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.

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

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

Foraging Dandelion

Foraging Dandelion

Everybody loves Dandelions! Nothing gladdens the heart more than the sight of a meadow covered in its bright yellow bloom. They are such a truly plentiful spring delight that there is hardly a lawn where they cannot be found. However, lawns are not where they are most welcomed. Not at all delighted by this little spring greeting, gardeners often spare no effort when it comes to banning them from their yards.

 

T’is folly! If they knew its true value perhaps they would not be so ungrateful. Dandelion is surely one of the most beneficial plants available – it is a blessing that it is so resilient and abundant!

 

From the earliest days of spring, its bright yellow flowers appear like miniature suns that beam back at the big daddy in the sky.

 

Every part of this plant can be used for food or medicine. Even the seeds, as every child knows: they tell the future, and one can blow one’s wishes and prayers to the wind which will be carried to the heavens on their dandy little parachute seeds.

 

History and Uses

 

According to the doctrine of signatures, Jupiter owns this herb. It seems quite fitting, considering its prolific nature. Jupiter is larger than life and does nothing by halves. However, the old herbalists were also concerned with the essential nature of an herb when determining its planetary ruler: bitter herbs, especially yellow ones, were often assigned to Jupiter. Often, as in this case, such herbs had an affinity with the liver, Jupiter’s seat in the human body. Liver herbs are almost always bitter, as the bitter principles stimulate liver function and help with the work of breaking down fats and cleansing the body of toxins.

 

The liver also plays an important part in hormone regulation. Despite their bitter taste, liver herbs can ‘gladden the heart’. They combat common afflictions such as the ‘winter blahs’ and other hormonal ups and downs, including the menstrual cycle, or the menopause. Jupiter is the eternal optimist and many of his herbs help to lift the spirit.

 

After the sedentary winter months, Dandelion is just what we need to detox the liver and to brighten the spirits. This is particularly true when we ate too much and moved too little, indulging in heavy, greasy foods neglecting our greens. In the old days, seasonal availability was limited as there was no such thing as greenhouse vegetables or imports from the other side of the planet. Thus, Lent was a time of fasting and purification intended to shake off the winter sluggishness and get in shape for spring. Dandelion is one of the best herbs to support such a spring cleaning effort.

 

Medicinal action

 

The roots are particularly good for the liver, while the leaves have a more pronounced effect on the kidneys. The French name for this herb ‘pis en lit’ (piss in the bed), is a rather to-the-point descriptive term. There are many highly effective diuretic herbs, but Dandelion is unique in that it does not deplete potassium levels as many other diuretics do. On the contrary, it is a rich source of Potassium as well as a host of other vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and A, calcium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus. It also contains choline, a substance that helps the liver to metabolize fat.

 

Dandelion

 

 

Foraging

 

Dandelion is truly one of the most healthful plants one could possibly add to one’s diet. It can be used freely and without fear of any ill effects (except perhaps bedwetting). 

 

For the foraging gourmet, the medicinal uses are all very well, but better still are the myriad ways in which this wonderful herb can be transformed into various culinary delicacies:

 

Happily, for the forager, all parts of the Dandelion are edible and this is a plant that suffers no lasting ill-effects from the collection of its roots. In fact, it more often encourages it to grow, since every small bit of Dandelion root that breaks off or is left in the soil will produce more Dandelion plants.

 

For culinary purposes, it is best to collect older roots as the younger ones are just too small. Beware that Dandelion roots are bitter. They may not make the tastiest vegetable, but they make a very wholesome and very passable coffee substitute.

 

Dandelion Coffee

 

To make Dandelion coffee, gather the roots either early in the spring or late autumn (they tend to be sweeter in the autumn). Scrub them well to clean off all the dirt and let them dry before roasting them in the oven at a low temperature. People have different methods for doing this, some prefer to grind the roots before roasting them, others roast them whole. I prefer the whole root method as I feel that greater surface exposure during the roasting process also loses more of the nutrients. Roasting takes about 4 hours. To tell if they are ready, try to break one. When it is ready it will break with a snap and the interior will be dark brown. Now you can grind it. Store in a jar. Take about a teaspoon per cup of water to make a cup of Dandelion coffee. Add milk or sugar, to taste.

 

 

Stir-fries, fillings, and vegetable sides

 

Used sparingly, Dandelion roots can also be sliced and added to stir-fries, fillings, or vegetable sides. 

The unopened flower buds can also be sautéed very briefly. Serve with melted butter, salt, and pepper. You need a lot of them, to make this more than a ‘one teaspoon experience’.

