Foraging horse chestnut

Discover the powerful medicinal benefits of horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum   –  Horse Chestnut

Hippocastanaceae family

The horse-chestnut is an elegant tree which belongs to a genus of 13 species, all of them deciduous trees and shrubs. This plant is believed native to the Balkan Peninsula, and history tells us that it was introduced to Northern Europe during the latter part of the renaissance. It has been widely grown in Britain since the beginning of the 17th century.

Partly through an ability to self seed (although not freely), and mostly due to its popularity as an amenity plant, the horse-chestnut will be easily found throughout England, Wales and the more lowland parts of Scotland, at elevations of up to 500 metres. It is a common plant of parkland, large gardens, village greens, churchyards, and urban streets, and an occasional component of deciduous and mixed woodland. It can also sometimes be found in scrub and rough grasslands.

How to identify Horse chestnut

Most people will easily recognise this tree and it hardly needs a description here. The hairless new twigs terminate with large sticky buds, which are one of the characteristic identification features of this tree. Another is the noticeably large horse-shoe shaped leaf-scar on the previous year’s stem. According to some authors, this feature has given us both the scientific and common names.

horse chestnut just after breaking bud in spring

The large, noticeably glossy, and sticky brown leaf buds, break open in early spring to reveal their initially lime-green, compound palmate leaves. These are attached to the stem on long petioles. The leaves are often very large (up to 40 cm across in the common horse-chestnut found here), especially so in shadier areas. They commonly consist of 5-7 obovate-shaped leaflets, and have quite obvious serrated margins.

Horse chestnuts are identifiable from afar in winter due to their branches, which tend to curve out and upwards in a similar fashion to the unrelated and well known ash tree (Oleraceae family). In leaf, horse-chestnuts are almost unmistakeable.

Mature specimens, more often than not, show angled and curving fissures appearing to be wrapping their way around the tree in a spiral. These fissures become deep as the plant grows old, eventually splitting and flaking on very old specimens. These tall trees can grow to anything between 25-35 metres (depending on species) in a range of settings.

This plant is often the first large tree we witness to herald the coming of the new spring. Bud break is followed by the opening of their showy, white-pink coloured flowers that bloom soon afterwards.

The flowers are stacked 20-30 cm high in a cone-shaped spike. The individual flowers are 2 cm wide and borne on long stalks at the bottom of the raceme, appearing on shorter stalks toward the top. They are comprised of four or five petals fused at the base.

The resultant fruits are known to all in Britain as ‘conkers’, and to Americans as ‘buckeye nuts’. They are typically 6 cm wide. In Britain and Ireland, ‘conkers’ remains a traditional game still enjoyed by children (and adults!) These nuts are so well known in this country, coming in pairs in their typically spiny shell, that they surely need no other description here.

Be careful not to confuse the horse-chestnut with the edible sweet chestnuts (Fagaceae family) when out foraging. The sweet chestnuts have simple, oblong/elliptical-shaped leaves rather than compound, and their leaf margins are more finely serrated. Their distinctive nut husks are covered with a greater number of slightly thinner, yet sharper spines.

Sweet chestnut bark is grey-brown and more tightly fissured. Look around the woodland floor wherever you are and the leaves may well match the trees around you. In reality, the differences are so stark as to ensure that there should be no real danger of misidentifying them.

Pests and diseases attacking horse chestnut

Recently, the horse-chestnut has begun to succumb to the ravages of a few pathogenic organisms. Two species of mould fungi from the Phytophthora genus (Phyton is from the Greek for plant and phthora is Greek for destruction) are known worldwide for their mass killing of horse-chestnuts through infection and resultant ‘bleeding canker’ during the 1940’s.

These mould fungi are mostly pathogens of dicotyledons and reportedly responsible for approximately 11% of all bleeding canker incidences in Britain. Since 2003, a different species of bacterium, known as Psuedomonas syringae, has swept through horse-chestnut trees in Western Europe with a new spate of bleeding canker.

Over half of all horse-chestnut trees in Britain are reported affected and showing symptoms of some kind. This pathogen initially infects the cambium around the trunk and main branches. As it spreads, it cuts off the water supply to the crown. Trees weep from the bark, with gradual erosion of tissues. When the infection encircles the trunk, the plant will die.

The other major pest is a moth known as the horse-chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella). Many horse-chestnut specimens now show the tell-tale spotted and brown crinkled leaves which become visible early in the summer. These infections may well be the result of an exotic plant suffering the eventual fate of all exotic introductions, i.e. a population being brought under control by organisms to which there are either no natural predators or to which the plant has no natural defence mechanisms? Enjoy them while you can.

