Mapping and observations

20160611_101333Hello again. I don’t know what has come over me. Two posts in the same week and I can’t normally manage two in the same season. I’ve actually been meaning to write this post for a while. I sketched out the idea for it in my first or second year of the apprenticeship but never got around to finishing it off until now.

Many of the tasks which I’ve been set over the last four years relate to either mapping of trees/plants or seasonal observations. I have to admit that I am quite good at observing plants but not so good at making records, although I have improved on this more recently. One of my biggest regrets over the last few years is not having a dedicated herbal notebook. I tend to note things down on bits of scrap paper and regularly lose them so when I find them moths later I either can’t read my writing or remember what they related to. I’ve now purchased an A5 spiral notebook so everything will be stored chronologically in one place until I get chance to write them up neat into my herbal folder. The other regret is not taking enough photographs so it assists when writing up. At the end of every month Sarah usually asks us what we’ve been up to and I’ve sometimes surprised myself at what I have done but I think I miss an awful lot out as I haven’t recorded it properly.

There are three reasons I believe the mapping tasks are set:

  1. to help us get to know plants and to be able to readily identify them;
  2. so we know where to return for harvesting; and
  3. so we can’t harvest them at their prime.

I am very careful where I harvest from; living and working in town most of my observations take place in the urban environment including the local parks. These are not necessarily the most appropriate places to harvest from. I always try and harvest within the law and from areas that are not polluted. Whilst not particularly good for harvesting, the urban environment can be a great place to notice to observe plants. Walking around a city centre for half an hour I might spot 10 or more trees with useful properties and more than 20 plants. As I’ve progressed along my herbal journey I’ve got to know a variety of plants and then I suddenly start seeing them everywhere. Classic examples of this are mugwort and St John’s Wort (SJW), both of which can be quite sizeable plants and yet go largely unnoticed. I never ever noticed them until I grew mugwort from seed and saw SJW at the Sanctuary, after a while I began to see them everywhere – almost every traffic jam I seem to see mugwort growing on the verges and some unlikely places where I’ve also seen SJW such as in the grounds of derelict buildings and close to the canalside. It’s almost as if the plants suddenly start waving at you saying “here I am”.

Even in the city centre you can get a connection to nature and the changing seasons and sometimes you can be quite surprised by nature fighting b20170825_080441ack. One of my favourite times for observations is during my morning walk to work. Back in the summer I spotted some rogue tomato plants growing through a crack in the concrete next to a multi-storey carpark. I imagined all sorts of scenarios as to how the seeds got there. I have spent entire bus or train journeys noting down every plant I can identify and have been surprised at the number. Sometimes if I’m not enjoying a walk for whatever reason I distract myself by telling myself the names, botanical names or uses of plants as I pass them by. Identification skills are developed by regularly walking the same route as you can watch the plant through the seasons and find out if your initial thoughts on the identity were correct.

I’ve been unable to carry out some of the set tasks that rely on harvesting because my only real harvesting locations (particularly for roots and some aerial parts and bark) are the allotment, the garden or the sanctuary during workshops. Sometimes I’ve located plants in the right locations but there are not enough plants available to carry out the tasks so I’ve still not made violet syrup or picked coltsfoot flowers but that did not stop me being excited when I finally identified the plants growing. The one and only time I’ve seen coltsfoot growing in the wild I was on a site visit with two colleagues who thought I had lost the plot when I suddenly exclaimed “that’s coltsfoot” and got my phone out to photograph it. Sometimes if I think the purpose of a task is to make a specific product I still try and do the task but use a different plant or if it is about the plant I might try and purchase it.20160330_091054

I’ve really enjoyed my observational tasks over the last four years and surprised myself at how much I’ve got to love some of my weeds. I now never moan about the dandelions, cleavers, nettles, herb Robert, plantain, chickweed or even ground elder. I get excited when I see them and think about what I can make with them, although I wish someone would tell me a good use for buttercups, forget-me-nots or grape hyacinths except looking pretty in the spring. I’ve also enjoyed the insect observations and stood for ages watching an ivy hedge alive with bees in the autumn.

Moving forward I intend to be more organised in my note taking and photography. I’ve always got my phone with me so there’s no excuse. I’ve also been thinking for a long time about creating my own herbal to include standard information alongside recipes, drawings and even pressings. I might start it this winter. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my notes on here.


Counting down to Christmas – improving my digestion for better health


So autumn has arrived and I’m afraid all of my good intentions for creating lots of blogs this year don’t appear to have materialised.  This year has been unexpectedly busy and I’ve been struggling just to keep on top of things.  I haven’t harvested as many plants or made as many products as I would have liked but I’ve still managed to dry quite a few plants and roots, made some tinctures, vinegars and oils as well as some new things like smudge sticks.  I’ve had a good season on the allotment and have still got cabbages, kale, spouts, purple sprouting, spinach, chard, carrots, beetroot, sweetcorn, parsnips, tomatoes and leeks to look forward to along with some pumpkins, onions, courgettes and frozen veg that I have already harvested.  One of the things I’m really pleased about is that I’m using more of the products that I’ve made or harvested.

This is the time of year when we should be looking inwardly and setting loose anything that we don’t want in our lives.  However, in reality, the majority of us spend the time comfort eating and stressing about Christmas.  One of the uncomfortable truths I’ve learned since beginning my herbal journey is that a significant proportion of health issues are related to whether the digestive system functions well.  This is an uncomfortable truth because almost all of us enjoy our food and don’t want to admit it could be the cause of our problems.  In this modern world where we can pretty much buy whatever we want at a relatively affordable price, it is very easy to overeat and indulge in foods that are not particularly good for us.  My relationship with food is my biggest personal demon.  I’ve struggled with it for many years and I’ve now decided it’s time to address it.

Earlier this year I was around six and a half stone overweight.  I managed to lose around a stone and a half, but gained a stone back.  Three weeks ago I downloaded an app onto my phone which enables me to easily log my food.  It tells me my calories along with fats, proteins, carbs, sugars and salts and flags up foods high in certain vitamins.  It talks account of exercise and adjusts the totals accordingly.  Most diets have an “unlimited” element and my greediness would always allow me to overindulge.  This has really made me think about every single mouthful that I eat as well as the balance of food I am consuming.  I’ve really cut down on my sugars and increased my exercise as a result of being more aware.  This has lead to a 9lb weight loss in just three weeks.

To assist with the changes I’ve been trying to boost my health by taking vinegars every day. I usually average around 3 a day.  Depending on how I’m feeling I pick from the following: horsetail for my nails; chamomile or lemon balm if I am stressed or have a headache; chamomile or mint if I have indigestion; plantain or cleavers for my skin; nettle, dandelion or mugwort for a general mineral hit and fire cider to warn off the bugs.  I like a bit of rose tincture or elixir daily because it is so uplifting and I’ve been taking dandelion flower essence because it helps break bad habits.  I’m also trying to remember to take bitters around each meal time to help improve the function of my digestive system.

Over the last couple of weeks some slight but noticeable effects have occurred: a reduction in acid, increased fitness, clearer skin, better sleep and my sinuses are less stuffy.  I’m hoping that I can carry this on and that there will be more significant improvements by the end of the year as well as being able to ward off the annual chest infections and other winter ailments.



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*.


* 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.




Spring Cleaning

This gallery contains 15 photos.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.