The very young Dandelion rosettes can be prepared as what my foraging friend Melana Hiatt calls ‘yard squid’:

 

‘Yard Squid’

 

Cut the Dandelion rosettes just below the ground with enough of the root to hold the leaves in place. Wash well, making sure all the grit and dirt are removed. To reduce the bitterness blanch them in salt water for about five minutes. (But remember that removing the bitterness also removes its medicinally active principles.) Dip in a thin egg/milk mixture, roll them in coarse cornflour or bread crumbs, or a mixture of both, then fry them in oil. The culinarily intrepid might like to season the crumbs/flour as well. Meat eaters can add bits of fried bacon or minced meat. Vegetarians can add toasted sunflower seeds sprinkled with Tamari or Soya sauce, if desired.

 

Dandelion Salad Greens

 

The young tender, leaves make excellent salad greens. Mix with other spring greens to mask the bitterness. Dandelion goes especially well with boiled eggs and cress-type herbs. As a dressing, try fruity vinaigrette (e.g. with raspberry vinegar), or a sweet and sour dressing made with yogurt, lemon juice, pepper, salt, garlic and a little sugar (and chilies, for those who like it hot).

 

Dandelion Greens

 

Pot-herb

 

The leaves can also be cooked as a pot-herb, or side dish:

Blanch in salt water for five minutes, remove from the heat and stir in butter or Crème Fraiche and seasonings.

Some like to prepare it so it takes on the consistency of fine spinach. Chop the leaves really fine or put them through a food processor, perhaps along with other herbs that may be available, such as nettles or garlic hedge mustard, for example. Sauté an onion, stir in the herbs, season with garlic, salt, pepper or chilies, cook for about 7 minutes, take off the heat and stir in some crème or crème fraîche for a more delicate flavor.

 

Dandelion Capers

 

Very early in the spring, when the small, tightly packed, unopened flower buds that are still hiding in the rosette, they can be marinated and prepared as ‘capers’. Make a hot marinade with 1l vinegar, 50g sugar, 50g salt, pepper and spices (e.g. Bay leaf, thyme, coriander seed, chilies, whatever you fancy). Pour enough of the marinade over the still closed Dandelion flower buds to cover them and simmer for 5 – 10 minutes. Fill the marinated flower buds and the pickling juice into a sterilized jar and store in the fridge.  Store the rest of the pickling juice for another time.

 

Once the flowers develop, the leaves become increasingly bitter. Personally, I don’t find this a problem, so long as I pick the young, tender leaves, and not the old ones. But if you are sensitive to bitter tastes, watch for signs that flowering season has begun to take your cue.

 

But the end of one season just marks the beginning of another: The flowers themselves can also be turned into delicious treats. For example deep-fried Dandelion flowers:

 

Prepare a light batter with egg, water or milk, and a little flour. Season to taste (e.g. coriander seed or cinnamon work well). Coat each fully opened flower head with the batter and deep fry quickly. Serve with Maple syrup and lemon juice. Yum!

 

Dandelion Country Wine

 

Dandelion flowers are also an essential ingredient of country wines. There are numerous wonderful recipes – far too many to mention here. But here are just a couple:

Gather 1 gallon of Dandelion flowers on a dry, sunny day.

Put these in a 2-gallon crockpot and pour 1 gallon of boiling water over them.

Cover the jar and allow the flowers to steep for three days.

Strain through a jelly cloth so you can squeeze all the liquid from the flowers.

Put the liquid in a kettle; add 1 small ginger root, the thinly pared peels and juice of 3 organic oranges and 1 organic lemon. Stir in 3 pounds of sugar and allow the liquid to cool until it is barely lukewarm. Spread ½ cake of yeast on a piece of toasted rye bread and float on top. Cover the crock with a cloth and keep it in a warm room for 6 days.

Strain the wine into a gallon jug, corking it loosely with a wad of cotton. Keep in a dark place for 3 weeks, then carefully decant into a bottle and cap or cork tightly. Don’t touch it until Christmas or later.

 

from ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus’, Euell Gibbons https://amzn.to/2D41e7n

 

 

For a Dandelion Dessert Wine, try this recipe:

 

On a warm, sunny day gather a large bag (a shopping bag) full of fully opened Dandelion flowers.

 

Place into a large pot, pour 4 liters of water over them and add the zest of one organic, untreated lemon, as well as the zest of one organic, untreated orange. Simmer gently for about 20 min. Allow the liquid to cool to body temperature and strain. Dissolve five chunks of fresh yeast in a little warm water and add this to the Dandelion liquid. Add other flavorings according to taste: perhaps an orange, some cloves, cinnamon or ginger…and 2 kilos of sugar (rock sugar or unrefined cane sugar is best).

 

Leave to ferment for about 6 days. Fill into bottles with the kind of stoppers you would use for making elderflower champagne. They need to fit tightly so that there is no danger of explosion. Flip lids, as can be found on old fashioned beer and lemonade bottles work great. Allow the wine to mature for a few weeks until the liquid is crystal clear. Only then yield to the temptation to try it.

