Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Elder is a native shrub or small tree at maximum growth reaching a height of 10m, although it tends to have a sprawling disposition. It’s growth pattern is unusual in that a few stems appear at once from the base of a sapling, each one growing upward for a while, then drooping over. Upward growth continues from the bud on the bend. The bark of the tree is sandy coloured and rough in texture, with deep furrows, whilst the bark of the twigs is green and slightly shiny with a smooth texture. These twigs contain a soft white pith which is easy to scoop out and produce a hollow tube. These hollowed out stems are believed by some to be the original pan-pipes. This is a matter of divergent opinion, as others believe the name sambucus is a reference to an ancient variety of harp or stringed instrument, made from the hard wood of the tree. In either case, the tree is associated with music and merriment.
The creamy, white flowers have an unmistakable odour and form upright umbels of tiny flowers. These are best picked in full sunlight around lunchtime to avail of the maximum pollen profile, which holds the best flavor. Dry the flowers off the stem as quickly as possible and store in an airtight container. Otherwise the fresh flowers can be used to make such summer delights as elderflower cordial, champagne or fritters. In cooking, elderflowers pair well with gooseberries.
As I write, the elderberries are ripening on the trees along the road, it’s early September and the fertilized flower-heads are changing their unused medicine to another valuable aid to us, as hedgerow herbalists. As the berries ripen, the fruit laden clusters start to droop downwards from the weight, I hadn’t noticed this before, but it makes harvesting much easier.
Although we tend to use the flowers and the berries, the bark, root and leaves also contain medicine. In terms of our bodies, the plant mainly affects the respiratory, urinary, musculo-skeletal and immune systems possessing diuretic, diaphoretic, draining, expectorant, anti-viral, anti-catarrhal, anti-spasmodic, laxative and anti-rheumatic properties.
The bark, collected in autumn was used as a purgative and also as an emetic, the root was also used in this fashion. Elder leaves are used in a similar way to comfrey and can be made into an ointment for bruises and sprains. They are said to have cooling, softening and emollient properties and when decocted are used to sooth inflammations and tumors. If taken internally they are diuretic and can cause nausea in higher doses, but are deemed excellent for oedema, because of their draining and diuretic properties.
The flowers are used for catarrh and upper respiratory tract infections, such as sinusitis, rhinitis or hayfever. They were formerly used for measles and other eruptive diseases. Elderflower tea is diaphoretic, expectorant and gently laxative. For the best effect it is recommended to take the tea very hot and go directly to bed for the night. Yarrow and peppermint may also be added to the infusion. Cold elderflower tea was used as a cosmetic preparation to reduce eye inflammation.
Take the berries in fresh form, as juice, tincture or as a syrup at the earliest onset of a flu. The berries, from which the plant gets its name (nigra) are said to have stronger anti-viral properties, than the flowers. Although according to Stephen Buhner, the leaves and the bark have the strongest medicine. In his book, Herbal Antivirals, published last year, he gives a detailed description of the latest research and also the pharmacognosy of the plant.
An elderberry syrup recipe by Mrs M Grieve
This recipe is referred to as a Vegetable Rob, which is a vegetable juice thickened by heat. Apparently it’s an older form of a syrup.
5lb of fresh, ripe, crushed elderberries
1lb of sugar
Simmer the berries and the sugar together until the juice evaporates to the thickness of honey. Allow to cool and bottle for later use.
To use take one or two tablespoons with a tumbler of hot water, taken at night promotes sweating and soothes the chest.
1. Hoffman (2003) Medical Herbalism, Healing Arts Press
2. Phillips (1983) Wild Food, Pan Books, Macmillan
3. Phillips (1990) Herbs, Pan Books, Macmillan
4. Holmes (1997) The Energetics of Western Herbs, Snow Lotus Press
5. Buhner (2013) Herbal Antivirals, Storey Publishing
6. Paterson (1996) Tree Wisdom, Thorsons
7. Greive (1931) A Modern Herbal, Merchant Book Company
Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)
Common names: Ramsons, Bear Garlic, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek
Part used: bulb, aerial parts (leaves and flowers)
Botanical description: A perennial plant growing from small bulbs. It grows in clumps. The leaves are broad and vivid green and elliptical in shape, with pointed tips, often curled under(similar to Lily of the valley or tulip). The stems are smooth and hairless and angled; the stems bear the star shaped flowers and held in umbels of 6-20and open April to June. The whole plant has a garlicky aroma; if it does not smell of garlic it is not Ramsons.
