Let Your Foods Be Medicines

Let Your Foods Be Medicines

It is no longer a secret that proper nutrition plays a vital part in maintaining good health. But when Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, first proclaimed ‘Let Your Foods Be Medicines and Your Medicines Be Food’ he wasn’t just talking about nutrition. Instead, he was implying that the distinction between staple foods, vegetables, spices, herbs, and drugs are often rather arbitrary. He knew very well that many common foods have healing properties, yet, are much safer to use than chemically more potent drugs.

Even today, the kitchen cupboard can be a veritable medicine chest. Let’s consider the medicinal properties of some common staple foods and vegetables:

Grains

Although some regard them as the root of all evil and shun them for their ‘fattening’ properties, grains and starches are an important part of a balanced diet. The operative word here is ‘balance’. Too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. Also, not all starches are created equal. Processed carbohydrates really are empty stuffing. White flour products including bread and pasta, polished rice and fried potatoes have little to commend them and contribute almost nothing but calories to the diet. Yet, the same items, less processed, form ‘the staff of life’.

They not only supply energy in the form of complex carbohydrates but also provide a large range of nutrients. They are rich in fiber, too, which is especially important for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fibers, especially the water-soluble kind, eliminate toxins and keep cholesterol levels low. However, they should not dominate the diet. The amount of carbohydrates you need depends on how much physical energy you have to put out on a daily basis. People who live a more or less sedentary lifestyle need far fewer carbs to keep their burner going.

Grains also have medicinal properties that are very versatile. They are not used in herbal medicine today, but rather as home remedies:

Barley

Barley (Hordeum vulgare)

Barley gruel is an excellent nutritional food that is useful for throat and stomach problems. Boiled in milk it promotes lactation. Externally, it can be used as a poultice to treat sprained or stiff muscles, rheumatism, and skin afflictions. Simmered in milk it soothes sores and ulcers. Even Barley beer has its virtues: it stimulates the appetite and increases the secretion of digestive juices. It improves the digestion of fatty foods and eases heartburn. Warm beer acts as a demulcent and diuretic and has been used to alleviate urinary complaints.

Oats

Oats (Avena sativa)

Oats are very nourishing and provide an excellent source of energy for those who are recovering from sickness or are in poor health. Plain oat porridge is one of the best foods for stomach and intestinal problems such as ulcers and inflammation. Oat bran is an excellent source of water soluble fibre that acts as an inner cleanser, adding bulk while binding endotoxins for elimination.

Wheat

Wheat (Triticum sativum)

Wheat is one of the most important staple foods of the Western diet. However, the highly refined and bleached form commonly used for bread and pasta provides almost no nutritional value. Moreover, wheat allergies are becoming increasingly common. Spelt offers a good, less allergenic alternative.

Externally, pure, unadulterated wheat starch has been used as a drying agent. The soothing powder can be applied to weeping skin rashes and inflamed sores (poison ivy!). Those who are allergic to wheat should not use it for external applications either.

Wheatgerm is nutritionally the most valuable part. It is rich in vitamin E as well as other nutrients. It has been used to alleviate debilitating or nervous conditions, circulatory problems, digestive troubles, blood impurities, and skin afflictions.

Wheat bran is used as laxative or diet aid since it creates a sense of satiation. But as wheat bran is not water-soluble it does not bind endotoxins. While it adds bulk, the sharp edges of coarse bran can irritate the intestinal lining. Wheat bran offers little to no nutritional benefit. However, externally it can be used as a bath additive for rheumatic, gout, and certain skin problems (put in a muslin bag or similar if you don’t want your drains to clog up). . Mixed with honey it makes a good face-mask for treat blackheads and skin impurities.

Vegetables

Vegetables are the best source of vitamins, amino acids, minerals and other trace substances that are vital to our health. Vegetables are essential, yet too much of a good thing can be too much, in this case too. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body and can be toxic if they accumulate in excessive amounts. Too much asparagus can damage the kidneys and spinach can draw calcium from teeth and bones. But as vegetables are rarely eaten in really excessive amounts, damage is rare.

