Gotu kola- the herb of enlightenment

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Gotu kola (Centella/Hydroctyle asiatica) is one of the most respected medicinal plants in Ayurvedic and Asian medicine. Not only does it have remarkable rejuvenating effects on the brain and nervous system, including improving memory and cognitive functions but it is also used to enhance the effectiveness of spiritual practices such as meditation as it promotes calm and clarity and a heightened sense of awareness.

Eastern sages and yogis throughout the centuries have attributed their long healthy lives to gotu kola and more recent spiritual seekers are just as impressed. I strongly recommend a quick internet search for ‘Gotu kola nootropic’, it will bring up a host of really interesting discussions on its uses and effectiveness as a ‘smart drug’ and an aid on the quest for a deeper understanding of life.  However, its youthfulness promoting is not just confined to the nervous system. Some have nicknamed it “Botox in a bottle” because of its obvious effects on connective tissues all around the body. Not only does it promote tissue healing but it helps build collagen and maintains a more youthful and wrinkle free appearance and is a prominent ingredient in many mainstream anti-ageing products.

I have been using gotu kola quite a lot recently – on myself and on the rest of my family to help soothe nerves and boost our attentiveness in these crazy, divisive times we are living through. I can’t speak for them just yet but for me personally I feel less caught up in the drama, less reactive and more capable of just standing back and observing the madness. It is clearing the clutter from my mind which for me is a precious gift. I can totally see why this herb has the reputation it does as a ‘brain food’ and mood elevator – this energising plant deserves its lofty and exalted praises plus a whole lot more.

Centella has many more benefits to the mind, body and spirit (aphrodisiac, joint disease, circulation promoter, immunity etc) click on our main article on Gotu kola to read more on its uses, to purchase organic dried herb or tincture and for instructions on how to take it.

  • Please note there is no caffeine or any other known stimulants in Gotu kola.
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

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.

Pellitory of the wall – the herbal stone breaker

One of the many things I adore about plant medicines is that they are literally growing all around us. The world became a more beautiful place when I began to recognise familiar plant allies on my daily travels. Like a circle of good friends that keeps growing, each with their own unique talents and abilities to share and learn from.

This useful plant is Pellitory of the wall (Parietaria officinalis/diffusa) and as you can see from the photos, it loves to grow on walls. These photos were taken in urban residential streets around this time of year in London, Margate and Shoreham on Sea.

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Pellitory of the wall. The spider gives a sense of scale.

Best known for its positive action on the kidneys and urinary system, it is especially good at breaking down and dissolving stones (calculi) and gravel in the kidneys, bladder and urinary tract. It helps to rid the body of excess fluid and is also useful for cystitis, urethritis, nephritis and other kidney and urinary infections as well as soothing inflammation in the passages of the kidneys, bladder and prostate. Its waste eliminating actions make it useful in formulas for arthritis, rheumatism and gout as well as a tea or fresh poultice for cellulitis.

Coughs of a dry and persistent nature often respond well to regular doses of the tea made from 1-2 teaspoons of the dried herb per cup, up to 3 cups daily.

The juice of the fresh plant was used in the past for relieving tinnitus and ear pains when dropped into the ears. It also makes a good healing poultice for wounds, especially wounds that are festering and discharging pus and for soothing skin irritations and inflammations, including sunburn. The fresh plant is rich in slimy and soothing mucilage which makes a great fresh poultice for the skin yet it also soothes internally irritated passages.

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A close up of the flowers

No need to rip it from its wall, just prune a few stems from the flowering plant and allow to dry thoroughly before storing in an airtight jar or use fresh as a tea or added to fresh apple juice. Label with the name, place and date of collection. I would avoid harvesting from sites on a busy road, look for pedestrianised walkways with no passing traffic ideally.

Being a member of the nettle family, its leaves are also edible, their taste being quite bland though so best added to fresh leafy salads. Standard dose of the dried leaves is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of herb per cup, up to 3 cups daily.

