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Sweeping in the New Year

I’m not one for making resolutions in the New Year as I prefer to set them at other times.  However, this year I have been thinking about trees and how I would like to work with trees a little bit more over the next year or so.  At the present moment we find ourselves in the Celtic Tree Month of the Birch Moon which is a good time to concentrate on new beginnings*.

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* For anyone who may not be familiar with the Celtic Tree Months this link is a good starting point for information

On just a quick Google search of birch I realise what a wonderful, amazing tree it is and why it is perfectly appropriate for this time of year and for new beginnings.  Several species including Betula pendula (Silver Birch), Betula Alba (White Birch), Betula lenta (Sweet birch), Betula pubsecens (Downy Birch), Betula Utilis (Himalayan Birch) have been used for medicinal purposes. Just a few of its uses are listed below:

  • It is a pioneer species, one of the first new species to colonise ground making it hardy, tough and adaptable;
  • The twigs are commonly used in witches’ besoms and most people are familiar with the expression “a new broom sweeps clean“;
  • The birch has a strong Goddess association and is often referred to as the “Lady of the Woods“;
  • Native Americans (particularly in the North) relied on the birch for food, clothing, shelter, containers, canoes and medicine;
  • The sap is used to make syrups and wines;
  • It is a great detoxifier used for the treatment of urinary and kidney problems and helps clear up many skin problems as well as expelling worms;
  • It is used in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism;
  • It contains pain relieving salicylate – similar to aspirin compound;
  • It has been used as a paper substitute particularly for prayers;
  • It is home to the chaga mushroom which is a wonderful adaptogen and used in cancer treatment.

As I beginning the fourth year of my herbal apprenticeship I am aware that I have not been regularly writing up the work I have been doing and therefore my New Year’s herbal resolutions are:

  • to complete and write up the year 4 tasks;
  • where possible revisit years 1-3 tasks and write them up;
  • not to take on a new herbal ally but revisit the previous 2 (elder and vervain);
  • to work more with trees, paying attention to the Celtic Tree Calendar;
  • work with birch.

 

References:

http://sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/birch.php

http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/herbal-remedies/birch-trees-natural-medicine-ze0z1401zbla?pageid=1#PageContent1

http://www.anniesremedy.com/herb_detail181.php

http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/chaga-mushroom-can-help-you-to-be-healthy-zbcz1501

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Spring Cleaning

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I have been in a kind of self-inflicted hibernation for a long time now and feel like I spent the entire winter burying my head under an ever-increasing “to-do” list.  Along with the Sun I have been slowly emerging over … Continue reading

Harvestime survival tips

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Back at the beginning of August I came across a whole debate on the net originating from a blog by an American pagan who essentially said they didn’t believe in celebrating Lammas (the first harvest and start of autumn) because August is not autumn where they are. Well here in the UK it seems a different story. Within days of reading that I was a Springfield Sanctuary harvesting lots of flowering herbs and making burns honey, borage flower vinegar, vervain flower essence, mugwort vinegar and vervain tincture and over the next few weeks I have noticed the early signs of autumn. Leaves are falling, herbs are getting past their best and there is an abundance of crops all ready to harvest.

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This year has been a strange year for the plants. All my vegetables have been very late in developing and it seemed like nothing was wanting to grow and all of a sudden everything is overripe and ready to crop immediately. I have found myself going into panic mode. What do I do? There is only so much time in the day! If I don’t deal with it straight away it will spoil! I’m going on holiday and will miss the best of the harvest!

Therefore I have set myself the task of prioritising what it is that I really want to harvest e.g.

  • I want veg for my freezer and to make into preserves
  • I want hawthorn berries, elderberries and blackberries
  • I want lemon balm, mugwort, lavender and other herbs
  • I want to make, jams, wines, cordials and chutneys
  • More nettles for seed.

What are my priorities? e.g.

  • The herbs are going over so need picking soon, they also need a dry day.
  • Runner beans need picking but keep for a few days after picking.
  • Cabbages, potatoes & roots won’t harm in the ground for a while.
  • Calendulas need picking when they are open.
  • Berries will be around for a couple more weeks.

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Thinking this over can be quite helpful as it helps prevent a kitchen full of produce needing attention when I am too exhausted from spending all day harvesting.