Onions

Onion (Allium cepa)

The onion family provides a host of wonderful and medicinally potent vegetables. Even the lowly onion has antiseptic and anti-putrefactive properties. It stimulates circulatory system including the heart, has diaphoretic, diuretic and expectorant properties, and increases mucous secretion.

To make an impromptu cough syrup, simply cut up an onion and sprinkle with brown sugar. Cover the dish and leave overnight. The sugar draws out the onion juice and makes a kind of syrup.

Onion juice stimulates the kidneys and helps to dissolve small kidney stones. However, this should not be tried in cases of kidney inflamed or serious kidney disease, as it can be irritating.

garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is an excellent home remedy. It has antiseptic and antibiotic properties and stimulates the immune system. Garlic is also excellent for keeping the circulatory system healthy as it reduces cholesterol levels, inhibits arteriosclerosis and lowers the blood pressure (vasodilator). It is full of vitamins and healthy nutrients. It can even kill worms (enema). It also stimulates the liver and gallbladder and acts on the metabolism. Cooked in milk it is a powerful expectorant. Garlic juice was once used as a remedy for tuberculosis.

Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus stimulates the kidneys and increases the urinary volume. Asparagus contains a lot of purines though, which can contribute to the formation of uric acid crystals. While this is not normally a problem, people who eat a lot of organ meats may already have elevated levels of purines. In that case, it would be better to not overdo it with the asparagus.

White Cabbage

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capita)

Rich in vitamin C, the lowly cabbage is another wonderful healing plant. Sauerkraut and raw cabbage are great detoxing agents. Fresh cabbage juice, (5x a day for 2 weeks) is an effective remedy for stomach ulcers. Bruised cabbage leaves, applied as a poultice, draws pus and putrid matter from rashes, sores, and boils. Applied to the chest it can be used as a pulmonary plaster for bronchial infections. It can also be applied to engorged breasts. Hot cabbage leaves soothe aching muscle, neuralgia, and rheumatic pain.

Horseraddish

Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana/ Cochlearia armoracia)

Horseradish has a stimulating effect on the circulatory and the digestive systems and boosts the metabolism. It can be used both internally and externally: Applied as a poultice it will act as a rubefacient and soothe aching muscles, gout, rheumatic joints, neuralgic pain, and sciatica. For a more convenient application use the tincture. A dab on the forehead can prevent migraines.

Horseradish mixed with lemon juice can halt an asthma attack – though this remedy is not for the faint of stomach. Added to a pint of ale and sweetened with sugar it makes a powerful diuretic remedy that can be used to treat edema. Steeped in wine and taken in teaspoonful doses it is an anti-catarrhal for the respiratory and digestive system. When using Horseradish internally it is best to start with small quantities. Monitor the effects closely. Too much of it can be rough on the kidneys.

Carrots

Carrot (Daucus carota)

Carrots offer one of the best sources for vitamin A. They are wonderfully vitalizing and boost the immune system. Carrot juice cleanses the intestinal tract and is an excellent remedy for excessive stomach acid and heartburn. It is also good for rheumatism and arthritis and acts positively on sugar metabolism in cases of diabetes. Externally, grated carrots can be applied to bruises, burns, and sores.

Celery

Celery (Apium graveolens)

Celery sticks are an excellent diuretic and are popular as a diet food. The fresh juice stimulates urination, relieves edema, rheumatism, gout and cellulite. It is a good digestive aid, recommended for indigestion, lack of appetite and wind. In Continental Europe it is the root rather than the sticks that is more commonly used in cooking. The water in which celery root has been boiled can be used as a rinse for treating dandruff. The syrup, made by boiling the root juice with sugar, makes an excellent cough remedy. However, avoid celery remedies when in cases of kidney inflammation, since its diuretic action may prove too irritating. The seeds provoke delayed menstruation and should be avoided during pregnancy.

