut them and to pull the strings out. They are best in soups, casseroles or pies and give them a flavor that is reminiscent of artichoke when cooked.

The leaves are not used for food. They tend to be coarse, bitter and tough – not exactly enjoyable. The only exceptions are the very young fresh shoots, which appear early in spring. The roots, on the other hand, are delectable, although it requires a determined effort to get them out of the ground. The long taproot needs to be lifted with a digging fork. Once brought to the surface they must be thoroughly cleaned and peeled to cut away the tough, outer skin. The white root flesh itself has a slightly sweetish, nutty flavor that is sometimes compared to Jerusalem Artichokes. The roots are excellent when thinly sliced or pureed. They can be added to stir-fry vegetables or to stews and soups.

Burdock as a healing food

Burdock, like so many of our wild weeds, offers both nutritional and medicinal benefits.

In Japan, Burdock is cultivated and sold as ‘Gobo’ on the market. One can sample it at Japanese Restaurants where it can sometimes be found as a component of sushi rolls or as a side dish.

As a healing food, the root is particularly recommended for those with metabolic syndrome or for people who suffer from diabetes. Burdock root is rich in inulin, a dietary fiber that is not broken down by the small intestines but nourishes beneficial bacteria that populate the colon. Inulin thus acts as a pre-biotic that helps to normalize the intestinal flora and to balance the blood sugar levels.

Burdock as an aphrodisiac

Perhaps the Japanese like it so much because they are in on its secret. Burdock is said to fortify the body, and to give it endurance. This staying power has given it the reputation of having aphrodisiac powers, for which it is highly valued in Japan.

 

Burdock as a tonic energizer

But Burdock does more than just turbo-charging the libido motor. Its overall action can be described as ‘purifying’. It doesn’t so much add extra energy than remove that which blocks its free flow. Burdock stimulates the metabolic rate. It thereby gently, but persistently activates and tones all the organs of elimination, and induces a process of inner cleansing.

Its energizing quality is hard to describe. Perhaps it is best likened to putting a good, sustaining log on the fire, such as oak or apple. A log that burns slowly and steadily and develops an intense, but even heat, as opposed to e.g. pine, which burns in a flash. Burdock’s energy activates all the functions of the vital organs, thus improving, cleansing and toning the entire body. For this purpose, the fresh root is infinitely more powerful than the dried material.

Burdock as a liver tonic and blood cleanser

In medical herbalism, Burdock root is considered a ‘liver herb’. One of the most important jobs that the liver performs is that of detoxing the blood. Burdock is of great aid in this regard. It is often used to help promote proper elimination which clears toxins from the body. Such toxins are often at the root of skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and similar.

Burdock as a wound healer

One of the less well-known powers of Burdock is the fact that it makes an excellent vulnerary. For this purpose, both, the freshly grated roots, or the fresh, mashed leaves can be applied as a poultice to wounds, bruises, and badly healing sores. Simultaneously, an infusion or decoction of the root can be given in order to help the body rid itself of impurities and to facilitate inner cleansing by supporting the liver and the kidneys.  Burdock and Nettle root extracts are made into a hair lotion to prevent the loss of hair.

Burdock’s anti-tumor activity

In the alternative healing community it has long been used for treating cancer.  Various salves and decoctions are on the market, but the best known in this category is a tea known as ‘Essiac’ of which Burdock is a key ingredient.

Recent research has shown that both the seeds and the roots of Burdock have anti-tumor properties. However, Cancer is a serious disease that should be treated by a competent medical professional.

(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5464502/

Burdock hair-tonic

Burdock is said to stimulate hair growth as well as soothe an irritated scalp. One can prepare an easy rinse by making a strong infusion of the bark. Alternatively, the freshly pressed root juice can be blended with oil and applied as a tonic hair pack. But, make sure to lather the hair well before rinsing it all out with water, otherwise, you will end up with an almighty mess.

Burdock with its huge, heart-shaped leaves

Recipes

NOTE: Beware that handling the stalks without gloves can stain the hands. Use gloves for picking and preparing.

Creamy Burdock leaf stalks

The leaf stalks of the first year’s growth make a fine vegetable. Cut off the leaves and chop the stalks into smallish chunks. Steam in a little bit of water with some salt and sugar until tender (no longer than 10 minutes). Make a rue with the cooking water and a little butter and some oatmeal. Add some Crème Fraiche, an egg or a little cheese.

Burdock Bake

The same kind of idea can be modified to make a kind of burdock bake: Prepare some Bulgur wheat and mix with the stir-fried leaf stalks (take care not to overcook the stalks). Make a ‘custard’ with 2 eggs, crème fraîche, a little bit of milk and melting cheese, mix with the Bulgur and burdock and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes. This recipe can be adjusted to taste: add other vegetables, such as onions, sliced carrots and garlic, and season to taste.

Au Gratin

Similarly, Burdock stalks can be prepared ‘au gratin’. Leave out the Bulgur wheat and just layer the pre-cooked stalks. Pour a mixture of seasoned eggs and crème fraîche over the stalks and sprinkle with cheddar cheese or similar. Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes.

The leaves are usually a bit bitter and most people don’t like them as a vegetable. However, the young shoots are edible, especially when mixed with other, mild greens, or added to a cheese omelet. They can also be added to soups.

The roots are hard to dig for, but make an excellent root vegetable, which can be roasted, pan-fried, mashed like mashed potatoes or added to soups. 

Dandelion and Burdock Beer

(from ‘The New Herbal’ by Richard Mabey)

https://amzn.to/37oEdKl (amazon)

Dandelion and Burdock Beer is an old, traditional spring tonic in rural Britain.

Ingredients

  • 1lb young nettles
  • 4oz dandelion leaves
  • 4oz fresh sliced, or 2 oz dried burdock root
  • ½ oz bruised ginger root
  • 2 lemons
  • 1-gallon water
  • 1lb + 4 teaspoons demerara sugar
  • 1 oz cream of tartar
  • Brewing yeast (use amount according to instructions on the package)

  1. Put the nettles, dandelion leaves, burdock, ginger and thinly pared rinds of the lemons into a large pan.
  2. Add the water, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 min.
  3. Put the lemon juice, 1 lb sugar and the cream of tartar into a large container and strain on the liquid from the pan, pressing down well on the nettles and other ingredients.
  4. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
  5. Cool to body temperature.
  6. Sprinkle in the yeast.
  7. Cover the beer and leave to ferment in a warm place for 3 days.
  8. Rack off the beer and bottle it, adding ½ teaspoon demerara sugar per pint.
  9. Leave the bottles undisturbed until the beer is clear – about 1 week.

Pin It on Pinterest