Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Cowslip: flower of love

Our Ladies keys!
What a strange name for a plant I thought, until I heard her story;

Before heaven and hell were in vogue, the afterlife was a place of joy. Now, true it was, that the land of the dead lay beneath the ground, and yes, it was a place separated from here where we might go and be lost to our earthly loved ones for eternity.
But also it was taken as a common fact that this was a place where we once again could feel the warm embrace of those who had preceded us to this other realm, and if we had faced the challenges of this life with courage and impeccability we would be rewarded with an ongoing eternal feast and celebration of joy.
Now on our arrival into the realm of the no longer-alive there would be a welcome from the beautiful hostess of the underworld, the Norse people from the North call her Freyer, while other European names of this beautiful Goddess are Helle, Persephone, and Olwen. She is both the young love goddess, the fertile mother of new life and also the death goddess, the final collector of Souls. It is she who holds the keys to the paradise beyond, and promises to return to life that which has died, like the spring renewing year after year the withered and dead world.
The yellow flowers that spread across the land as she returns to give all things renewed fertile energy are an emblem of her yellow tresses, awakening the new spring cycle of life, they are the keys opening up the cycle of the year once again.

Look at the bell shaped flowers, how they hang down like a bunch of keys, each bloom like a ventricle of the heart. The older herbalists considered the flower to be under the patronage of the Goddess Venus, the one who rules the Venous Circulation or the blue blood in the veins, associated with the flow of nourishing humours around the body, providing for the calming of any over heated passions or angry feelings, and also ensuring the balanced flow of emotions within and around the body.

So it is not surprising then with all her connections to love and fertility that it was usual for young girls to gather the flowers and having tied them into a flower ball called a Tostie would bounce it from hand to hand singing "Tisty, tosty, tell me true, who shall I be married to?" then she would list all the possible candidates and the ball would fall to the ground on the name of the one she would marry.

So take this chance and go into the fields or the garden, find the flower and smell the fragrance of her beautiful blossom, and you will then also know the perfume of Paradise. No wonder this was a favourite flower for preparing a country wine, and for preserving in sugar as a candy. The refreshing properties were considered to be amongst the best for cooling an overheated head and inducing a restoring sleep, treating headache, joint pain and inflammations. Another common name "Palseywort" reffered to its use in paralysis, the flowers being strengtheners of the nerves. In 1694 the Herbalist Peachey tells us that the infusion of the flowers make "very proper medicines for weakly people"

When you see the flower stems so pliable and supple yet so strong standing up high above the new grass, doesn't it seem to conjure up the graceful movement of a young dancing wood nymph skipping over the land honouring the return of spring to the pastures, singing in the breeze and spreading the joy of life renewed. Is it not surprising that it was always said that the nightingale would only sing where the Cowslip grew?

Herbalist-in-the-hedge has found that it is difficult to buy dried flowers of good quality, they spoil easily and then turn from yellow to green, so grow your own, dry them on a low heat or tie them into flower balls and dry them in spring sunshine hung in your window, use them as a tea to calm and strengthen the brain and the nerves, protect the heart and keep your vital spirit flowing.
Combine Cowslip Flowers with Rose petals and the Flowers of St. Johns Wort, making a tissane, there are few better ways of reviving flagging spirits and healing wounded hearts.

Finally we cannot pass over this flower without mentioning the long reputation of the distilled water for reducing spots, pimples, freckles and wrinkles- The wonder remedy for the beauty conscious of past times.

Remember too that this flower is known to be a special gift from the little people, the fairies, and as proof of this they have left their mark within the flower. Look closely inside and you will see the fairy jewels that lie there:

"In their gold coats you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
in those freckles lie their savours:

William Shakespeare, A midsummer's nights dream, II,i,11-13

Monday, 29 March 2010

Nettle has a friend

Welcome spring, the violets sing.

People living a more earth centered and older way of life than those of us in the "developed world" seem to have an uncanny understanding about how to use wild plants as good medicine. Just look at the willow, the forerunnner to aspirin, or foxglove from which one of the major heart drugs evolved, or Quinine from a south American tree originally known as "Jesuits bark" which provided the first cure for malaria. All of these medicines and many more were being used in the traditional and folk medicines of people here and around the world for centuries and probably many millenia, all without the help of microscopes, and all the other paraphanalia of the laboratory to tell them what the herbs did.

It seems that our Ancestors had an intimate knowledge of plants as medicines that they gained through other means than modern science, you could say that they had a science of their own which has been proven over centuries. You see those who came before us were no less clever than us, and they not only only found out what worked, but also continued to use it and pass on that knowledge to their descendents.

The interesting question is; how do we regain the origianl relationship we once had with the plants which was so accurate in telling our ancestors about all these medicinal uses?

The first way to get closer to this way of interacting with nature and unlocking this healing knowledge is to take on the same vision of the world that our ancestors had. They saw the world and the plants as living entities which had their own ways and characteristics. They didn't think that this world was just about human experience, but that we are just a small part of a much greater mystery and story that is being continually played out all around us all the time, so truly we are never alone! When we start to explore this way of being with plants for ourselves all kinds of interesting insights come up.