Cucumber

Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)

Cucumber is commonly used in home cosmetics to moisturize dry skin. Used externally, the juice is refreshing, tonic, cleansing, and soothing especially on sunburned, dry, or tired skin.

But Cucumber also has medicinal properties: it regulates hydration, acts as a diuretic, and loosens kidney stones. It is useful in cases of edema and cellulite and stimulates lazy intestines.

Pumpkin

Pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo)

Pumpkin is rich in vitamin A and B. For medicinal purposes it is only used raw. Mashed pumpkin soothes sore feet, inflamed ulcers, sores and varicose veins. It has blood cleansing powers when added raw to a salad, which soothes the symptoms of kidney inflammation. Pumpkin seeds are one of the most effective and non-toxic worming agents. They are also rich in Zinc and as such are particularly beneficial for bladder and prostate problems.

Potatoes

Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and extremely nutritious. A time limited diet, consisting of little more than mashed potatoes (without salt) relieves stomach problems associated with intestinal cramps and constipation. Used externally, raw, mashed potatoes are anti-inflammatory and can be applied to cankerous growths and sores.

Tomatoes

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

Tomatoes stimulate the digestive juices and help to alleviate stomach ulcers and liver complaints. They also have a positive effect on edema, neuritis and circulatory issues, and especially on the peripheral blood vessels. Applied externally, fresh tomato juice applied to wounds can help to prevent infection and relieves inflammation.

Fruit

Delicious and wholesome, but very high in fruit sugar, fruits boost vitality and provide a rich source of nutrients and trace elements.

lemons

Lemon (Citrus medica)

Nothing soothes a cold better than hot lemon with ginger and honey. Lemons are extremely rich in vitamin C and act as a powerful immune system booster. Their diaphoretic action helps to cool a fever. As a gargle, lemon juice is a very useful astringent that can help to soothe a sore throat. Though perhaps not the most pleasant therapy, nose irrigation with diluted lemon juice cures even severe cases of nasal catarrh (e.g. allergies). It also supports the liver (breaks down fats), stimulates digestion and acts as a diuretic to flush out metabolic waste products.

apple

Apple (Fructus malus)

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ Whoever coined the phrase knew what they were talking about. Apples are nutritious and cleansing. They stimulate the circulatory system and metabolism. Apple therapy is indicated for migraines, gout, acidic stomach complaints, constipation, and biliousness, as well as for gout and rheumatism. Apple juice or apple flower tea is beneficial for coughs and colds, hoarseness, bronchial catarrh, and fever.

Apples soothe the nerves. Eaten at bedtime they promote restful sleep.

Apple cider vinegar is a most remarkable remedy for arthritis, gout, sinus catarrh, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic tiredness, and night sweats. Taken regularly diluted with water (sweeten with honey) it is one of the best anti-rheumatism remedies. It is rich in calcium and helps to improve memory and concentration, muscle strength, circulatory problems, badly healing wounds, itchy skin, joint pains, and lack of appetite. Apple wine has been shown to prevent kidney and bladder stones.

Blueberries, Vaccinium myrtillus

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberries are a cleansing and tone the digestive system. The dried berries simmered in wine with Cinnamon and Cloves makes a wonderful, fortifying, and warming remedy for indigestion and other stomach and intestinal troubles. Blueberry wine eliminates endotoxins without disturbing the intestinal flora. (Blueberry wine = blueberries steeped in wine for a period of time, usually 4-6weeks) Fresh blueberry juice can be used as a gargle for throat infections and as a mouthwash for periodontal disease. Externally, an infusion of the leaves is a useful aid for treating the loss of hair. Blueberries have antioxidant properties and help to fight tumors by scavenging free radicals. The concentrated extract can help to increase circulation to the small blood vessels and can help to alleviate the retinal degradation caused by diabetes.

