So if you see a hunched figure in the graveyard at 5am, black woolly hat pulled hard down over face, hands in black gloves, wielding scissors slashing this way and that - please do not call the police. It is probably only a humble herbalist out after some fresh green stuff to ply their patients with, as this is the time of the spring tonic. Bloodcleaningeyesparklinglimbstrengtheningmouthgreeninggrasstastingbitterlingeringgreatstuff. will you buy that?
You see there was a time when us little group of hedge gatherers were oh so common, wandering around with bunches of this and that under our arms, gleefully mashing, macerating, boiling and straining all kinds of concoctions to pour down the throats of our friends and families-this is where having kids is good -up to a certain age they will do what you say without too much questioning- actually that depends on how well you train them! And of course as with all things us parents do to our children, IT IS GOOD FOR THEM!
I had a friend, a lovely old Sussex lady, Anne was her name, sadly passed on now. She lived up at the Mardens on the downs and her father, a farm worker, would go and gather some white flowered herbs ( We later identified it to be a kind of wild sage) This would happen every early summer, and accompanied by the groans of all the children he would boil the herbs up and then make the whole family drink the bitter brown liquid every day for a week. He said that it would strengthen their blood, and keep them free from infections, and to be sure, they all kept pretty healthy most of the time according to Anne.
Now that was before the war, before they ploughed up most of the old meadows- forcing the likes of me to skulk around the forgotten corners of graveyards to find my wild weedy friends.It was also before the "Pill for every ill" Brigade got hold of us all and twisted our heads back to front and we started thinking that iron in a pill was going to be better for us than iron in a Nettle, and before long we started to pay for what our ancestors got for free, and forgot about all this hedge stuff, and how it had been so good for us all.
So back to the beginning-Why a graveyard at 5 am? Well if you live in a suburban area like me, then the wild places to go gathering are a little thin on the ground.
Graveyard gathering advantages;
Lots of wild bits, no spraying on plants (thats neither chemicals nor dogs), no nosey people especially in the early morning, apart from the dead ones, and they seem to like the company, most of them seem to be a bit lonely nowadays- mainly forgotten and disregarded.
Free gathering, well sort of, for the strictly legal minded you can only gather on private land with the landowners consent, oops! Graveyards are private land!!! So looks like I was, after all, on the wrong side of the law this morning. Did you call the cops? Perhaps the police are preparing warrants now, trying to gather evidence of the weeds I have stolen- looks like I'm banged to rights, my garden is full of them!
"Its a fair cop Gov'," I'll be saying "you caught me red handed- But that's probably from all those nettles I've been gathering... Yes me Lud' I'll do me time, what? you say you'll have me flailed with those nettles I gathered as well!" You can just imagine it can't you. Actually a word of warning- there are those, usually the Gamekeepers, who will take great exception to you collecting weeds from their patch. Each summer you will find me gathering up on the Sussex downs in the wilder areas of the forest clearings in the plantations. The first time the local Estate keeper caught me it went something like this-
"What are doing?"
"Just gathering some wild herbs"
"Well this is private land, you are trespassing! You can't do that here!"
"It is only wild weeds I'm after, and I'm doing no one no harm.""I've told you- its PRIVATE- CLEAR OFF"
So I left, but then I returned, and each year we play cat and mouse all over his 30,000 acres of "private" open countryside and woodland. But now I keep my ears alert and my eyes peeled, and when I hear that Landrover of his coming down the track I'm off into a thicket like a rabbit, and he stands there and bellows at me, and I spy on his ranting from a few paces in, invisible, silent, crouched and still in my little hidey hole that he's too big and red faced to follow me into. There I am with a grin as big as the Cheshire cat caressing my bag of liberated weeds which bulges beside me.- Guerrilla gathering I call it, Che Guevara would have been proud, and so would have all those other ancestors who cared little for the Landowners and more for the country folk and their needs, bless them. But be a responsible revolutionary, never gather more than you can use, and always leave some of the plant so that it will still be there next year, and also steer clear of all protected, rare, or endangered plants. So collecting Elderflowers is quite reasonable but never pick an Orchid!
HEALTH AND SAFETY; Oh this is boring but actually important, never, please never gather something you don't know and can't 100% identify. plants can kill as well as cure. Be sure, be safe, stick to the common ones, so how about Nettles for a start. For the benefit of you city folk, these are the ones that sting when you grab them, they have sharp saw like edges, and even their name sounds sharp now doesn't it?( "Ned" is the Sanskrit root of the name and means "needle"- interesting that nettle fibre makes a good strong cloth when woven) Photo at top of page.
So once you have gathered these prickly friends you can cook them up like spinage, boil them in a soup, or put them in with other veg in a stir-fry, or best of all juice them. A small glass of juice a day ( about 90 mls ) will do the job. But have a small taste first, and then wait a day to be sure theres no bad reaction, always better safe-remember.
So what is all this about a "Spring Tonic" ?
Well it goes like this; the winter is cold and damp, yes agreed? Things get all bunged up with coldness, and nothing flows, then spring comes and we all get active again- just like the rest of the world around us. But hang on there, what if we are all bunged up? How can things get moving again? So what to do, follow nature, and get it all moving again, for she's providing the answer in the form of the spring plants.
Now back to those nettles, well the Old wise Herbalists had this to say; The Nettle is ruled by Mars, the God of war, and like him they will cut through and open things up, set free all that has been constrained and held captive. They are hot and drying, and grow in damp places where they thrive, so likewise in the body the places of dampness; the joints, the kidneys and the lungs, can all be cleansed by these tough little warriors. When the body is cold in the winter the lack of Innate heat means that foods aren't properly broken down, "Concocted" was the word they used for breaking food down, and these unconcocted foods would gather as crude or unrefined blockages, filling up passages, causing swelling, and as the swelling also stopped our natural heat from moving around the body that natural heat would then build up and suddenly erupt into rashes, or hot pains in the joints and bones.
Now research into the effects of nettles shows that what they said was quite right, as those same nettles are now known to dissolve acidic build-ups in the body such as uric acid crystals, and then when those acids are dissolved into the blood the nettles open the kidneys and with a potent diuretic effect cleanse the body so that those "Crudities" don't flow around and accumulate somewhere else to cause a problem!
So the Ancient ones who walked the life long path of healing were aware that we are not separate from nature, but are just another part of her beautiful mystifying mosiac. And it was by looking at her cycles, that we could best understand our cycles and rythms and therefore discover how to return to balance when things went askew.
So really it should be no surprise to find that the plants of spring address the depletions and problems of winter that we are left with when the seasons change. And also its no surprise to find that those who still lived close to the Earth such as the Father of my friend Anne, would just naturally expect such things to be this way, and would have no doubt in trusting and learning from nature throughout life.
Now yes, this kind of vision is harder for us lot to grasp, increasingly distracted by technology and hemmed into small overdevelped spaces as we are. But hey, just take a look outside at all the plants suddenly growing again after the harsh winter cold has battered them, celebrating another year of opportunity to do their thing, and just listen to the birds eager once again to sing out their song to the world.
Now be sure to let me know how the gathering goes and how the grass grows around you, and then join me soon for another walk on the wilder side of life.
But don't forget there are still plenty of people around today who spend their time getting to know these plants so that they can guide you to help yourself the natural way, so if you want to treat a serious health problem with these wonderful herbs then search out a properly qualified herbalist by going to: www.nimh.org.uk or www.associationofmasterherbalists.co.uk