Parts used The fruits and less commonly the bark or leaves.

Harvest When they fall. Usually by mid / late September to early October.

Key constituents Saponins (including ‘aesin’ – a mixture of compounds); triterpenoid glycosides; coumarin glycosides (including aesculin); tannins; flavonoids; plant sterols (including sitosterol, stigmasterol and campesterol).

Actions Astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-oedema.

Pharmacology and uses Anti-inflammatory activity has been documented for the whole fruit as well as the extracted saponin fraction. Extracts excluding aescin also provide this action. The anti-inflammatory effect is thought to be due to a ‘sealing’ action on capillaries as well as by reducing the number and or diameter of capillary pores. The seed extract is also known to induce contractions in veins.

Because of these effects, horse chestnut seed extract has been clinically compared to allopathic medicines for chronic venous insufficiency of the lower legs. It has shown to be just as effective as many of the pharmaceutical medications available.

Preparations made from the horse-chestnut seed are used principally against circulatory disorders. It is documented to help tone and increase the strength of the veins especially. The renowned German Commission E approved its use for treatment of chronic venous insufficiency in the legs.

Used internally and externally, horse-chestnut assists the body with inflammatory, circulatory problems such as varicose veins and haemorrhoids. This has been partly ascribed to the inhibition of the action of hyaluronidase in the body (an enzyme that decreases the permeability of the veins), and as a result, venous fragility is lowered.

Externally it may be used as a cream or ointment for the same conditions as well as for leg ulcers and oedema (fluid retention and swelling under the skin). Some studies have shown it to be effective in treating eczema. Sunscreen creams manufactured in Europe often have aesculin as an integral component.

Consulting with a professional health care worker before any self administered dosage of horse-chestnut is advisable, as the circulation disorders and physical trauma associated with any swelling may be the sign of an underlying serious condition, which may not be treatable using the plant alone.

Another monograph for foragers next week… Happy foraging!

Foraging Rose Hips

Discover the medicinal benefits of roses and why you should still go foraging rose hips

Rosa canina / Rosa rugosa – dog rose / hedgehog rose

Rosaceae family

If you are of a certain age, then foraging rose hips will possibly be something your grandparents may remember with fondness. During the second world war, mass State sponsored foraging saw tonnes of the high Vitamin C fruit collected by tens of thousands of people, and weighed in for cash reward.

These common hedgerow plants belong in a genus comprising approximately 150 species of mostly deciduous and semi-evergreen shrubs and climbers. They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world, and their cultivation goes back thousands of years.

The generic name Rosa is apparently derived from the Greek roden – meaning red, or the Latin ruber – also meaning ruby or red. Roses are a plant that became synonymous of the ancient Mediterranean region. The roses that grew in this area were reportedly a deep crimson colour, which gave birth to the legend that the flowers sprung from the blood of Adonis. 

The roses have been important since ancient times in the preparation and use of cosmetics, medicine, ritual, and perfumery. It is known that the Greeks, Persians, and Romans employed many kinds of rose as medicines; in 77 AD the Roman diarist Pliny recorded more than 30 disorders that responded positively to rose preparations.

Different species of Roses were widely grown in medieval apothecary gardens. Rosa laevigata was mentioned in medical literature as being used by the Chinese around 470 AD.

Image of rosa rugosa flowers
Rosa rugosa flowers, commonly found in towns and cities as an amenity plant.

The commonly planted urban hedging species, Rosa rugosa, has historically been used to a lesser extent, and is reportedly a fairly recent addition to their materia medica. It is believed to have been first documented during the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The plant then reached Europe around the 19th century from its original homeland of China and Japan.

Wild, scrambling roses such as our dog rose (Rosa canina), are one of the quintessential hedgerow staples of British countryside.

Image of dog rose flowers
Dog rose flowers are a quintessential part of Britain’s hedgerows

Identifying features to look for when foraging rose hips.

The dog-rose is a variable, deciduous shrub native to Europe, West Asia and Africa. It loves to grow in woodlands, copses, and hedges throughout Britain, but not higher than around 550 metres. The gloriously rampant roses are recognisable by their arching, green, thorny stems that can climb high into trees, as well as for their beautifully simple flowers.

The stems bear pinnate leaves which are divided into 5-7 oval-shaped leaflets approximately 6-7 cm long. Beautiful pink-white blooms are borne singularly or in clusters of 2-4 from late spring to mid-summer.

They are around 5-6 cm in diameter. Alas, the splashes of pink and white adorn our hedges for a short time only because the petals are easily blown off by winds.

