The parasitic tooth fairy of the woods – Lathraea clandestina

The parasitic tooth fairy of the woods – Lathraea clandestina

Purple toothwort (Lathraea clandestina) is a beautiful, unusual and quite rare plant that hides in shady damp places among the roots of trees (hazels, alders, willows, poplars etc) and has just begun to flower now, at least in East Sussex. It was introduced into the UK in the late 1880’s from mainland Europe but has escaped into the wider environment where it is now quite at home.

The exposed roots really do resemble molar teeth which is how it supposedly gained its common name. The flowers have no above ground stem instead emerging directly from the soil and once they have fulfilled their purpose, they dive back underground until the following Spring so you need to be quick if you want to get acquainted with them. Having no leaves at all, the plant contains no chlorophyll so can’t photosynthesize but instead is entirely parasitic, depending on the roots of its host tree to provide it with both nutrients and water.

Purple toothwort ( Lathraea clandestina)

The nectar has a very particular chemical make-up, rich in sugars, strongly alkaline (pH 11.5!) and contains ammonia. It is believed that the nectar has chemically evolved to specifically attract bumblebees – its pollinators – whilst deterring unwelcome pests such as ants and birds which can’t pollinate but would otherwise take a free meal. I haven’t tried it (yet!) but the flowers are said to produce a burning sensation on the tongue.

After an extensive search through my books and the internet, I cannot find any solid medicinal or edible references (other than the odd rumour of being used somehow against toothache) except for use as a homeopathic remedy which suggests its use in those who could be described as “weakling, soft, friendly, communicative. Needs help from others, cannot be independent because he is too weak. Feels dirty. Too tired to wash his dirt off. Uses his friendliness to get friends and help, to be able to ask for help”.

However, a quick search of its chemical constituents leads to information on some interesting components that it shares with other plants that certainly do have medicinal applications. One substance, aucubin, is present in many plants besides Purple toothwort including Plantain leaf, Devils claw, Cleavers, Mullein and Agnus castus . Aucubin has “antioxidant, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, anti-fibrotic, anti-cancer, hepatoprotective, neuroprotective and osteoprotective properties”. Two other components, acteoside and isoacteoside have also been identified – both of which are thought to be responsible for antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions in other medicinal plants.

Flowers emerging from teeth like structures

Perhaps one day its full range of medicinal possibilities will be identified. Whatever its physical properties may or may not be, it certainly lifts my spirits whenever I see it. A strange, slightly sinister and mysterious presence in the woods, especially when I come across a blanket of deep purple flowers nestled around the tree roots. To me it is a reminder that even in the darker, colder, wetter months, nature is getting on with her business providing food for early bumblebees and bringing much needed mystery, beauty and drama to the woods.

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Semi-wild Watercress – Inspired Guerilla Gardening

Semi-wild Watercress – Inspired Guerilla Gardening

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Those that know me will get just how excited I was to come across this wild feast, right around the corner from my house too! A beautifully lush patch of watercress (Naturtium officinale) growing in a manmade drainage ditch alongside a quiet country lane, right in front of a house. It’s amazing just how deep an insight into any plant you can gain from seeing it growing ‘wild’.

I use the ‘brackets’ because whilst it is totally possible that this has grown wild – perhaps sprung up from some stray watercress seeds or a discarded shop bought bunch with some rootlets still intact – it seems far more likely that some enterprising and knowledgable local has planted this deliberately. Circumstance has provided the perfect habitat for the watercress to spread prolifically, a long sloping ditch, catching the sun for most of the day, that runs continually with fresh water every autumn/winter/early spring without fail. It’s usually very wet in the winter season around this part of East Sussex as the water table is pretty high meaning drainage ditches line almost every road. Our lime rich soil also provides the perfect alkaline environment for it to thrive in.

It is a member of the cabbage family and has small white flowers between May and October. It grows up to around 10 inches tall with its roots in the mud and the upper portion standing or floating in/on the water, depending on how fast the water flows. It will sometimes grow in merely damp soil too but may suffer in the taste and succulence department.

Watercress is a nutritionally loaded plant, exceptionally rich in vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2 beta carotene, calcium, iodine and iron. Its high vitamin C content led to it being eaten in the past to treat and prevent scurvy and watercress has gained a reputation as a bit of a superfood in recent years. Medicinally it can be helpful against lung complaints like asthma and bronchitis, urinary tract infections and helps eliminate excess fluids, protects the heart and helps keep blood vessels flexible and healthy,  helps protect the eyes and vision, aids the digestive process, can help arthritis , gout and rheumatism, encourages strong healthy bones and its even shown great promise as a cancer preventative too, particularly breast cancer. Historically it has been eaten by mature women to restore vigour, heralded as an aphrodisiac, eaten to improve metal alertness and rubbed on the head to prevent hair loss.

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I am definitely going to try to follow suit, this has inspired me to do some guerilla gardening! Only considerations being that it must run with fresh water for at least part of the year (it’s not too keen on standing water) and ideally not be draining any fields or land where cattle or sheep graze or where chemicals/pesticides are used. Along side busy roads would also be a no-no as particles from exhaust fumes, spillage etc will be present. Watercress is a host plant for a very common parasitic liver fluke (passed from the faeces of cattle and sheep) which can also infect humans if contaminated watercress is eaten raw. If you can’t be certain that the water it grows in is free from cattle or sheep drainage, it’s still ok to pick but you will need to steam it, boil it or make it into soup etc.

