“O, mickle is the powerful
grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones,
and their true qualities...”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Herbs have been used since the dawn of time for healing ailments of the body. At one time all medicines were herb based; the word ‘drug’ is derived from the Anglo Saxon dregen, which means ‘to dry’, and refers to dried herbs. The wise woman often used herbs in conjunction with prayer, magic and incantations, which no doubt helped the psychological aspect of the cure.
Though modern medicine still owes many of its cures to plant derivatives, the introduction of chemical drugs like sulphur, arsenic and mercury by Paracelsus eventually lead to the preponderance of chemical remedies and the orthodox approach of the modern day in which large doses of active chemicals are used to treat the symptoms of a given disease. However, many people are increasingly unhappy with this approach and believe that there is more to curing a disease than suppressing or eliminating its symptoms.
All the chemical components of our blood and tissues are available from plants, which are natural chemical factories and energy powerhouses. From red plants we get iron, from sea plants iodine and so on. Some plants produce complex chemicals that appear to have no part in a plant’s own metabolism, but have a profound effect on the humans and animals that ingest them. This can be no accident, but the reinforcing of Mother Nature’s web which links us all together in a complex, interdependent eco-system.
The resurgence of interest in alternative medicine has led many people to be interested in herbs. They are all natural aren’t they? Well, no, sorry. The chemicals contained in plants can be synthesised or isolated and used in a conventional allopathic way. If you buy a jar of herbal tablets from the health food shop, read the label. If it says ‘standardised’ it means that the active ingredient has been stripped away from the rest, leaving something akin to an allopathic drug. The scientific drive to quantify active ingredients in herbs creates herbal products that are analogous to pharmaceutical drugs. In a bid to be accepted by the medical profession, some herbalists seek to apply the scientific method, and concentrate on the so called active ingredient of a plant. However, an article several years ago in JAMA on use of ginkgo biloba to counter dementia explained that no active ingredient from among the several hundred constituents present had been determined and it was, in fact, likely that the effect resulted from a complex, synergistic interplay of the parts. In other words, the whole plant contains a range of chemicals which seem to work in concert. This is true of all herbs: for example, a pharmaceutical diuretic normally robs the body of potassium, whereas dandelion is one of nature’s best diuretics and is also a rich source of potassium.
For the Hearth Witch, the plant as a whole is the key, and moreover, the life force or spirit of the plant is of as great an importance as any active ingredient. He or she works with locally grown plants, honouring the earth and using the resources of their locality as their healing allies in an ecologically sustainable fashion.
The Hearth Witch recognises that both health and illness are both part of life. We all suffer ill health at some time or another. The Hearth Witch does not see illness and disability as a personal failure to be whole.
Healing is not accomplished by the healer, but by the patient and healer working together. The healer helps the patient seek their own cure, and works to increase, not diminish their personal power.
DRIED HERBS IN CAPSULES
This is usually the way you purchase herbs from a shop, and it is the worst way to take them, and the least effective. They are poorly digested, poorly utilized, often stale or ineffective, usually ‘standardised’ (see above) and quite expensive.
Infusions can be made from the soft green and flowering parts of an herb. Many of an herb’s components, such as its minerals, vitamins, sugars, starches, hormones, tannins, volatile oils and some alkaloids, dissolve well in water, and for this reason, herbs are often taken as infusions or tisanes (which you might know as an herb tea). Generally the difference between the two is simply of strength – a standard infusion is a medicinal dose, whereas a tea or tisane is weaker. A ‘strong infusion’ indicates a greater measure of herbs to water.
Some herbs have properties, such as mucilage and bitter principles, which are destroyed by heat, so a cold infusion is made.
Some of the harder, woodier parts of a plant, such as the seeds, roots, buds and barks need to be boiled in water for a while. This is called a decoction. Never use an aluminium pan. If the herbs are dried they should first be pounded into a powder.
Plant constituents are generally more soluble in alcohol than water, so tinctures are made. Alcohol will dissolve and extract resins, oils, alkaloids, sugars, starches and hormones, though it does not extract nutrients such as vitamins or minerals. Brandy or vodka is usually used. Because a tincture is much stronger than an infusion or decoction, you only need a few drops in a glass of water as a medicinal dose. Alternatively, a few drops may be added to a salve or bath.
Some herbs are bitter tasting and are more palatable when taken in the form of syrup, particularly for children.
By placing a few springs of herbs in vinegar, you can make herbal vinegar which is not only pleasant tasting, but also therapeutic.
Add one pint of herbal infusion or decoction to the bath water and soak.
Steam inhalations of herbs may be used to relieve cold symptoms (peppermint, thyme and ginger, for example) and hay fever (yarrow for example).
Herbs can be made into salves or ointments, which can then be applied to the affected area.
Prepare a clean cotton cloth and soak it in a hot infusion or decoction. Use this as hot as possible on the affected area (do take care and do not burn yourself). Change the compress as it cools down.
Bruise fresh herbs and apply directly to the skin and cover with a cloth.
COLD INFUSED OIL
Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of an herb, and these are often the antibacterial, antifungal and wound-healing components.
Using a hot maceration gives you a quicker result than cold oil infusion.
1 oz. dried peppermint
½ oz. dried lemongrass
1 oz. dried lemon balm
½ oz. dried catnip
1 oz. dried chamomile flowers
¼ oz. dried lavender flowers
Combine the ingredients and store in an airtight tin. To use,
Caution: Avoid if you are on blood thinning medication, pregnant or breastfeeding.
4 fresh chillies (cayenne) chopped
½ cup sunflower oil
1 tbsp. beeswax
Put the chillies and oil in a double boiler and simmer for 40 - 50 minutes. Strain out the chillies and return the oil to the pan. Add the beeswax and stir until it has melted. Pour into warmed, sterilised glass jars. Apply directly to your joints.
Cayenne contains a substance called capsaicin which helps reduce pain by blocking pain signals to the brain.
Lemon Balm Tincture
Fresh lemon balm leaves
Pack the lemon balm leaves into a clear glass jar and top up with vodka. Leave on a sunny windowsill for two weeks, shaking daily. Strain the liquid into dropper bottles. Use a cotton bud to dab onto the affected area 4-5 times a day.
Several studies support this herbal extract as an effective cold sore remedy. One study found that lemon balm used as lip cream decreased symptoms of cold sores after two days. In most studies, lemon balm was applied two to four times a day for five days or more to promote healing.
Rosehips (Rosa canina, the wild or dog rose)
Crush the rosehips (or preferably chop them up in a food processor) and put them in a pan. Cover with water, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered. Strain through fine muslin (rosehips contain very fine irritant hairs, so don’t be tempted to squeeze it through the bag) and measure the liquid. For each pint you will need 11 ounces of sugar. Put these in a large pan, heat slowly, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and bring to the boil for 3 minutes, skimming off any scum that appears. Pour into pre-warmed and sterilised bottles and seal. Allow the bottles to cool and label. This will keep unopened for 3-4 months, but refrigerate after opening. Rosehip syrup is a well-known childhood remedy for boosting vitamin C levels and keeping winter infections away.
All content and illustrations © Anna Franklin unless otherwise specified | Email Anna
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