The flowers give rise to the familiar fruits known as ‘hips’, which duly ripen to their glorious rich scarlet colour during early autumn. This provides a sporadic and welcome visual interlude in the hedgerow alongside the hawthorn berries, from the dominant brown and yellow leaves of late autumnal decay.

Image of rose hips in autumn
Autumn hedgerows come alive with the masses of splashes of scarlet in hedgerows from September.

In contrast Rosa rugosa (an introduced species, and now a schedule 9 invasive plant), is a vigorous shrub; having very dense, prickly stems and deeply veined leaves. Once again, the leaves are pinnate; although in this instance bearing an average of 9 narrow, oblong leaflets growing to 3-5 cm long.

The flowers of Rosa rugosa are often a magnificent bright pink, being larger than the dog rose at 8-9 cm in diameter, and swiftly giving rise to globular, almost tomato-like red hips,. They are much fatter than the dog rose, but almost the same length. An introduced species; the hedgehog rose can be found growing at altitudes of up to 400 metres. All roses can be grown in sunny or light shade and thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soil.

If foraging rose hips in towns and cities, then you will probably find that the hedgehog rose is the species most commonly encountered, as this plant is very popular as an amenity planting in parks, cemeteries, gardens, around tower-blocks, and many development complexes.

This plant has hips that are bigger and ready earlier than the dog rose. Either can be used, but resist the temptation to get the hips off the showy roses in your garden. They have substantially less vitamin C in them and are not worth bothering about.

No matter which species used, be careful with the irritant seed hairs within the fruit. These are the basis for itching powder, found in joke shops. They will need to be strained off if boiling the fruit in the traditional way of making rose hip syrup

Parts used Petals (occasionally) and ripe hips (with seeds and irritant hairs removed).

Harvest Fruits when ripe. The dog rose-hip in late September-October, the hedgehog rose-hips in late August-September. Dog rose-hips are better after a frost.

Key constituents Vitamin C (one cup-full of rose hip pulp reportedly has between 40-60 times as much vitamin C as oranges); vitamins A, B, D, and E; flavonoids; tannins; sugars; acids; pectin; carotenoids (lycopene); volatile oil; essential fatty acids; resin; minerals (including magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sulphur, zinc).

Actions Astringent, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses The high vitamin C content is useful in preventing and fighting infection, colds, flu and pneumonia. The astringency of rose-hips helps relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids and substantial amounts of Vitamin C in rose hips, have potent antioxidant action help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses.

As previously mentioned in my article on medicinal plant constituents and actions Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules always appear combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose-hips are rich in this vital chemical complex.

Image of Rosa rugosa hips
Rosa rugosa hips are fatter, rounder, bigger, and available earlier than dog rose, typically from August.

Together, these molecules help to strengthen body tissues as well as helping to build and maintain a healthy vascular system. They also prevent damage to fragile capillaries. As life cannot go on without vitamin C, it almost goes without saying that regularly consuming plants such  as roses, as a prophylactic, will be of more benefit the older you are.

During the mid 17th century, Culpeper, prescribed rose hips for ‘consumptive persons’, as well as for ‘tickling rheums’, ‘breaking the stone’ (in the kidneys) and to help digestion. Rose-hips have mild laxative and diuretic properties as well as being of help in the treatment of urinary infections.

In Ayurvedic medicine, roses have long been considered ‘cooling’ to the body and a tonic for the mind, and Native American Indians are said to use rose-hips to treat muscle cramps. Rose petals were included in the British pharmacopoeia as an astringent until the 1930’s.

The discovery of the nutritive power of rose hips was due to World War II. During this period there was a shortage of citrus fruit in England, and the British government organized the harvesting of as many rose hips as possible in England as a substitute vitamin C. This eventually highlighted the importance of rose-hips as a superior source of the vitamin and began its worldwide popularity.

Preserving rosehips can be done in a few ways. Traditionally, sugar and alcohol have been used. Making a rose hip syrup with sugar can be achieved through boiling and straining the fruit, or, more simply, and perhaps with more eventual Vitamin C content, by a cold infusion, as can be seen below

Image of cold infusing rose hips, layered with sugar
Layers of sugar and rose hips, will in time produce a thick floral rose hip syrup, without need for boiling.

Alternatively the fruit could be treated like others and made into a fruit leather, which can keep for months. As well as this, I like to make rose hip brandy for those chilly winter evenings round the wood burner. The better the brandy you buy, the better the product will be. Simply steep the hips in brandy with some sugar to sweeten a little. Leave until the new year if you can!

Image of rose hip brandy infusing
Rose hip brandy. A warming way to get some rose hips into your life!