 

Adapted from ‘Holunder, Dost und Gänseblümchen’, Heide Haßkerl https://amzn.to/2XC4qkf (German)

 

 

Dandelion Flower Syrup

 

For those who like it sweet, you can try making Dandelion flower syrup:

 

  • 500g Dandelion flower heads
  • 1.5 l Water
  • Unrefined cane sugar

 

Place the flowers into a large saucepan. Pour 1.5l of boiling water over them. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and cover. Leave to infuse for 24 hours. The following day, strain and measure the resulting liquid. Add an equivalent amount of sugar e.g. 1 kg of sugar per 1 l of liquid. Let the sugar dissolve in the liquid as much as possible before returning it to the cooker. Heat the liquid while stirring frequently to avoid the sugar to burn. When all the sugar has dissolved completely fill the syrup into sterilized bottles with a pop-top lid.

 

This recipe can be varied according to taste: try adding a little ginger, orange juice and zest (only organic, untreated) or cinnamon.

Bon appetite!

Dandelion Flowers

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

Foraging Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Few herbs are as generous as the humble stinging nettle. Inconspicuous, it assumes a modest corner in the garden: untended areas, half in the shade, perhaps near the compost where the soil is rich with nitrogen. Inconspicuous that is, until one happens to brush against it carelessly – which jolts our awareness rather painfully.

The Stinging Nettle is a warrior plant, armed with tiny needles that cover him from top to toe, leaves, stems and all. The lightest touch will break off the needle points, just like a hypodermic needle, and inject formic acid under the skin. This causes the sting.

But Nettles don’t just protect themselves with this weaponry – they are extremely hardy and notoriously difficult to exterminate. Even concerted efforts fail to eradicate an established nettle patch. Nettles are earth defenders, they protect disturbed soils and assimilate nutrients. They cleanse and heal the earth and fend off intruders with their stinging needles.

They are often considered a nuisance. Nettles can spread like wildfire and their rhizomes are seemingly incorrigible. Even a tiny part left behind propagates a new colony. Gardeners tend to want to get rid of them by any means they can. They hack and hoe the ground to pull them out, leaving the soil bare and exposed to the elements. If that does not work, they wage a chemical attack on their garden ecology.

Nettles don’t waste any energy on producing pretty flowers. But looks aren’t everything. Even though they themselves don’t smell or look particularly attractive, they make excellent companion plants, by helping their companion to shine. Nettles stimulate the essential oil production in other herbs that grow near them, especially in those of the mint family. Increased levels of essential oils help to make these plants more resilient.

stinging nettle flowers

The much-feared sting may be unpleasant, but it is not necessarily ‘bad’. The Romans used this very property as a therapeutic measure for treating aching arthritic joints by means of nettle flagellation. We don’t tend to apply such heroic therapies anymore, although it is said to have been quite effective. Nowadays we prefer our medicines to come sugar-coated and looking like sweets.

In the olden days, Lent, which is the six week period leading up to Easter, was dedicated to body-purification. People abstained from meat and heavy foods while making use of early spring herbs that act as gentle tonics and bitters. These stimulate the eliminative functions of the body and help to clear out the residues of several months of sedentary winter habits: heavy foods and not enough exercise. It is a process that in older herbals is described as ‘blood cleansing’.

Nettles are among the first herbs that pop up in the spring. Perfect timing for those who are planning to do a herbal spring cleanse. Nettles ‘wash’ the system from the inside. Their powerful diuretic properties stimulate the kidneys, which filter the blood and flush out metabolic waste matter such as uric acid crystals. A by-product of protein metabolism, these crystals tend to lodge in the joints, where they can become extremely painful.

Of all the wonderful early spring tonics Nettles is the star! They are rich in iron, calcium and vitamin A, C, D, E, F, and K. They stimulate and tone the vital organs of the body, promoting elimination without catharsis. They remove waste matter while replenishing the body with nutrients. They not only cleanse the blood, but their iron and vitamin C content also helps the body to make new blood cells.

This tea is very safe and can benefit anybody, though it is particularly beneficial for women who are going through hormonal changes, during puberty, menopause, or pregnancy. Nettles can also help to lower the blood sugar level, which makes them very suitable for those suffering from diabetes 2.

Nettles are not just medicinally useful, but they also make excellent nutritious and tasty wild food. They can be prepared like spinach or other leafy potherb greens. It is best to mix them with other spring herbs such a dandelion, or chickweed, or to add them to mashed potatoes or rice. They have a pleasant, ‘earthy’ flavor, that is adaptable to many dishes and seasonings. Your imagination is the limit.

So, what is the trick to picking nettles without being stung to bits?