Well the more I get to spend time with the plants I find them to be more like the people around me. You see they have their ways, and their habits, preferences and even moods. But then if we all come from the same stuff, earth, air, fire, and water why should we not all share similar characteristics in other ways as well?

So lets take the Nettle we've already met, and you know what, it usually has a companion, inseperable they are, like a man and wife, together for life ~perhaps thats not the way much anymore for people, but with plants they haven't caught up so fast with this passion for serial relationships as we call them. Can you imagine the Ivy, gets in a strop with that ancient old Oak its been growing on for ever and swans off to snuggle up to a mushroom? Or the honeysuckle, so bored after all those years lounging around on top of the thicket, says "I'm off my dear, time for a bit of time with a chap who's in the flow of things, not an old stick-in-the-mud like you."- and goes and takes up with the watercress growing in the stream? Doesn't really work now does it!

So back to that story we were having; now if you look closely, you'll often find those rough-tough-keep-out-of-my-patch-or-I'll-sting-you-so-I-will Nettles nestling up to another plant, so tight together its like the two can't bear to be separated. And that Nettle companion isn't too easy to spot at first, just like that old couple down the lane, they have come to look a bit like each other or in this case just like each other. But actually this soul mate of the butch nettle is quite different in character, all soft and yielding, no rough prickly stemmed thing but much more delicate and fragile when you come to grab her. Her leaves are just like her mate, green and saw edged, but its only when you've sussed her out that you start to see that she is actually quite different, then you don't have to make a painful mistake and get stung by the wrong one.

Now nettles proper have different flowers to what we think of as flowers, they wouldn't make much of a bouquet, being straggly little things all hanging off a thin green string, looking more like a bunch of aphids at a party than something you'd give on Mothers day. But if you look closely at these pretender nettles you'll see the prettiest little flowers ever,always growing in a pair neatly next to each other lined up under those leaves, white and bell shaped. Now the oldun's who lived in the country used to say that these little flowers were the shoes of the little people, hidden safely away while they walked about barefoot in the morning dew.

Its because of these dainty white flowers we give this nettle lookalike the name White Dead Nettle, dead not because its time is over and its gone to plant paradise, but because it doesn't have the sting- it's dead to the touch.
Now if you like the bees, and especially the humble bumble you'll have to give this weedy interloper into your neat borders a bit of leaf room, as there ain't a better feeding place in all the world for that little buzzy bumbling velvety friend of ours.

Those flowers could not have been better made for this humble bee as they are shaped to fit a bumble like a glove, the sweet nectar that awaits them is stored down the end of the long tube at the back of the flower, and its only the bumbles extra long sucking tube that can reach it. So no reward for any other creature that drops by, and any little sneeking snatching insect is kept out by lots of little hairs in the tube.

Now this gentle giving plant lives cheek by jowl with spiky nettle, she's like the gansters moll, all fluffy against his meanness. She's the one who can temper his fire, calm his moods, and when he's getting too hot to handle its to her we turn to calm it all down. So likewise when you come to make your nettle juice add her to the mix, and she'll cool that green fire down, like the maiden and the dragon, she's the one who can control his firey breath.

It comes as no surprise then that the ancient myth makers considered her to be a gentle nymph visiting from the royal court of the sweet Goddess Venus. Now Venus looks after the cooling liquids of the body, and aids the flow of our vital heat from organ to organ, so with her in attendence the hot sting of the Nettle can do you no harm, try it, you'll like it!

I mix her with the nettle and the goosegrass and juice them all up, and find it brings a sparkle to the eyes of the most wilted of my patients, nourishing and balancing the blood, cleansing the winters debris, and cheering the spirit.

Now some people find all this astrological stuff a bit off-putting, it all seems so much like confusing nonsense. But it has a good point, as in earlier times most people didn't read, so there needed to be other ways of remembering and passing on the important stuff.

So lets look at this lovely white dead nettle; we know that Venus rules her, and everyone would be aware that as Venus is the fertility Goddess then in the body Venus will rule the womb and ovaries. So if the womb and ovaries are hot or inflamed and if there is weeping from the vagina, a condition known as "The Whites" in the old language, then this cooling herb would be the one to use. The white flowers would also be a reminder when we see the plant that that is what we can use her for. Now if we know the plant by its characteristics in this way then we will be able to decide when its best to use it. So we can already say that in hot irritating conditions this may be a good choice, and particularly when those conditions are concerning the reproductive system. Knowing this is much more helpful than trying to compile an ever growing a list of conditions and illnesses for each plant, or trying to remember a list of actions for each herb. So each plant begins to have a story for us, and thats a much easier way to remember things.

She can be collected and dried for use later in the year, although she tends to be around in her fresh state for some months from now on. But as a cooling, refreshing addition to our spring drinks, theres none better!

So go out collecting when you can,enjoy the sun on the leaves when it shines, the sweet rain on your skin when it doesn't, and always thank the wind in your hair for keeping the birds in the air,and then join me again soon for another walk on the wild side.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Oh misty morning

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 disregard

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 sma
ll 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.

Genuine wild daffodils on the Sussex downs.

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: or