This list is by no means a comprehensive guide and should not replace a visit to the doctor. It is only meant to give a small glimpse into the remedial properties of common foods. When using any plant for medicinal purposes make sure you have familiarized yourself thoroughly with its properties and possible side effects.

Further resources:

The worlds healthiest foods (ext. link)

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: 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

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
Why Hawthorn is your heart’s best friend

Why Hawthorn is your heart’s best friend

Plant Profile: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

When the Hawthorn dapples the hedgerows with its pinkish-white blossom, we know that spring is here to stay. Typically, Hawthorn starts to flower at the end of April or the beginning of May, which is why it is also sometimes known as ‘Mayblossom’ or simply as ‘May’. Linnaeus originally named the species Crateagus oxyacantha, a combination of kratos, meaning ‘hardness’ (of wood), ‘oxus’ which means ‘sharp’ and ‘akantha’ for ‘thorn’. But there is ambiguity over which precise species Linnaeus meant and thus this old name has been rejected. The new name is Crataegus monogyna, which refers to the fact that this particular species only has one seed.

Description

Hawthorn grows as a small, hardy tree that rarely grows to more than 30 ft. It is a member of the rose family, in the extensive genus of Crataegus. Taxonomists still argue over the actual number of species that belong to this genus, but conservative estimates range from about 200 to 300 species. Hawthorns are quite ‘promiscuous’ which results in many cross forms that some botanists consider mere variations, while others deem them separate species.

During the flowering season in late April or early May the small, white five-petaled flowers grow in showy clusters that cover up almost every inch of the tree. The deeply cut, 3-lobed leaves are about 3″ long and appear before the flowers. They are dark green on top and paler bluish-green underneath. In September, an abundance of bright red ‘haws’ glow in the hedges, looking very much like ‘mini rose hips’. Although edible and attracting much wildlife they are not especially palatable to humans.

Habitat and Ecology

The genus is most diverse and widespread throughout North America. But it is well represented in the entire Northern Hemisphere, including all parts of Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and even China. Crataegus monogyna is not native to North America.

Hawthorns are most familiar as hedgerow trees. They are undemanding as far as soil conditions are concerned, but prefer full sun. They may be found in open woodlands, along their edges or, most distinctively, as lone trees on open hillsides.

For wildlife, a hawthorn hedgerow is an ideal habitat: the thick, dense and impenetrable tangle of thorns provides a safe habitat for many small animals and birds.

Crataegus monogyna is not native to North America, but it was introduced there as a hedge plant, in the 1800s. Birds have been instrumental in distributing their seeds far and wide. They seem to prefer these berries to those of the native varieties. The advance of industrial farming in North America has pushed Crataegus into decline. No longer valued as a hedgerow plant bordering fields to protect against soil erosion it is now viewed as problematic and invasive.

Hawthorn berries

History

Hawthorn is so common throughout the country that it hardly needs a description. Unassuming and inconspicuous, its petite and straggly appearance does not really inspire awe. Like an old familiar friend it waves its windswept branches from the top of a hillside or greets us as we pass it on the old familiar track. Yet, there is something quintessentially British about this tree. It is hardly surprising that its ancient roots are deeply entwined with the myths and folklore of our ‘Dreamtime’.

Etymologically, the name at first seems to indicate nothing more than a utilitarian function for which indeed it is still very commonly employed: Hawthorn makes a superb and quickly setting natural defense. A dense thorny Hawthorn thicket is quite impenetrable. Its fast development (appropriately it is also known as Quickset or Quickbeam) aids this purpose, as does the fact that its branches become increasingly dense the more they are cut or eaten.

But in the mindset of the ancients, a hedge was more than just a living fence. A hedge signified the boundary between the known, safe, and civilized world and the wild, mysterious wild yonder. The word ‘hedge’ derives from the old English ‘Haga’ also found in Hagathorn’, which is another name for Hawthorn. Both share the same Germanic root ‘hag’.