Because watercress is up to 90% water, it make sense that the water it lives in be as clean and unpolluted as possible if you are considering eating it, raw or cooked and always wash it thoroughly before eating it, whether you eat it raw or cooked.

Be extremely careful that you don’t confuse it with other water loving plants that may be poisonous and if in any doubt, leave it!

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Here are a few links to recipes for wild (or tame) watercress…..

http://vegetarian-recipes.wonderhowto.com/how-to/find-and-eat-wild-watercress-without-being-poisoned-423162/  for a recipe for creamed watercress.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/foraging-for-wild-watercress-zmaz82ndzgoe.aspx?PageId=2#ArticleContent  for a recipe for watercress soup.

 

Or some tips and cheats on how to grow it at home…..

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/26/gardening-alys-fowler-grow-watercress

 

 

Wild angelica – very nearly an Archangel.

Wild angelica – very nearly an Archangel.

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Wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) growing along a damp woodland path

This tall stately beauty is wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris), an untamed relative of Angelica archangelica or garden angelica.  It is very similar  to the garden angelica – not quite as potent medicinally though just as edible. The name ‘angelica’ derives from the belief that an archangel revealed its many medicinal virtues to a 14th century monk. ‘Sylvestris’ comes from its preference for the woodland habitat ( means ‘of the forest’ in latin).

It is a biennial plant so the examples in my photos are packed with seeds which will produce new, fully mature flowering plants in 2 years time.

Medicinally, it is very similar to garden angelica and can be used in the same manner, observing the cautions also.

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Angelica sylvestris with my dog for scale

The young leaves, stems, and young shoots can be eaten raw though they are best used as a flavourful addition to salads, not as a base vegetable. The seeds can be picked and dried and used as an aromatic flavouring.

The leaves, young shoots, stems and roots can be cooked in stews and soups, again as an addition rather than main ingredient.

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Distinctive purple stems of Angelica sylvestris

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Elder like leaves of Angelica sylvestris

It doesn’t store particularly well (apart from the dried seeds) so is best used fresh or the younger stems can be chopped up and candied by boiling them in sugar syrup. The stems leaves, seeds or roots are common ingredients in foragers liqueurs and as a flavouring for spirits etc. Check out this heavenly sounding mix of 22 different wild herb gin.

 

Caution: wild angelica belongs to the Apiaceae or carrot family which also contains plants that are deadly poisonous! Hemlock and several other very poisonous plants look extremely similar to wild angelica and grow in similar habitats so positive identification is crucial. Do not pick if you are not 100% certain of your plant – if in doubt, move on and live to forage another day.

All parts of the plant can induce the skin to become very sensitive to sunlight so use sparingly as a food or medicine.

Fields of medicine : Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

Fields of medicine : Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

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the gentle blue haze of chicory (Cichorium intybus)

I came across this beautiful blue tinged field yesterday on my daily ramble. At first sight I thought it was flax/linseed but on closer inspection, I realised it was in fact chicory.

The leaves and root can be used as both food and medicine and have been foraged for and cultivated for many centuries. The leaves are best eaten when the plant is still young, before flower stalks arise but the root can be harvested in spring and autumn and used fresh or dried or roasted as a half decent coffee substitute.

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Named “the friend of the liver” by the 2nd century physician Galen, modern research has verified chicory root has the ability to stimulate the flow of bile, act as a pre-biotic (encourages the growth of friendly gut bacteria), improve digestion and also to help prevent cancer (particulary gastro-intestinal cancers), atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. It is also rich in anti-oxidants, folic acid, manganese, potassium, vitamins A & B6 and contains substances that are anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, cholesterol lowering, mildly sedative, blood sugar stabilising and immune stimulating.

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chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) close up

This wild variety is the original plant from which many modern vegetables are now cultivated including the pale blanched chicory heads, endive and raddichio. All of these leaves share a mild bitter taste and have tonic effects on the liver and digestion and are well worth including in the diet on a weekly/bi-weekly basis throughout its growing season.

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young chicory leaves, ready for picking

Wild Chamomile Path

Out walking in the East Sussex countryside today I came across the most beautiful sight ….. a path chock full of wild chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla) growing between two huge plantings of broad beans.

Wild chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) growing on a path between crops

20150709_093136 copy Wild chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) growing on a path between crops

The path must be at least a 1/4 of a mile long and the scent as I trod along in the bright summer sunshine was sweet and heavenly. I also love the fact that the pineapple weed (Chamomilla discoidea), a close relative of chamomile, was getting in on the act and adding its amazing sweet pineapple aroma to the heady sensual mix.

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Pineapple weed (Maticaria discoidea) growing amongst the wild chamomile.

I walk this path regularly every year and its usually just grassy but something quite magical has happened this year. Although I was tempted to harvest a couple of handfuls, I resisted as I am pretty sure the field is sprayed with various chemicals. None-the-less, it was an absolute joy and privilege to spend quality time in the presence of such beauty.

 

Find out more about the medicinal properties of chamomile at our sister site here http://www.thewildpharma.co.uk/plants/chamomile