The easiest way is to wear rubber gloves while picking and processing them. Or, grab the nettle with care and determination while avoiding accidental brushing. It does require some practice, but it works. Grabbing them hard crushes the needle points.

But most foragers have gotten used to a little stinging here and there. While at first, it can be annoying, once the burning sensation starts to subside the affected parts seem to become more sensitive to subtle energies. Dowsers sometimes use nettles to increase the sensitivity in their hands. I always pick my nettles with bare hands and I quite like the tingling and the way it makes my hands more sensitive to the plants and the soil that I am working with. However, people who are prone to allergies should be careful and avoid direct exposure since the ‘venom’ also contains histamine, which can cause an allergic reaction.

Caution: Nettles intended for internal use (as food or medicine) should only be picked in spring,  (or, after the first cutting) as later in the year they start to accumulate an abundance of little crystals (called ‘cystoliths’), which can be irritating to the digestive organs and the kidneys.

Once the nettles are brought home and cleaned under running water they can be put in a bowl and covered with hot water for about twenty minutes. This greatly reduces its stinging potential.

Recipes

In the 17th century, nettle pudding (not the sweet sort), nettle porridge and nettle soup were all common:

Nettle Pudding:

  • 500 g fresh nettles
  • 100 g butter
  • 4 egg separated
  • 2 cups bread crumbs

Wash 1 lb of nettle leaves pour boiling water over the nettles. Cream 100 g of butter with a little salt and pepper, 4 egg yolks, one onion cut fine and two cups of breadcrumbs. Add the nettles to this creamy mass. Beat the egg whites until stiff and carefully fold them into the doughy nettle mass. Pour into a buttered dish and cook in a double boiler for one hour.

Scottish Nettle Pudding

1-gallon young nettle tops

2 leeks

2 heads of broccoli

500 g rice

salt and pepper to taste

To 1 gallon of young Nettle tops, thoroughly washed, add 2 good-sized leeks or onions, 2 heads of broccoli, or small cabbage, or Brussels sprouts, and 1/4 lb. of rice. Clean the vegetables well; chop the broccoli and leeks and mix with the Nettles. Place all together in a muslin bag, alternately with the rice, and tie together tightly. Boil in salted water, long enough to cook the vegetables, the time varying according to the tenderness or otherwise of the greens. Serve with gravy or melted butter. These quantities are sufficient for six persons.

from ‘Mrs Grieves, A Modern Herbal’

Country people would also make nettle beer, which was not only quite tasty and refreshing but also wholesome as a remedy for arthritic and gouty pains.

“…a pleasant country drink made of nettle-tops, dandelions, goosegrass, and ginger, boiled and strained. Brown sugar was added, and while still warm a slice of toasted bread, spread with yeast, was placed on top, and the whole kept warm for six or seven hours. Finally, the scum was removed, a teaspoon of cream of tartar was added and the beer was bottled.”

Lesley Gordon, A Country Herbal

Nettle Beer

The Nettle Beer made by cottagers is often given to their old folk as a remedy for gouty and rheumatic pains, but apart from this purpose, it forms a pleasant drink. It may be made as follows: Take 2 gallons of cold water and a good pailful of washed young Nettle tops, add 3 or 4 large handfuls of Dandelion, the same of Clivers (Goosegrass) and 2 OZ. of bruised, whole ginger. Boil gently for 40 minutes, then strain and stir in 2 teacupsful of brown sugar. When lukewarm place on the top a slice of toasted bread, spread with 1 OZ. of compressed yeast, stirred till liquid with a teaspoonful of sugar. Keep it fairly warm for 6 or 7 hours, then remove the scum and stir in a tablespoonful of cream of tartar. Bottle and tie the corks securely. The result is a specially wholesome sort of ginger beer. The juice of 2 lemons may be substituted for the Dandelion and Clivers. Other herbs are often added to Nettles in the making of Herb Beer, such as Burdock, Meadowsweet, Avens Horehound, the combination making a refreshing summer drink.

Mrs. Grieves, A Modern Herbal 

Nettle Hair Rinse and Conditioner

Take a big handful of nettles and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and allow to cool. Bottle and keep the liquid in a cool place (e.g. in the fridge). Use this liquid as a final rinse after washing your hair. Don’t wash it out, but rather comb it out once the hair is dry.

Nettle is a very fibrous plant. Not too long ago it was actually planted as a fiber crop for making textiles, rope, and paper. The fibers must be separated and softened so they can be spun into yarn and woven into any kind of cloth. Nettle textiles are superior even to those made of hemp or flax. Nettles fibers are stronger than those of flax, yet they are not as harsh as hemp.

Some people claim that nettles act as an aphrodisiac and ‘aid the venery’. For this use, the seeds are especially in demand.

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