Etymology

In old English, a ‘hag’ was not just an old, ugly woman, but is cognate with ‘haegtesse’ – a woman of prophetic powers, and ‘hagzusa’ – spirit beings and ‘hedge riders’. These wood sprites were thought to reside in the ‘between worlds’, ie, between the worlds of everyday reality and ‘the otherworld’. As spirit beings, these sprites could easily traverse the boundaries between the worlds. Likewise, their human counterparts were the healers, seers, and soothsayers who were also thought to be able to travel between these worlds. Thus, Hawthorn signifies protection, yet it is also seen as a gateway to the spirit world.

In folk medicine, its primary use is for protection against all manner of evil spirits, and demons who were apt frighten hapless passers-by. Carved hawthorn amulets were worn for protection or hung above doors to keep bad spirits at bay.

Mythology

Hawthorn features in both pre-Christian and Christian symbolism. In Christian mythology, it is said that the crown of Christ was made of Hawthorn. Some authorities have claimed that the Holy Spirit has a certain peculiar affinity with thorn trees. The burning bush apparition mentioned in the Bible is thought to have been a thorn tree.

In British Christian mythology, the most famous Hawthorn is the Glastonbury Thorn, which could long be seen as a lone figure on the slope of Wearyall Hill. (Sadly, vandals have destroyed this tree.) According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, an uncle of Jesus, had traveled to Britain with the intention of finding a place to bury the holy cup (grail) that had held the blood of Christ at the crucifixion. When he first set eyes on the Holy Isle of Avalon, he struck his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill. At once it burst into flower. Joseph of Arimathea took this as a sign to establish the first Christian Church of England right there, where today lies the little market town of Glastonbury.

Descendants of that original miraculous walking stick have been transplanted as cuttings and now decorate various Christian sites around the town. To this day, these special trees burst into flower not once, but twice a year: first in May, when it is right and proper for all Hawthorn trees to flower, and then again at Christmas, to mark the birthday of Christ.

Hawthorn Blossom

Folk Traditions

Hawthorn is also associated with the old Beltain custom of ‘fetching the May’. Beltain, which takes place on May 1, is a celebration of spring and the return of the life-force that rejuvenates the land. Hawthorn’s abundance of flowers that burst into blossom just at the right time seems eminently suitable to mark this glorious time of the year. People would tie colorful ribbons into the branches of the tree to symbolize their prayers and wishes.

The flowers exude a peculiar smell that is often likened to the odor of rotting meat. Hawthorn is fertilized by insects that are attracted by the smell of carrion, a smell that has also been associated with the plague. This is why, despite the fact that Hawthorn is very much loved, it is never brought inside the house.

The scent has also been associated with the perfume of sexuality, which better fits its fertility connotations in association with the Beltain celebrations. Whatever one might associate with the scent, it is unlikely it will go unnoticed as the flowers announce their presence from afar.

Food uses

The flowering tops can be used for making a heart-friendly breakfast tea (see below). 

In the autumn, the tree is laden with hard, red berries that look like miniature rose hips. Unfortunately, Crataegus mongyna is rather mealy and not very tasty. The meager pericarp layer is extremely dry and almost devoid of flavor. There are, however, related species with much better-tasting fruits. Some are even juicy enough to process into a jelly. If need be Hawthorn berries can be dried and ground into a kind of flour substitute. However, as they contain no gluten this is not a flour to make bread with. 

Medicinal Uses:

From an ethnobotanical perspective, Hawthorn is a very interesting plant. Since it is a very large and widely distributed genus people from China to Europe to North America have used their specific native species in similar ways.

Parts used:

Flowering tops, ripe fruits, leaves

Collection:

The flowering tops are harvested in May. Dry quickly in the shade to avoid discoloration. The berries are collected in the autumn. Dry quickly and thoroughly to prevent mold.

