Thursday, 3 September 2015

Lemon balm

Lemon balm - Melissa officinalis (Lamiaceae) 

This green or sometimes variegated perennial member of the mint family is frequently found in gardens yet few folk do much with it. The wonderful lemon fragrance is best from the fresh herb, so while it may be dried (before flowering is best for drying), picking a bunch straight from the garden to make into a tea (or to use to flavour desserts) is much nicer. The tincture is also best made from fresh herb (and flower if you like) using the strongest vodka you can find (45% alcohol would be ideal) yet allowing to macerate a mere 12-24 hours to maximise the flavourful essential oils without adding a lot of tannins. It has both nervine and digestive qualities and, while mildly sedative, has an overall uplifting effect when taken as a refreshing tea at the end of a stressful day. It can also help relieve headaches, neuralgia and mild fevers. Used externally either as a wash (from the infusion) or the essential oil (which is very expensive due to the huge quantities of herb required to extract even a small amount of oil - if you find it cheap it will almost certainly be adulterated with cheaper lemon scented oils) it has healing, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties as well as reducing nerve pain. It is very useful both internally and externally for treating shingles (along with St John's wort). Like motherwort, it may suppress an over-active thyroid so should not be taken in large doses by those with underactive thyroids but this suppressive action can help calm down nervy types with palpitations or raised blood pressure. Its latin name "melissa" comes from the Greek for honeybee and was once used to help beekeepers protect & increase their swarms. Lemon balm has a long history of use for complaints of the nervous system and was one constituent of Carmelite water (along with lemon peel, nutmeg and angelica root). Not the most photogenic herb - here it is in my garden along with some white clover:

Friday, 17 July 2015


Cleavers - Galium aparine family Rubiaceae

Also known as clivers, goosegrass and "sticky willy" this wayside weed is particularly common here this year growing up through hedges and strangling smaller plants. Seen here infesting my rose hedge!

It should be picked while still in flowers rather than letting it go to seed and spread. If you have a lot and a decent juicer then juicing it is the best way of preparation but it may also be dried to make teas or tinctured.

Perhaps surprisingly this herb is in the same family as coffee and cinchona (the source of quinine). It stimulates the lymphatic system to flush away toxins and waste products which, being also diuretic, it flushes away via the urine. The juice is traditionally considered a "blood cleanser" used in spring tonics and also for staying slim! Culpeper recommended it for earache while I have found it to be a useful herb to strengthen the immune systems of children who frequently suffer from inflamed tonsils and other glands. In the 20th century the juice was drunk more often for skin diseases such as psoriasis and also boils while a water infusion was used as a soothing wash for sunburn and an ointment for reducing tumours and ulcers.

A hot water infusion ("herb tea") was used to help flush our urinary gravel and is now found helpful for arthritis, hypertension and fever.

It can be eaten like spinach with a hint of asparagus or used as a hair rinse for reducing dandruff.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015


Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) Asteraceae

The common name of this once popular herbaceous perennial (although short lived) gives away its traditional use as a febrifuge i.e. a herb that helps dispel fever.

Nowadays it has a reputation for helping migraine particularly if the migraine is caused by vascular constriction (tightening of the blood vessels) as it works to relax this tension. It also helps with tension headaches and some forms of tinnitus and even Meniere's disease. For migraine it is best taken fresh - a fresh leaf or two eaten wrapped in bread or similar as the plant can be irritant to the skin and surface of the lips and mouth. A good second best is to make a fresh plant tincture of the leaves and flowerbuds just before they fully open as pictured below:

First harvest the herb cutting the whole stems off above any dirty or yellowed foliage.
Then strip the leaves and flowers off to weigh
The leftover stalks should be composted

Finally the leaves and flowers are covered in 25-30% alcohol to macerate
The maceration (soaking) should take place in a well lidded jar in a dark place for 10 to 14 days then the alcohol is strained off to become the tincture.

Feverfew also contains phytochemicals which ease inflammation and pain so is a useful herb for the inflammatory stages of arthritis and is also anti-spasmodic with traditional use for both colic and wheezing/breathing difficulties. It is a bitter herb so does stimulate the flow of digestive "juices" which benefits a weak digestion and has been found helpful in the treatment of asthma.

Friday, 19 June 2015


Birch (Betula pendula) Family Betulaceae

The silver birch is a small graceful tree with a range of uses.

Medicinally it is usually the young leaves that are used, harvested in spring or early summer. They make a pleasant tea or tincture with diuretic, anti-inflammatory and mildly antiseptic properties good for treating cystitis and oedema due to sluggish kidneys. The diuretic action can also help reduce raised blood pressure and flush out uric acid and dead cells from the joints which makes it beneficial for arthritis and gout.
The inner bark is also in poultices and salves to ease muscle pain and decocted along with the leaves to bathe skin eruptions. Historically an oil was distilled from the bark which is strongly antiseptic and anti-fungal used for treating eczema and psoriasis as well as dressing leather to keep it supple and mould free and was apparently also used in photography and as an insect repellant.  
Only as the tree matures does the bark start to take on the characteristic silvery appearance.
Mature trees can also be tapped for their sap which can also be drunk to treat cystitis; or fermented into birch bark wine; or reduced to a sweet syrup by simmering until reduced to 1/10th of its original volume.

Bark should only be stripped from pruned off branches and tapping for sap done for only a few hours then the hole securely corked to prevent killing the tree. The catkins provide useful pollen for bees and other beneficial insects in spring.

Sunday, 14 June 2015


Chickweed (Stellaria media) family Caryophyllaceae

Gardeners will be all to familiar with this creeping soft green weed with its tiny white flowers which suddenly springs up in our gardens at this time of year. It is an annual and easily pulled out but why not save it instead?
It is a great herb for allaying itchiness - the most useful way to preserve it is as an infused oil - let the harvested herb wilt for 24-48 hours to reduce the water content then put into a glass jar and cover with the oil of your choice - sweet almond oil is nice and light for this one - cap the jar then heat gently in a double boiler or bain-marie for 2 hours then strain off the oil through a coffee filter or similar taking care not to squeeze the filter as you want to avoid getting any water into the resulting infused oil. Bottle the oil to apply to itchy skin or make into a cream or salve for itchiness. For cream making you need to add a water component so infuse some more herb in boiling water for 10 minutes and use that as the water component then mix equal quantities of infused oil and water infusion at the same temperature with an emulsifying wax stirring gently until the cream forms then put it in sterilised jars and store in the frig - it won't keep very long unless you add some kind of preservative such as vitamin E oil or a few drops of essential oil such as lavender.

Salves made with just oil and beeswax (or other wax) keep better but are heavier and tend to trap heat into inflamed skin, but for instant relief just mush up fresh herb and apply to insect bites, rashes or eczema.

Taken internally as a tea (water infusion) or as a tincture, chickweed also helps reduce itching due to internal causes - e.g. a liver under pressure can mean drug residues or other toxins circulate in the blood far longer than they should and cause random itchiness. Being very mucilaginous the herb also soothes inflamed respiratory and digestive tissues so can help with coughs and heartburn too.

Chickweed also makes a pleasant salad vegetable or can be cooked like spinach. Most cage birds and, as its name suggests, domestic poultry love to feast on this herb as do many grazing animals except, apparently, goats.