Hops (Humulus lupulus) – a wolf in sheeps clothing

Hops (Humulus lupulus) – a wolf in sheeps clothing

At one point in the not too distant past, the UK grew around 70% of the hops used in our brewing industries, mainly in Kent and a busy harvest time provided seasonal work for many.

Autumn remnants of a hop field after harvest

Autumn remnants of a hop field after harvest

Aside from adding a bitter flavour to beer and preserving its shelf life, hops make for some interesting and useful medicine. They have a long and reputable history as an aid to restful sleep and to soothe anxiety and nervous tension. Hop ‘pillows’ are still made today for insomnia sufferers by stuffing a light fabric bag with dried hops and placing it on top of the pillow (inside the pillowcase) when you turn in for the night. Replace when the effects wear off with a new batch of strobiles.

Hops are also strongly oestrogenic in their action. It is well documented that women who travelled to the hop fields for harvest season began to menstruate within a day or two, whether their period was due or not. Menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia and anxiety can all be helped with the use of hops (as part of a herbal formula) and a component named 8-PN has been identified and isolated for its specific oestrogenic activity. This strong oestrogenic activity has the effect of dampening sexual desire in men and has also been implicated in difficulty maintaining erections. On the positive side however, there are good implications in the use of hops for prevention and treatment of prostate cancer.

Hop strobiles are rich in oils and resins which give them their bitter taste but also have the effect of stimulating digestive processes. Traditionally classed as a bitter tonic, they can be used to increase the appetite and can help in cases of nervous indigestion (including irritable bowel syndrome) where they settle and calm the gut, encourage digestive secretions and  generally improve faulty digestion

Lush hop strobiles ripe for picking

Lush hop strobiles ripe for picking

The hop is a perennial vine that dies right back in the winter before rampantly twining up into the hedges, fence panels and telegraph poles again the following spring. The young spring shoots can be collected and eaten as you would asparagus but the hop ‘flowers’ (called strobiles or cones) are the parts collected and used. Harvest the strobiles when they are fat and firm (August – September in the UK) and use fresh, or dry them carefully (checking daily for mould etc) in a warm dry place to store for future use.

They can be taken fresh or dried as a tea, made into a hop pillow (or bedside pot pourri with dried lavender for example), preserved in alcohol as a tincture or used as a pain relieving poultice for external use in rheumatism, toothache and neuralgia for example. A level teaspoon of dried hops to each cup, drinking about half a cup up to 3 times daily is the standard remedial dose. For insomnia, take one cup an hour or so before bedtime. Hops mix well with other herbs such as valerian root, passion-flower or lemon balm for anxiety and insomnia and with other bitters such as dandelion root  for digestive complaints.

Dried hop strobiles ready for use in teas or hop pillows

Dried hop strobiles ready for use in teas or hop pillows

Personally. I can’t take hops for more than a few days or so at any one time as they tend to bring me down quite rapidly whilst others I know are far more tolerant of longer term doses. I cannot fault their action on restlessness and an over-thinking, racing mind though! As in all cases of self medication and experimentation with medicinal plants,  be sensible and monitor yourself carefully.

A few notes of caution…….

  • If you suffer from depression do not take hops as a medicine as it can worsen the condition considerably. Even if you have a tendency to get depressed or feel ‘blue’ from time to time, use hops cautiously and at the first signs of feeling low, stop using immediately and you’ll soon bounce back.
  • In men, if taking hops regularly as a medicine and you notice an undesired low libido, difficulty in maintaining an erection or breast enlargement, simply stop taking hops.
  • Never take hops with other over the counter or prescribed sedative or anti-anxiety medicines.

I include a link to one of my favourite herbal sites … loaded with articles and discussions on hops and their many uses http://www.henriettes-herb.com/search/node/hops

Advertisements
Horseradish : a root with a healthy kick

Horseradish : a root with a healthy kick

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) belongs to the Brassica/Crucifer family so its family members include radishes, rocket, mustards and cabbages, all of whom are known for varying degrees of heat on the taste buds. Not only does it make a tasty addition to dishes if the grated root is made into a creamy sauce but it has some serious medicinal benefits too – it is a fiery stimulant similar to cayenne /chilli pepper in its actions. Firstly, how to find and identify it.

It does grow wild in damp places and is not uncommon in the UK but if you have never come across any then buy a couple of plants online or at the garden centre and plant in a dampish corner of the garden where it can take hold and prosper. It can be invasive given the right conditions but too much horseradish wouldn’t bother me.

The leaves look superficially similar to dock leaves (which would have a tall rusty flower stem) and foxglove leaves (which are covered in soft down) but if you pull a leaf from the base and smell it, the horseradish pungency is unmistakable. The white flowers (not always present on all plants) bloom in summer on a branching, leafy flower spike, are identifiable by their 4 petal cross configuration and are typical of the family. The leaves can be eaten raw or lightly steamed and are considerably milder than the root.

Horseradish leaves

Horseradish leaves

The optimum time to harvest the root is fast approaching ,though you can harvest pretty much any time. When the leaves begin to wither, all the goodness, pungency and vitality of the plant is drawn down and everything this plant possesses is concentrated into the tap roots. This is the time to dig up the root if you want maximum heat from it. Give it a good wash and either chop into small pieces to dry, grate it fresh and make into a sauce or crush and pack into bottles full of either vodka, wine or cider vinegar to preserve it for future use. It can also be made into a syrup or the fresh root preserved for some time in a bucket or pile of sand, left in a cool place, preferably outside.

Young horseradish leaves in Spring

Young horseradish leaves in Spring

Herbalists have been known to prescribe a session of horseradish root grating for people with sinusitis and thick catarrh in the head or chest, if you think chopping onions is intense then try horseradish to experience another league of weeping. The root produces a fiery volatile oil in response to being crushed or grated. Beware though, it is capable of producing blisters and even ulceration of nasal tissues if inhaled too deeply or too frequently. You can also hold a quarter teaspoon of fresh grated root in the mouth until the flavour has subsided for sinus or head congestion

The fresh root, when used on the skin as a poultice, reddens the skin and greatly increases blood flow to the area. It can be used for painful joints in arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica etc. Put some oil on the skin first (to avoid skin blistering), wrap the fresh root in a thin cloth and place on the skin until it starts to feel too hot. Remove the poultice then rinse the skin thoroughly. It can also be used this way in cases of bronchitis and respiratory/chest infections to clear deep-seated congestion, much like a mustard compress.

When taken internally the root is a powerful antibiotic and extremely useful as a preventative and treatment for colds, flu and all kinds of infections and fevers. Urinary tract infections often respond well to horseradish root as does the digestive process (hence its use as a digestive promoting condiment with beef etc). Dose is a half teaspoon of dried root as a tea up to 3 times daily.

  • Horseradish is a powerful stimulant and whilst being incredibly useful and beneficial should be used with caution – avoid with internal ulcers, kidney inflammation, during pregnancy (has been used to induce abortion) and breast-feeding, in the very weak or debilitated or in children under 5.  As with all self medication, use common sense, take it slow and listen to your body. Too much can also make you vomit!
Horseradish flowers

Horseradish flowers

** Here is a link to some great stories about using horseradish as medicine.