Harvesting, cultivation and habitat; Native to Europe and Asia; prefers moist and slightly acid soils and occurs in woodlands, shaded hedge-banks and shady stream banks. It is propagated from seed sown in the spring or by dividing clumps and planting them in spring or autumn. If harvesting from the wild then it is more sustainable to harvest the leaves and leave the bulbs to regenerate for the next season. When harvesting it is important to identify the plant correctly since people have confused it with Convallaria majalis (Lily of the Valley), Arum maculatum (Cuckoo Pint/Lords and Ladies) or even Colchium autumnale (Autumn Crocus). The definitive factor for correct identification is the garlicky aroma which none of the others possess; also the time of year of harvesting, it does not emerge in the autumn, also the shape and fragrance of the leaves and flowers.
History/folklore/taste/energetics: Known as bear’s garlic as brown bears love the bulbs and dig them up; Wild boar also enjoy them. Barker says that the name comes from the bear and the plant having a similar smell and that it is also known as Badger’s Flower in certain areas because of a similar aroma from the plant and that animal. It has a long history of use as a food plant and is used in soups, stews, steamed as a vegetable, added to salads or to make a pesto. It has also been used as a fodder crop for cows and will give the milk a slight garlic taste and smell. It is considered to be an Ancient Woodland Indicator Species.
Energetics: Heating and pungent but not as strong as Allium sativum. There has been little or no clinical research on the use of the plant but it has a strong tradition of use. Barker also suggests that its actions are more noticeable on the guts than on the respiratory system.
Constituents: volatile oil, vinyl sulphide, aldehydes, vitamin C.
Actions: Similar to garlic but weaker. Antibiotic; Expectorant (helps to shift mucus); Sudorific (promotes sweating); Hypotensive (lowers blood pressure); Anti-coagulant (thins the blood); Anti-diabetic; Spasmolytic (reduces spasms); Bacteriostatic (stops bacteria growing); Antiseptic; Antiviral; Promotes leucocytosis (the activity of white blood cells involved in the immune system); Amoebicidal; anthelmintic; insecticidal; larvicidal (gets rid of parasites internally); Antitoxic; Cholagogue (encourages the liver to produce bile); Carminative – good for the digestion; Diuretic; diaphoretic; Depurative (blood purifier); Cicatriscant (promotes healthy tissue growth).
Traditional and current uses:
· High blood pressure, prevents arteriosclerosis, spring blood purifier, lowers cholesterol
· Eases stomach pain, digestive tonic, treats diarrhoea, colic, flatulence, indigestion, gastro-enteritis, Crohn’s disease.
· Infusion used for thread worms.
· May be helpful for Candida
· Used for asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema
· Juice used to aid weight loss
· Spring liver and gallbladder cleanse
· Circulatory stimulant for arthritis, rheumatism and gout
· Poultice for boils and abscesses
· Helps balance blood sugar levels
· Widely used as a food
Wild Garlic Pesto
Take 1 litre of loosely packed leaves, a cup full of pine nuts, ground almonds or cashew nuts, a small amount of sea salt to taste, 1-2 dessertspoons of vinegar or lemon juice and enough oil (hemp or olive) to make the desired consistency. Place in a pestle and mortar or food processors and pulverize until a smooth paste is achieved. Spoon into jars and cover with a little oil. It will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.
Wild Garlic Honey
Garlic honey is a traditional treatment for colds and flu; chop wild garlic finely, place into a sterilised jar and cover with honey. Keep in the fridge and use as needed or add to food as a preventative.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
What a year it’s been. What is likely the wettest summer in many years is now giving way to autumn and the onset of winter. The various hues of foliage in plants, especially trees at this time of year, are the plant’s way of making the best out of the diminishing wavelengths of light but although the cold and darker months lie ahead the herbalist is always tuned in to times of harvest.
This can be a good time of year for collecting seeds for example. Fennel seed, from both green (Foeniculum vulgare) and bronze (Foeniculum vulgare purpurea) species, makes for a great tasting tea and can be used to flavour soups and various other culinary delights. I collect the seeds in the 2nd year of growth when they are turning from green to brown. This is something to experiment with. I try to get my seeds just before they are fully mature as I’ve found this improves the volatile oil content and makes for a more aromatic flavour.
On a dry day, and in the absence of dew or frost, I use a pair of secateurs to cut the seed heads, taking care not to spill any, though I usually leave a few to self-seed; something which Fennel does rather well I should add. Place the seed head in a paper bag and string it upside down in a warm, dry environment allowing the seeds to fall off into the bag. It is important to check regularly for mould. And given the wet summer there will likely be a lot more mould and mildew around than is usual.
After 2-4 weeks depending on where you have hung them the seeds will have fallen off the seed head into the bag. Shake the seed heads to remove the rest or tap them gently. Place your seeds on a sheet of newspaper and inspect – a little bit of quality control is in order so discard anything that is obviously damaged or off-colour. Label, date and store in glass jar with an airtight lid.
Fennel seeds can be used in breads, biscuits, soups and Mediterranean-style stews, as a fragrance in soaps and potpourri but also makes a fine tea and tincture. Fennel is a good carminative and so assists the digestive process – it is often used in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Western Herbal Medicine medicine to dispel bloating, abdominal discomfort and wind but can also be used in respiratory conditions (as a mild expectorant) and as a galactagogue (the seeds contain phyto-oestrogens).
Fennel seeds contain important amino acids, vitamins (B2, A and C) and minerals such as magnesium and chromium, as well as the polyphenols quercetin and rutin – known antioxidants – so it makes for a healthy tea.
To tincture fennel seeds a 1:2 60% ratio is ideal though 1:3 45% (or 40% vodka) makes a reasonable batch. As well as the above indications fennel is useful for balancing tincture formulas.
Fennel is one of nine Anglo-Saxon herbs known for secret powers. In ancient days, a bunch of fennel hung over a cottage door on Midsummer’s Eve was said to prevent the effects of witchcraft. Today, if witches are not a problem, try nibbling on the herb’s seeds, as Roman women did centuries ago, to help depress the appetite. Women in Roman times believed fennel prevented obesity.
The ancients believed eating the fennel herb and seeds imparted courage, strength, and conveyed longevity. In Imperial Roman times the physicians were in high regard of fennel for medicinal purposes.
The ancient Greeks and Anglo-Saxons snitched on their fast days by nibbling a little fennel, which reduced the appetite.
The ancients believed that myopic reptiles ate fennel to improve their vision and so used it themselves for this purpose. It is still prescribed as an eye-wash. Also, for failing eyesight, a tea was made from fennel leaves to be used as a compress on swollen eyes.
Fennel is considered one of the oldest medicinal plants and culinary herbs. It is fairly certain that fennel was in use over 4000 years ago. It is mentioned in the famous Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian collection of medical writings made around 1500 BC. There it is referred to principally as a remedy for flatulence. Later authors of herbals, such as Pliny (AD 23-79), also describe fennel primarily as an aid to digestion. In the Middle Ages, it was praised for coughs.
(Fennel essential oil should not be taken internally and should be avoided in epilepsy. Fennel tincture should be used cautiously in pregnancy.)
For the latest clinical research on Fennel see: NCBI – PubMed
Diary of a Herbalist
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Pilewort (Rananculus ficaria)
I have chosen three herbs for this article which were in full bloom the first weekend after Easter when the weather was incredibly beautiful and warm; you could really feel the sun and feel that summer had arrived. The common link between these three herbs is that they are all from the Asteraceae (Compositae) Daisy family and also perhaps the colour which is yellow, what the significance of this colour is I am not really sure, but it is the first indication of sunshine. The three herbs are: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) and Pilewort (Rananculus ficaria).
When I was asked a number of weeks ago to contribute a piece to the IRH website on a herb of the month, I had initially planned to do this by way of monograph. Then I thought what can I write about a monograph that hasn’t already been written. I then felt it might be more interesting to enlighten people on local herbs and show that we don’t need to look to China or America for amazing herbs when we have such equally amazing herbs growing all around us.
I will begin by talking about Dandelion, which as I stated is a member of the daisy family. Basically this herb, or as gardeners and people worldwide will call it ‘a weed’, will grow anywhere. The Chinese call it “golden hairpin weed”. This plant is almost indestructible, it self-fertilising, it has a deep tap root which makes it very difficult to take out, and it flowers almost all year long. Now what can you use dandelion for? Well where will I begin, it can do so much and was originally used as a spring tonic and still is. Recently I looked through a monograph on dandelion, which was over two pages long and the list of remedies varied from abscess to acne, from varicose veins to venereal warts, it is clear it is a one
herb heal all conditions. It is full of minerals especially potassium and vitamins A, B, C and D. The young leaves can be boiled up into a tea, or eaten fresh in salads. They are detoxifiers clearing blood and lymph by increasing elimination through the kidneys and bowels. This in turn benefits overall health. The main thing to think about with dandelion is liver; it is a safe liver herb especially where there are toxins or heat in the blood. The plants chemicals cause the gallbladder to contract releasing bile, stimulating the liver to produce more. So all liver related conditions are aided by dandelion including jaundice and hepatitis, gallstones and urinary tract infections, painful menopause, PMT and menstruation; improvements are achieved in the pancreas, spleen, skin and eyesight.