I have found it useful to do the following:

  • Decide what you are going to pick on what days – check weather forecast.
  • Sort and tie herbs into bundles for drying as you are picking them in the garden. That way mess stays outside and all they need doing is hanging up. (I don’t tend to wash my herbs from the garden as I know they aren’t pollluted and it helps prevent mildew forming).
  • Any tinctures etc take jars into garden and put herbs straight in.
    Veg can be done in batches and frozen. The quicker it can get in the freezer the better. Focus on one veg at a time.
  • If it’s a nice sunny day prioritise the herbs. Berries and veg are OK to harvest in the wet.
  • Berry pickers are great for elderberries.
  • Freezing is great for any berries you are going to make preserves from, but remeber to wash and weigh before they go into freezer. The taste of wines, cordials and jams don’t seem affect by the berries being frozen first.

Hopefully if I follow my own simple rules I will have time to collect everything I need for the next 12 months.

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Preparing for Winter

Just after the Summer Solstice may seem a strange time to be thinking about winter, but it is the time when many of our herbs are ready for harvesting and therefore a perfect time to take stock of what we already have and what we are likely to need during the winter months. 

Sarah has set us a June task of thinking about what herbs we need for the rest of the summer and winter, what to harvest, what conditions we might need to treat and what we would like to make.  I already have enough products and herbs to las the rest of the summer so this is my plan of action to prepare myself for this coming winter.

Step One

Tak an inventory of what is already there. It will be important to note what I used the most, what I need and what is there not being used. A lot of this I explored earlier on in the year and I just need to check that the inventory I made then is up-to-date.

Step Two

Make a list of my commonly occuring winter ailments and how I propose to treat them. I really struggle with low moods, getting up on winter mornings and chesty complaints as well as indigestion related to unhealthy eating and overindulgence on comfort foods. My main focus this winter will be to keep healthy and to raise my mood. This will be through herbal preparations such as teas, tinctures, syrups, bath sachets as well as being assisted by better organisation, removing clutter, healthier eating and doing more exercise. I also believe that negativity can collect in the home so I will be replenishing herbal protection bags, smudging and undertaking general cleaning. I have started to note a list of preparations I might like to make over the next few months:

  • Morning uplifting and energising tea blends

  • Afternoon, calming and de-stress tea blends

  • Night tea blends for promoting good sleep

  • Tincture blend for mood improvement during December/January

  • Fire cider vinegar as an all round preventative

  • Digestive bitters for helping with winter stodge

  • Herbal sleep sachets

  • Herbal mood lifting sachets

  • Moth/insect repelling fragrant sachets for clothes in storage

  • Herbal protection/clearing incense

  • Herbal cough/chest complaint remedies

  • Vitamin loaded cordials

  • Herbal cleaning products – e.g. to add to water for mopping, ironing, window clearning, wiping surfaces.

  • Herbal cosmetics such as body butters, hair rinses, flower waters etc

  • Herbal first aid kit such as for healing burns, aches, general pain, cuts, brusies, skin complaints

Step Three

Physically harvest the plants for drying. Make any tinctures or oils etc from fresh material. I already know that I will be collecting rose petals, lemon balms and lavender for their mood improving properties and mugwort, rosemary and wormwood for their protective properties. It may seem unnecessary collecting and drying herbs such as sage and rosemary when they are in the garden all year round and for cooking it is usally preferable to use the fresh herbs. The reason I do this is that in the dark depths of winter I leave the house in the dark and return to the house in darkenesss, therefore I am less inclined to use something if it means going out into a cold, dark garden wtih a torch. It is also useful to have a stock of dried materials if making incenses, herb pouches and herbal tea blends.

Step Four

Make products from dried plant material. These are often the time consuming products such as incenses, tea blends and herbal sachets. They require thought, planning and experimentation. This will mean looking up herbal properties in books and on the internet. My favourite book for herbal healing properties is David Hoffman’s New Holistic Herbal and for energetic propoerties I like Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. They are both easy to use and have tables for cross-referencing specific ailments or properties. If I am undecided on certain herbs I sometimes use my dowser to help me make my final selection from a short-list. I also love sites such as other blogs, pinterest and youtube for craft or blending ideas which I then adapt for my own purposes.

Step Five

Start using the products! As I discussed in my last post (A cupboard full of good intentions) it is all very well collecting herbs and making products but it won’t do any good sat in the cupboard.

I will be starting in the next couple of weeks, but steps three, four and five will take me several months to complete. It is also likely that my winter “to do” list will get added to and modified quite a bit between now and winter.