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Adorning a very attractive flint wall

*Take note that it is a serious contributor to the pollen count and is well known for provoking hay fever in those susceptible. If you are an allergic type with a sensitive immune response to allergens then it would be wise to avoid this herb in all its forms.

This link http://www.eattheweeds.com/pellitory-parietaria-is-a-whiz-2/ has some good info on pellitory of the wall. Scroll down to the comments for peoples experience of using it for food and medicine.

 

Medicinal properties of Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa)

Medicinal properties of Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa)

Figwort is a very common plant in the UK but you’d be forgiven for not knowing it as it is very discreet, despite growing up to be 4-5 feet tall.  It prefers shady and slightly damp places such as woodland edges, hedgerows etc where it begins to show in spring, growing on until flowering in July/august. Its stems are tall and square whilst the flowers are quite few and far between, consisting of two lips, the tips of the upper lips being tinged with purple/red, really beautiful when you get close in. The flowers give way to tiny fig like seed pods.

Full details http://www.thewildpharma.co.uk/plants/figwort

Cowslip : an Iron Fist in a Yellow Velvet Glove

Cowslip : an Iron Fist in a Yellow Velvet Glove

 

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Cowslip (Primula veris)

Not quite as common a sight as its very close relative the primrose, the cowslip (Primula veris) has an ancient and well deserved reputation as a powerful medicinal plant. Unfortunately too rare in most places to pick from the wild , they are easy to grow in the garden and will spread happily given the right conditions.

The flowers are the medicinal parts most used and have a delicate but really interesting perfume that lingers on the nostrils for quite some time.

They were once held in great esteem for conditions involving the nerves  being useful for all kinds of headaches, nerve pain, paralysis and palsy, (sometimes called ‘palsywort’ in the past), to alleviate insomnia, irritability, tension and anxiety. They were often taken at this time of year to raise the spirits and banish melancholy. They are quite potent in their effects on the nervous system, so much so that they are categorised as mildly narcotic in many herbals, both ancient and modern. For this reason they should be taken at the correct dose and not for long periods. A cup of herbal tea before bed made from chamomile, cowslip and passion-flower for example will help to induce a deep and restful nights sleep.

The flowers can also be infused in water and used as a cosmetic face wash to improve the skin, reduce wrinkles and to ‘restore beauty where it is lost’ as the old Herbals say. Add a handful to a bath to soothe away anxiety and tension before bedtime.

The leaves and roots also contain pain killing salicylates and the root is rich in substances that promote expectoration so can be used for coughs, especially tickly, nervous type coughs, whooping cough and bronchitis and  can also used as an external compress or ointment for rheumatism and arthritis.

cowslip flowers

Freshly picked cowslip flowers

To harvest the flowers, gently pluck the fully opened flowers from the green calyx and dry slowly on a tray lined with paper until absolutely dry. Store in an airtight jar in a cool dark place, dosage of dried flowers being 1-2 teaspoons infused in a cup of boiling water. Take a cup an hour before bedtime for insomnia or take up to 3 cups daily for its other medicinal uses. The flowers and a few young leaves can also be added to a salad, or the flowers can be made into a clear sunny yellow wine whilst the roots and flowers (together or singly) made into a syrup to ease coughs and strengthen the lungs generally. For children, make a strong cup of tea using 2 teaspoons of dried flowers and half a pint of boiling water, allow to cool, squeeze out the flowers and discard them. Add the same quantity of vegetable glycerine to the tea (200 ml of tea, add 200 ml of veg glycerine) and store in a tight lidded bottle in a cool  cupboard. Toddlers can be given a half teaspoon daily (not everyday) for excitability, coughs and colds or before bedtime. If anyone is interested in purchasing organic dried cowslip flowers, contact me or leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

The roots should be harvested before the flowers appear or in Autumn. When picking the flowers or unearthing the roots, be mindful always of next years crop. Leave plenty of flowers to set seed and of course be extra judicial when digging up roots and never collect from the wild.

