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

Make your own herbal medicines

I was given a great book for Christmas: ‘Grow Your Own Drugs: A Year With James Wong’, the companion to the BBC TV show that has also aired here in Australia.  James Wong is an ethnobotanist interested in medicinal plants and home grown remedies (and quite easy on the eye).

James Wong - Grow Your Own Drugs

I haven’t seen the show but the book is fantastic and filled with great ideas for turning fresh and dried herbs, essential oils and other simple ingredients into homemade herbal medicines.  Some of the herbs in his recipes are not readily available in Australia, at least to my knowledge, but I found plenty that are and so I had a go..

TummySoother1

The first thing that caught my eye was his “Peppermint Tummy Soother for Indigestion”, a peppermint and chamomile syrup to take as needed for stomach cramps and nervous indigestion.  Most people have herbal tea bags in the cupboard so this is super easy.  I used dried peppermint leaves, 4 chamomile tea bags and some beautiful fresh chamomile flowers from J’s sister.

TummySoother2

I basically made a really strong tea, simmering the herbs in water for 20 mins, then leaving to cool and straining through a sieve and muslin.  He recommends pushing on the herby bits with a spoon (I used my fingers) to squeeze out all the therapeutic juices.  This is what I ended up with:

TummySoother3

I returned this to the clean pot and simmered for ages to reduce to 200ml volume.  James Wong suggested to simmer gently and I possibly took this slightly too far as it took about 40 mins to reduce!  Anyway, I was able to put a lot of love into my liquid herbs by spending so much time with them.  When the volume was right I added a cup and a bit of honey (from my cousins’ bees!) and 75ml of good cloudy apple cider vinegar.  This stuff is a great digestive tonic, alkaliser and all around friend to your body.

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