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Putting some fire in your belly!

Warming digestive winter teas

It’s cold. Beautifully sunny outside, but cold.  When I’m this cold all I can think about is my next cuppa.  And therein lies the danger – one cuppa after another and my caffeine intake soon spirals out of control.  Next thing I’m jumpy, irritable (I know, few would believe it…) and all a bit of a jitter.

It’s just too easy to reach for the same old brew each time (Earl Grey is my current  favourite) but with a little imagination it’s possible to create something really tasty that actually does physiologically help to warm us up but helps keep our (distinctly decaffeinated) cool.

Ginger is a great winter herb.  A couple of slices of fresh ginger with honey or lemon to taste will help the blood reach all the way to those cold fingers and toes. I get many of my patients with Raynaud’s syndrome, who have particularly poor circulation, to drink fresh Ginger tea through the winter. Also handy if you’ve overdone it at the Christmas buffet to assist your digestion and quell any related nausea…

The smell of Cinnamon is very much associated with the Festive Season. It not only smells nice but is a really gentle, warming herb particularly good for people who need a bit of extra help digesting food in the winter because their digestive fire is low. Cinnamon is also extremely good at balancing blood sugar and research has looked into the possibility of using it in early Type II Diabetes.  I also find it helpful for patients who tend to get low blood sugar episodes.

But my absolute favourite frost-buster, is a steaming hot cup of traditional Indian Masala Chai with aromas of Cardamom, Ginger, Allspice, Star Anise and Cloves – each of them warming and rich. For those of you avoiding milk, swap your cow juice for bean juice and try a soya version instead.  If you are concerned about your sugar intake, then reduce the sugar in traditional recipes which tend to be very sweet. How you like your Masala Chai is a bit like how you like your eggs in the morning – it’s a very personal thing.  Happily there are a plethora of recipes out there and some half-decent preblended mixes too.

Right then, I’m off to put the kettle on…

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Autumnally blessed…

Autumn harvest

As I was taking this photograph of my autumn harvest, I suddenly realised just how much it sums up the way I strive for life to be and highlights a number of people around me who I’m blessed to have in my life.

The grapes are from our good herbalist friend Bergitte McGovern‘s polytunnel, the Hawthorns picked from the hedgerow surrounding her land, the squashes are sitting on a beautiful pottery plate she made for me some years ago. I try to buy as many of my tinctures as I can from Be who has a fabulous medicinal herb garden and treats her plants with respect and joy!

The apples are a gift brought back from Ireland by visiting friends David and Heather Sharland. Heather is a nurse with over 20 years experience working in Africa as a midwife and health visitor along with fellow herbalist and ethnobotanist, Lucie Bradley who has recently moved to Tanzania, we three are working on a book for women’s groups in East Africa to empower them to learn about natural ways of looking after their health. They are sitting in a bowl made for my husband and I as a wedding gift by fellow herbalist Therese Hickland, owner of Healing Thyme.

The candle in the wooden bowl was a gift from Hilary Storm – another amazing woman who has recently come back to the UK after 7 years living and working in Uganda with a children’s charity there. And the wooden bowl itself was turned for us as a wedding gift by herbalist Tim Entwhistle who is now working towards his PhD in ground breaking research into natural medicine and cancer.

Feeling very autumnally blessed…

And the squashes?  Supermarket I’m afraid… I have no poetic stories about them…

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Time for the Hawthorn harvest!


Hawthorn berries for heart health

Autumn has very definitely set in, I know that because I now have cold ankles and am starting to wear boots.  They will come off again sometime in spring… Also, we have been blessed by some beautiful dry, sunny days and that means I’ve been able to get out and do a bit of harvesting.

Where our blooms did not fare well this year, our berries seem to have enjoyed the damp summer. Rowan is looking particularly good and hanging in great, red, juicy clusters. But today it is Hawthorn that I’m after.

Not the first berry you’d think about eating, granted, but I have other cunning uses for this slightly waxy, red jewel. Hawthorn brandy is a lovely way of warming yourself by a Winter Solstice fire and it also serves as a fantastic heart tonic.  A lot of research has been done into Hawthorn and it’s effects on the heart. Herbalists like me use both the flowering tops in the springtime and the berries in winter.  Full of many complex phytochemicals, Hawthorn can lower blood pressure, or raise it, depending on what is required by the body.  It also protects the heart from cardiovascular disease. Sound too good to be true? Many a modern herbalist and hundreds of years of empirical research says otherwise.