Constituents:

Fruit: saponins, glycosides, flavonoids, cardioactive glycosides, ascorbic acid, condensed tannins.

Flowers: cardiotonic amines

Crataegus does not contain any single active constituent that phyto-pharmacologists will get excited about – it sports no ‘super compounds’ that can be developed into new drugs. Instead, it is the unique synergy of its composition that creates its marvelous effects – and which so far has defied replication in the laboratory.

Hawthorn is most valued for its tonic action on the heart. It has an undisputed regulatory, or tonic effect that provides an immensely useful and safe remedy for beginning cardio-vascular disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, particularly in developed countries.

The flowering tops as well as the berries are medicinally active. They regulate the blood-pressure via a dual action: they stimulate both the coronary arteries and the heart muscle itself. They dilate and relax the blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure, while gently stimulating the heart muscle, increasing the pulse rate. This takes the pressure off the heart muscle and thus improves its overall efficiency.

Hawthorn relaxes the nerves that supply the heart, which helps to relieve the symptoms of stress, tightness in the chest and angina. It also regulates an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and palpitations. Hawthorn is a valuable supportive long-term remedy for the general weakness of the heart caused by infectious diseases such as diphtheria or scarlet fever. It improves the overall function of an aged and tired heart muscle. It may be used preventatively and is especially recommended for people who are under constant pressure and stress, or remedially, for those recovering from a heart attack.

According to Chinese and Japanese studies, Hawthorn clearly shows a positive effect on the whole coronary system and can reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol, one of the most significant contributing factors of heart disease.

Hawthorn improves the peripheral blood flow, thus improving oxygen supply to the limbs and to the head. In combination with Gingko it has a beneficial effect on memory.

Hawthorn has also been used for nervousness and as a digestive tonic to help ‘move’ stagnant food (Chinese medicine) and to aid the digestion of fatty foods. It is also considered useful as a diuretic and a urinary tonic. The old herbalists seemed to value this aspect of Hawthorn’s healing virtues especially highly.

Hawthorn is the best overall heart tonic available in the herbal pharmacopeia. It is even recognized in allopathic medicine and is included in the ‘Commission E’ list of medicinally useful plants. Its gentle, tonic action and safety record make it an ideal and safe herb for conditions afflicting an aging coronary system and heart. But it is an alterative and tonic remedy, which means best results are achieved when it is taken over long periods of time. Instant results should not be expected. It contains no digitalis-like compounds or other cardio-active constituents that build up in the body over time. There is also no record of drug interference, even with other cardio medicines. Thus, Hawthorn tops or berries taken as a tea or tincture can be taken over long periods of time without ill-effects. (Of course, allergies are always possible, but with this herb, they form a very small exception to the rule.)

Ref: Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249900/

UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MS/MS Characterization of Phenolics from Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata (Hawthorn) Leaves, Fruits and their Herbal Derived Drops (Crataegutt Tropfen)

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nikolai_Kuhnert/publication/320325764_UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MSMS_Characterization_of_Phenolics_from_Crataegus_monogyna_and_Crataegus_laevigata_Hawthorn_Leaves_Fruits_and_their_Herbal_Derived_Drops_Crataegutt_Tropfen/links/5b1926700f7e9b68b4255af3/UPLC-ESI-Q-TOF-MS-MS-Characterization-of-Phenolics-from-Crataegus-monogyna-and-Crataegus-laevigata-Hawthorn-Leaves-Fruits-and-their-Herbal-Derived-Drops-Crataegutt-Tropfen.pdf

PHENOLIC CONTENT AND ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITY OF CRATAEGUS MONOGYNA L. FRUIT EXTRACTS

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8193/140b3f344ce5633451fe0e5d63499cd1a40f.pdf

Heilpflanzenpraxis Heute, Siegfried Bäumler, Elsevier 2007

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