A Cupboard Full of Good Intentions

Last year was my first year’s journey as a herbal apprentice. During this time I experienced growing herbs and monitoring plant growth, harvesting herbs, tasting herbs and making many herbal preparations. Over Christmas I took out all of the contents of my herb cupboard (which was so full jars were falling out when I opened the door) and took the time to make an inventory and wasn’t surprised to find nearly 200 jars and bottles.

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I realised that I have only been using a fraction of what is in there and that was mainly to make up teas from old favourites such as lemon balm, catnip and lavender. I often take these to work for use with my tea ball.

I decided there were five main reasons why I haven’t been using other herbs or products:

  • I had forgotten I had it;

  • I couldn’t easily access it;

  • I couldn’t remember what it was used for;

  • When I was ill I couldn’t be bothered to make something up;

  • I hadn’t found a need for it.

The annoying thing is I have been very run-down over winter, with no energy and struggling to keep going. I seem to get lots of days where I feel like I am “coming down with something” and I also suffer with indigestion. I have this marvellous cupboard full of solutions which I haven’t been using.

Therefore my mission throughout April and May has been to focus less on making products and more on improving my general health. First job was to rearrange the kitchen and create a space to put a few things I needed easy access to. I also swapped my spice rack round so culinary herbs that are hardly used are relegated to the cupboard and frequently used medicinal herbs have their own space. I can just top up the jars once every week or so and avoid the pain of a daily visit to the cupboard.

I am taking Ashwagandha tincture for energy and overall health, fire cider vinegar as a preventative and digestive bitters for obvious reasons. After 6 weeks I am starting to feel slightly improved with more energy and less indigestion. However this is only part of my journey and I am looking forward to working with more jars and bottles in the cupboard.

Lessons I have learned to avoid a cluttered cupboard full of unused herbs

  • I keep smaller jars of frequently used herbs to hand in the spice rack;

  • I reguarly go through my cupboard and transfer half empty jars to clean-dry, smaller jars. This helps massively on reducing storage as well as providing an opportunity to check contents and discard where necessary;

  • to make it easier to find things I label the lids as well as the jars;

  • be realistic about what I harvest. Just because I have lots of sage and rosemary which needs pruning I don’t have to dry it all. I am going to spend more time deciding what I would like to work with and/or are likely to need and focus on getting those and if I really am not going to use something I won’t harvest it;

  • find uses for some of the products I haven’t yet used such as turning oils into salves and making mojo bags, scented sachets, incense etc;

  • only make tinctures, oils and vinegars where I think I will definitely use them.

Making a tonic wine

January 11th – the first Springfield Sanctuary workshop of the year on Tonics for winter (held in Solihull).

On the day of the workshop I’d had a typical winter cold for a couple of weeks, plus I am asthmatic and  suffer allergies so my breathing had been quite strained and there was a lot of nasal congestion going back to December.  Therefore I decided I would like to make a lung tonic.  I had researched some lung herbs and following discussion with Sarah I decided on the following concoction.

  • Wine – supposed to be good quality, but I used my homemade crab apple and blackberry wine.
  • dried fruit – Sarah had provided a selection and I chose a  mixture (less than a small handful) of apricots, candied peel, cherry, dates and sultanas
  • Nettles (as a general tonic)
  • Hyssop (expectorant and cough suppressant)
  • Angelica Root (good for respiratory complaints)
  • Thyme (coughs and bronchial complaints)
  • Fennel seed (chronic cough)
  • Elecampane Root (for shortness of breath and expectorant)
  • Elderflower (for alleviating allergies and boosting respiratory health)

Method

This was quite simple, pound the herbs a bit and add to jar along with the chopped up fruit.  Pour over the wine and shake well.

Leave for 2 weeks, shaking periodically, then strain and use within 3 weeks.

The verdict:  It won’t win any prizes for flavour that is for certain, but I won’t be sipping it slowly.

During the two weeks it was steeping, I have improved greatly but my fitness is down and I get short of breath quickly so I think a good tonic is still needed so now it is strained I shall be taking a small amount each night before bed and see how it goes.

It is also interesting for me that 5 out of the 7 herbs used in this are on my list of herbs for this year and hyssop almost made the list, but I didn’t have enough room.  Maybe I have already been growing the herbs I really need and not taking them as often as I should and maybe that is part of the reason why I was drawn to select them to study this year.