Hawthorn brandy recipe

But back to the brandy. It’s extremely simple to make. Fill one Kilner jar with:

  • 2/3 hawthorn berries (flatten them slightly under a wide bladed knife to break the skins)
  • 1/3 dark brown sugar (I like Muscovado best, but the darker the better really)
  • 70cl Brandy
  • And add, if you wish the zest of 2 oranges and a stick of cinnamon.
  • Stir daily for 2 weeks then weekly for 2 months and then set aside. Strain before drinking.

This Hawthorn Brandy definitely gets better with age. Traditionally you should keep it until at least Winter Solstice but do try to keep a bottle back for next year. I have one bottle that’s about 5 years old now and it just gets better every year…


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Fennel – quick solution to an embarassing problem…

Fennel is a great digestive aid

I can’t really pretend that Fennel is a favourite of mine. I’m not all that keen on the aniseed taste – but once in a while, it’s a very handy herb to have around. In fact it’s a main player. For what? For flatulence, my friend!

If you’ve ever eaten too much and watched your abdomen swell like a balloon (my worst experience of that was eating too much cheese fondue… I’ve never been able to face it again) when you can’t get comfortable and your waistband feels like it might pop, Fennel is what you need.

The seed, to be exact, although I find the stalks and leaves just as aromatic. Fennel seed is the part that we traditionally use. It’s also the main ingredient in baby’s gripe water as it not only gives the wind safe passage (!) but eases the cramping pain associated with it too.  The seeds also make an appearance as an ingredient in colourful bowls of mukhwas often seen in Indian restaurants to eat after meals to freshen the breath and aid digestion.

Fennel is extremely easy to grow in the garden and will happily self seed. Simply wait until most of the seeds are ripe before cutting the stalks and placing upside down in a paper bag to dry. Add around a teaspoonful to a cup of hot water and drink hot or cold, or in emergencies just chew the seeds straight!  I hate to say it but the Festive Season is coming and that’s a good time to make sure you have some handy…

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The last of the summer blooms

Borage flower ice cubes

Well, I’m not sure how it turned out where you are but on the West Coast of Scotland it was a wet summer for sure!  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find some beautiful Borage flowers still blooming in my veg patch and a few rogue Pansies in amongst the carrot tops as I was clearing the garden.

Borage is a very important medicine for herbalists. We use it to help support the adrenal glands. For those who don’t have an intimate knowledge of those glands, they are constantly working hard on your behalf to regulate adrenaline and cortisol production in your body, amongst other things. It’s our adrenal glands that respond to any stress – in classic ‘fight or flight’ reaction. In our modern world, with all the information we’re constantly processing, we are often in a chronic ‘fight or flight’ loop that drains the adrenal glands and can make us tired, jumpy and stressed out.  Beautiful Borage soothes the adrenals and can stop stress related palpitations and jumpiness associated with having too much on our plates. In our folklore we gave Borage for courage – and I often use it in that way today, giving patients Borage can help calm the adrenalin rushes that come with having to face up to a big event, meeting or exam.

But the flowers that I’ve picked this time are now freezing nicely in ice-cube tray, ready for when summer returns again and they can grace my Pimms jug! :)

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June Bloom Blues

Medicinal herbs in the walled garden

My roses all are crumblin’

My Passiflora’s junk

My Marshmallow has lost it’s glow

I feel like giving up… 

It was a good start, but summer has been a relative waash-oot as they say in these parts.  However, I am aware that we are faring somewhat better that our friends down south who have suffered daily deluges of Biblical proportions.

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time at a conference for the National Institute of Medical Herbalists which was held at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre near Birmingham.  North to some folks, that’s WAY down south to me.  And what a very beautiful place Woodbrooke turned out to be.  The Cadbury family home, set in large garden and woodland complete with pond (and boat – no, I didn’t but herbalist friends DID!).

But it was the kitchen garden that fascinated me.  Years of care for the plants and high walls creating a micro-climate mean that the specimens found within were, to put it bluntly, ENORMOUS and organic to boot.  No miracle growth additives there, just love and care and great homemade compost.

It brought home to me how intertwined our herbal medicine and our food really is, seeing them as lush and happy companions.  So when I find myself turning to writing about food recipes more often than strictly medicinal ones, I no longer worry, but embrace the medicine of the kitchen!

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Angelic Plants

Angelica archangelica

I just had to share this beautiful photograph of Angelica archangelica that I took recently.  The structure of this plant never ceases to amaze and inspire me.  Strong and sturdy, standing proudly 5 – 6 feet high, she dominates any garden and holds her own in the wild.  I was inspired by a fellow herbalist to photograph her this way – showing her globes within globes against the blue sky.