It is the bitterness in the dandelion that makes them so good for your digestion and this will help stimulate secretions of digestive fluids including stomach acid bile and pancreatic juices. As a diuretic it is really affective for swollen ankles, fluid retention and high blood pressure and can safely be used long term. The whole plant is invaluable for the liver and gallbladder problems, for skin complaints including acne and eczema; it helps reduce high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and pain of arteriosclerosis and joints, digestive problems, viral infections. Now I could say to people why not go out, gather a load of dandelions and make a tincture out of it but as most herbalists are either too busy or unwilling to do this, maybe they would do what I did myself last Sunday and make a dandelion infused flower oil and it is so easy to do. I am recommending if you were to do one thing this week just try to make this oil. Basically pick enough dandelion flowers and put them into a clean dry jar. Chop them up with a scissors and cover them with extra virgin olive oil, cover the jar with a piece of cloth tied with string, and leave the jar in a warm sunny place – a sunny window ledge is ideal. After about two weeks when the flowers are limp and have lost their colour strain off the oil. Allow standing and the oil can be poured into clean bottles leaving any watery bits in the bottom of the jar. Dandelion oil is an excellent rub for muscle tension and aches, and cold stiff joints; it is good for stiff necks and arthritis and also very good for dry skin. The oil can also be added to a salad. Essential oils can be added as a natural preservative, and bring their own healing qualities to the mixture, lavender and rosemary combine well, about 20 drops per 100ml of oil.
The second herb I want to talk about is Coltsfoot. Originally I had intended to do my monograph on Coltsfoot but very little of it had emerged with only one piece of it in my own garden and I was still waiting for that to flower, it was at least a month to six weeks later than last year. Coltsfoot in the middle Ages was known as Fillies ante partum (son before father) because the flower appears before the leaves. This herb grows anywhere from roadsides to hedgerows. Coltsfoot is a really good herb for that dry cough, and all kinds of upper respiratory tract complaints, as it is said to have a tonic effect. It contains mucilage, which is soothing to the mucous membranes.
You can make a tea out of the flowers or leaves. Recently when I went to look for it there was very little to be found but when I went out herb walking over Easter weekend low and behold I came across hundreds of flowers growing just outside a quarry on waste ground where you would imagine nothing would grow, it was just a sea of yellow, beautiful flowers. I sat with the plant for quite a while when the sun was shining and observed lots of flies and insects feeding on the nectar, I left a gift of some tobacco and gathered lots of flowering heads which I have since put drying in a shaded area of my poly tunnel and I am looking forward to trying it as tea. It is especially good when you add fennel to it. Perhaps I will bring some of the flowers to the tea bag club so others can enjoy. One note of caution, Coltsfoot has been found to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids similar to comfrey. Not all these alkaloids are toxic, however, and coltsfoot’s small amount does not appear to be harmful at low doses. I can’t see these causing any problems as cough mixtures are not normally taken long term.
Coltsfoot combines well with mullein especially for dry coughs and as I stated is good as tea when used with fennel.
The third herb I came across was Pilewort, It was last Sunday and the sun was shining, I had just seen two swallows and thought I was seeing things then I came across a clump of yellow flowers which I initially thought were daisies growing at the side of the road but in fact it was Pilewort. To be honest I hadn’t noticed it the last couple of years and it is interesting how plants decide to come out at certain times and what triggers the mechanism of a plant to come out. That afternoon as I went walking up by the river I came across what could only be described as a carpet of yellow Pilewort. The type of soil it seems to like is damp, wet soil and I noticed that where this mass of Pilewort was now growing was within an area that had
recently been covered by flood waters, it was obvious the river had burst its banks at some stage over the winter and the water had come in and flattened the river bank over 30/40 feet. It is not an herb we use much and again there are a lot of question marks over it. It is an incredibly beautiful plant and Bartram encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine lists its use for non-bleeding piles, itching anus and to sooth inflamed anal membranes can be taken as a tea 2-5 grams, thrice daily, probably safest to use externally as an ointment, 1 part whole fresh plant while in bloom to 3 parts benzoinated lard; macerated in gentle heat 24 hrs.
I will endeavour over the next couple of summer months to get out and see what herbs are in season at the time, however these may not be the herbs that everyone else is seeing so I do hope that my fellow herbalists will correspond and enlighten us on their observations and what’s growing in their area. It would be great if we could all put together local information on the herbs that are physically growing around us. Whilst we don’t all have the time or the energy to start digging up roots, washing them and chopping them to making tinctures and then worry about the quality we could all make some great teas, oils and creams.
I can also be contacted on email@example.com and I am looking forward to hearing from other herbalists.
Disclaimer: The information contained in these articles is based upon research and the professional experiences of the author and others. It is not intended as a substitute for consulting with a physician or other healthcare provider. Any attempt to diagnose and treat illness should be done under the direction of a healthcare professional. Should the reader have any questions concerning the appropriateness of any of the herbs mentioned in these articles we strongly suggest consulting with a professional herbalist. For more details visit our Find A Herbalist page.