All in all a beautiful little plant touched with the magic of faery, richly woven into much of our folklore and mentioned in many a Shakespeare play, their delicate appearance cloaking a powerful affinity for soothing our pains and anxieties.

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Making cowslip wine (Beatrix Potter)

The Secret Medicinal Life of the Snowdrop

The Secret Medicinal Life of the Snowdrop

The sight of a snowdrop in bloom is an uplifting sign of the promise of Spring and all the fresh and new natural bounties yet to come. It is the flower of Imbolc, a pre-Christian festival in early February that heralds the return of the green and growing regenerative life force. The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is such a beautiful little plant and has many admirers based on good looks alone but recently I discovered that there are hidden depths and that a closer look yeilds significant rewards….

Snowdrops (Glanthus nivalis) hiding amongst last years brambles stems

Snowdrops (Glanthus nivalis) hiding amongst last years brambles stems

The medicine that this little plant packs into its delicate bulbs is a secret worth knowing. The bulbs and the leaves of snowdrop, a European and Middle Eastern native, have been used for centuries as medicine. You will find little mention of them in standard books on herbal medicine however.

Natives of Eastern Europe’s remote mountainous regions are said to rub the crushed bulbs and leaves into their heads for neuralgia (nerve pain), nerve inflammation and headache and also ate the bulbs to stay mentally sharp, to strengthen the brain and nervous system and to keep the brain processes and nervous system ever youthful.

The bulbs and leaves have been found to contain a substance (an alkaloid) named galantamine which helps to slow down the destructive processes of Alzheimer’s and dementia and is now licensed for use by doctors in several countries. The alkaloid works by temporarily restoring the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain, improving memory, focus and general cognitive abilities, specifically the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

People of Eastern Europe used to give a tea made from the bulbs to children afflicted with poliomyelitis, with knowledge that a full recovery would most likely be made with little or no complications from the disease.

They can also be used in traumatic injuries to the nervous system and some have suggested that it may help with Multiple Sclerosis as referenced in this link https://goo.gl/P4y5Bq which also has a recipe for making a tincture from the bulbs.

The crushed bulbs can be applied directly to areas of the body affected by frostbite or chilblains or made into an ointment for the same purpose.

The isolated alkaloid galantamine can also help to induce lucid dreaming (when we become self-aware and able to control events in dreaming) and lengthen the time spent in REM dreaming, as well as enhance dream recall upon awakening as discussed in this link http://dreamstudies.org/galantamine-review-lucid-dreaming-pill/. Take careful note of his cautions and personal experiences at the bottom of the article.

The substances in snowdrop are being studied for their possible remedial action in HIV.

An extract of the bulbs can help treat glaucoma.

The bulbs have also been used historically to bring on delayed menstruation and even to induce abortion, though I don’t recommend ever trying the latter!

The modest snowdrop (Galnthus nivalis) hides its beauty, rewarding those who look deeper

The modest snowdrop (Galnthus nivalis) hides its beauty, rewarding those who look deeper

Regarding using snowdrop as a remedy at home, I really don’t recommend it, the bulbs are classed as a poison and dosage is very unclear with unpleasant side effects (nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, weight loss and dizziness). I will continue to search for valid information though as someone somewhere surely knows how to use this plant safely as medicine. Share with us in the comments below if anyone has any ideas. When/if I ever find a reliable source of information, I will add to this post.

*Already found this blog post from a true pioneer experimenting with homemade snowdrop tincture for treating Lymes disease! http://lymeuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/snowdrops.html

*Never collect this plant from the wild, it is protected under law by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) due to commercial over-harvesting and natural habit loss. They are very easy to obtain as plants from garden centres, online or as seeds and planted in the right place (shade, damp, around/amongst trees) they will propagate themselves and spread nicely around the garden.

 

Please be advised that the information on this page is intended for information purposes only and is in no way intended as medical advice.