Any plant deserving of such a lofty name must have been very much respected in our herbal traditions.  There is indeed a legend that the Archangel Raphael appeared to a monk in a dream and told him to use Angelica to cure the bubonic plague. Records also state that this plant was thought to protect against poison, disease and, of course, the ubiquitous witch…

In fact, if a woman grew Angelica archangelica in her garden, it was seen as proof that she was not a witch…

Today, I still use this herb in my clinic as it has many potent uses, mostly to support the body to throw off a chest infection and improve the appetite.

I have not, to date, been able to grow it in my garden…


No more grumbling about Ground Elder!

Yep, I get it.  I have the same fight with it year in year out.  Ground Elder… it sneaks in under the wall, entwines in the neighbour’s fence, strangles the baby onions and snickers at me when I try to get hold of it by the root.

Well, this year, I’ve decided to try a fresh, new approach.  I’m going to become one of those really irritating ex-Ground Elder weeders :)

Introduced by the Roman’s (thanks, guys), by medieval times, monks would keep a patch growing nearby as a treatment for gout and arthritis.  It’s other common name is Goutweed/wort and Culpeper, in the 1600s says ‘It should not be supposed that Goutwort has it’s name for nothing!’  This use, although most herbalist friends can quote it, seems to have largely died out.  But it’s main function, when it introduced, was not as a medicine, but more as a potherb with benefits… In fact, it was so popular that it was grown as a food crop.

Ground Elder can be used as a spinach substitute, both fresh in salads and wilted in hot dishes.  It should only be used before flowering – afterwards it becomes a strong laxative – you have been warned! You can delay flowering by nipping the flower buds early on.

I have to say, I like it!  Fresh in salad, added to curry instead of spinach…  I’m thinking of trying it in risotto next, rather than Nettle leaf.  I love the term ‘urban spinach’ as someone called it.  So… my infestation has become a crop.  And as weeds are defined as being plants you don’t want in your garden – it’s no longer a weed in my book.  Another frustrating weeding session has been averted.

Goutweed salad anyone?


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Beltane Fires

For most of us, it’s just an ordinary Tuesday. For our ancestors this was one of the most anticipated festivals of the year.  Beltane or May Day as it was later called, celebrated the 1st day of May and with it the stirrings of spring.

Great excitement would have taken over our communities as we built the Beltane fire from    our nine indigenous sacred timbers and got ready to jump over its flames for luck and health.  Cattle were led between two fires to protect them from illness and the Maypole was erected in the centre of the village, decorated with bright ribbons and danced around.

Then there was the frisky side to this ancient celebration of life!  In pre-Christian times people took off into the woods for an illicit fling on Beltane night – children born of these meetings were said to be blessed.  That night spent in the woods almost certainly was!

It is the Queen of the May, otherwise known as the Hawthorn that is the plant most connected with these times.  Associated with fertility and good fortune, it was the plant to oversee relationships of the heart and many a handfasting would have taken place on this day, with the bride’s bower decorated with the frothy white blossoms of the Hawthorn tree.

Nowadays, we are less likely to look to Hawthorn for our fertility rites but for the herbalist, Hawthorn still has much to do with the heart.  It is the herb of choice to normalise blood pressure.  Hang on, come again?  It can normalise blood pressure.  That means it lowers high blood pressure and can raise low blood pressure bringing the body back to homeostasis.

Not only that, but clever Hawthorn has been shown in numerous trials to be safe and effective for Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) without the distressing side effects many medicines can cause.

So it would appear that our ancestors knew a thing or two when they crowned Hawthorn ‘Queen of the Heart’…

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Spring – officially sprung!

Preparing the veg beds may well have been rudely interrupted by a shower of hail, yes, HAIL at the weekend.  But that still doesn’t detract from the fact that spring has sprung.  The songbirds are chirping their way into our early mornings, the lambs are gamboling across the fields and, much to our household’s delight, the nettle tops are just high enough to be cropped for soup.

My family used to be horrified at the thought of nettle soup and once upon a time I guess I would have been too.  But now I wait for that magical time, that first real foraging opportunity to come around and I’m out there, grasping the nettles – sometimes with gloves, sometimes without, depends on how defiant I’m feeling…

Last year I made a short doc for BBC Scotland showing you how to make fabulous nettle soup.  You can find it here: