The roots of Herbalism: A workshop with Penelope Ody

I feel very fortunate to be spending this time in the UK.  On various adventures outside London I have now seen for myself the majesty of the Lake District, the un-mistakeable English-ness of the Yorkshire Dales, and northern Wales in all its glory.  These areas are amongst countless other twists and turns of the British landscape, all with deep connections to the history of their culture.  Time after time I have been impressed with the way the past is cherished and shared through local exhibits, National Trust properties, or by keeping alive a traditional practice like dry-stone walling and thus preserving the landscape.

A goal for my time whilst living here has been to connect with the history of herbal medicine and bring alive the theory that was introduced during my herbalism studies in Australia.  Last week I took the opportunity to visit Walnut Cottage, the Hampshire herb garden of Penelope Ody, renowned herbal practitioner and author, by taking part in a day long workshop offered on her website.  The workshop, Leechbooks and Wort Cunning, discussed myths, legends, and traditional uses of plants that we still use medicinally today, whilst tracing the evolution of herbal medicine through the Druids, Saxons, Greek and Roman influences, and Medieval Christianity.  We were a small group which allowed for lively discussion and shared excitement, especially when we got to tour the herb garden and collect cuttings!

In the lovely herb garden at Walnut Cottage

Penelope Ody gives us a tour of her garden

We were casting ourselves back into the minds of our fore-mothers and fathers and regarding the plants with a deeper, more superstitious and magical significance.  We learnt that a popular use for herbs was to make them into an amulet that would bring the wearer luck or protection, depending on which plants were selected.

The cuttings for my herbal amulet

I collected cuttings of Bistort, Clover, Fennel, Rosemary and Walnut for good luck, courage, strength, improved mental powers and protection from illness and evil (covering all bases then).  I added cardamom pods for peaceful thoughts.  We also collected nine different cuttings from sacred plants such as rose, elder and mugwort to make a midsummer bouquet to be dried and hung in our homes.

My mid-summer bouquet

One of the treats of the day for me, aside from the delicious home cooked lunch, was getting to rifle through Penny’s amazing collection of old herbal books. One in particular,  The Leech Book of Bald, is the oldest surviving medical book in England.  In old English laece or leech means healer and this book was compiled by a monk named Bald during the 9th century.  We chose a traditional recipe, a cough syrup, from this ancient text and gave it a go.  The recipe stated: ‘Against a cough and narrowness boil sage and fennel in sweetened ale and sip it hot; do likewise as often as may be needed’.  The result tasted quite pleasant and the sensation after drinking was a soothing warmth in the throat.  These are herbs that we still use medicinally for coughs and congestion today, probably due in part to old references like this.

Herbal amulet, bouquet and medieval throat tonic

Now all that remains is to keep my amulet close and enjoy luck, health and an absence of evil!

Primrose Hill herb walk

I spent this Saturday morning walking around the lovely Primrose Hill with herbalist Christopher Hedley and a group of keen herbal students and enthusiasts.  It rained, it was cold, we were cold, but it was fantastic!  Christopher led us through tips on identifying our medicinal plants (never taste until you are sure!) and told stories about the magic of the hill.

The view down Primrose Hill from under a Hawthorn tree

We ate leaves from Hawthorn and Linden trees (above dog height is always best).  We found and then discussed the use of fresh plants like Chickweed for itchy skin, Common Dock for Nettle stings, and Plantain for insect bites.

Chickweed - a fresh plant tincture is helpful on itchy skin conditions

I am so inspired!  It is wonderful to walk around a park in the middle of a big city like London and remember that there are traditional herbal medicines growing all around.  I have some freshly picked Cleavers ready in a pot for an overnight cold infusion which Christopher recommends to be drunk over a few days for a Springtime lymphatic cleanse.

Horsechestnut tree - the nuts can be used as a tonic for varicose veins

A herbal workshop in the Cotswolds

As an Australian herbalist I am excited to learn more about the way herbal medicine is practiced in other parts of the world. Now that I am lucky enough to call the United Kingdom home for a while, I have been scouting around for ways to connect with other practitioners and herbal enthusiasts.  Via the excellent hub provided by the Herb Society website (www.herbsociety.org.uk), I came across Sarah Head and the Springfield Sanctuary in the Cotswolds (www.springfieldsanctuary.co.uk).

Sarah is the best type of herb enthusiast – one that loves sharing her knowledge as much as gathering it.  A practical herbalist, Sarah runs two herb gardens, gives tours, talks, and workshops and offers herbwifery apprenticeships.  She invited me along to a herb workshop last weekend, with promises of herb identification and the experience of making a bramble root vinegar.

I caught the train out of London with two of Sarah’s herbal apprentices, wonderful women whom it was a pleasure to meet. We were met by Sarah at the station and our first glimpse of the sanctuary was driving in through a classic Cotswolds dry stone wall, much older than I am I’m sure.  The land is gorgeous and the view…

Cotswolds view

The summer house at the Springfield Sanctuary

 We began with a cup of nettle and cleavers tea, fresh picked from the garden, while we waited for the other apprentices to arrive. Then Sarah gave us a tour of the herb gardens, showing us specific medicinal plants and trees and discussing their use.  We saw Ginkgo and Cramp Bark trees, Sage and Mullein, St John’s wort and Wood Betony, amongst many more.  It was the first week of Spring and many plants were not in flower, but it was still such an important process of recognition and a treat for this herbalist who’s training has been heavy on the theory but lacking in actual contact with the plants themselves.  We smelt, felt, and tasted herbs, until I actually felt a little light headed!

Sarah Head gives a tour of the herb gardens

Me enjoying a cup of tea

Then it was time for the hard work.  All I knew was that we were clearing a bramble patch and making a medicinal vinegar from the roots.  Not entirely sure what I was doing, I set out to help the others.  Brambles are blackberry plants with long running thorny stems which love to cover an area send down new roots.  This can suppress the growth of herbs and other plants.  So we got out the forks and dug them up.  I was aided in pulling up what I thought to be a very impressive root bundle which I lovingly cleaned and washed, along with piles more, ready for the vinegar. Continue reading