The iron in rose hips make them an excellent supplement for menstruating women, whilst an oil extracted from the rose is of value in reducing scar tissue and stretch marks caused by pregnancy and birthing, due to its tissue regeneration properties. 

Rose hips are one of the plants covered in my Autumn set of foragers friend identification cards, available very soon in the foraging resources shop.

Another foraging monograph next week

Foraging Guelder rose (cramp bark)

Viburnum opulus – Guelder rose

Caprifoliaceae family

The Guelder rose is another stunning member of the beautiful honeysuckle family. Often seen growing as an ornamental, like many of its close relatives, this shrub delightfully adorns our hedges and country lanes up and down the land. You can go foraging for both its medicinal bark in the spring,  and the edible berries in autumn.

Guelder rose flowers.
Sterile outer flowers of Guelder rose attract insects, whicjh pollinate the smaller fertile inner flowers

The first time you clap eyes on this plant may be during their lovely spring time show. The immaculate white flowers penetrate dense green canopies adjourning our lanes around May. Later in the year, the berries will brighten up increasingly dull grey days with splashes of scarlet in amongst yellowing autumn hedgerows.

Favourite habitats of Guelder rose.

Closely related to the elder tree, this shrub is almost entirely absent in Scotland, yet can be found most everywhere in England. It delights in copses of Alnus (alder) and Salix (willow), as well as in a range of hedges, woodland edges, bridleways, and country lanes up to elevations of 400 metres.

Guelder rose is said to be well suited to chalk land. Because cramp bark displays similar growth characteristics to the elder, it has also historically been known as ‘red elder’ and ‘rose elder’.

This deciduous, perennial shrub is native to Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia. It can easily grow up to 4 metres high on many stems. Cramp bark can flourish in full sun or partial shade and will tolerate most soils other than very wet ones. When planting this species, the advice has always been to avoid extremely hot or dry, exposed, and cold areas.

The other well known common name for this plant stems from the province of Holland known as Gueldersland. This is where the shrub was first recorded as being cultivated. The generic name Viburnum is the old Latin name for this shrub and others in the genus of about 150-175 mainly shrubby species. The specific name opulus refers to a type of maple, in allusion to the maple-like leaf shape of this species.

Distinctive features of Guelder rose

This plant’s most noticeable features are the distinctive umbel-like inflorescence and subsequent clusters of scarlet berry fruits. The almost flat-topped, dense corymb is typically around 11 cm wide and snow-white coloured, gracing our hedgerows from May-July ( with our recent warmer springs here in Britain they are increasingly out in the south during May).

Guelder rose flower buds
Young flower buds of Guelder rose

The flowers  of Guelder rose are conspicuous in the way that they produce large (15-20 mm wide) sterile outer flowers, surrounding much smaller (6 mm wide) fertile flowers which eventually give rise to the fruits. These will then ripen in drooping clusters and are ready from September-October.

Guelder rose berries in Autumn
Guelder rose berries can be foraged in Autumn to make preserves

The branches have grey twigs, somewhat angular in shape. These carry opposite pairs of buds and leaves, mainly terminating with double buds.

The buds are scaly, and appear thin when viewed from one side, but reasonably broad and becoming tapered when viewed from the other. The twigs carry a similarity in colour and form to the elder, especially the opposite pairs of buds.

Learn more about the patterns of plants, and how they can fast track your foraging, in my article here.

When foraging Guelder rose, you will see the leaves are somewhat akin to a maple. They are often broader than long, usually deeply-divided into 3-5 lobes, and with toothed margins. The leaves are sometimes voraciously eaten to a lacy outline by the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). It is not unusual to find some plants decimated by this insect in certain areas.

Here’s what Mrs Grieves’ online herbal,  says about Guelder rose.

Parts used: Inner bark. Berries

Harvest: Bark from 3-5 year old branches in early spring before leaf break. Berries in autumn.

Key constituents: Salicin (which converts to salicylate in the body); isovalerianic acid;  sesquiterpenes (viopudial, viburtinal); catechin tannins; coumarin (scopoletin); bitter principle (viburtine).

Actions:  Anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, nervine, tonic, astringent, diuretic.

Pharmacology and uses: As its name suggests, this plant has long been used to alleviate painful cramps and spasms.

In North America a closely related species, black haw (V.prunifolium), is often used interchangeably, although they have slightly different chemical constituents. Certain indigenous North American Indian tribes such as the Meskwaki and the Penobscot reportedly used cramp bark for muscle swellings and mumps.

The famed ‘cramp bark’ of Guelder rose works by relieving and relaxing tense muscles, whether these are skeletal such as back muscles and limbs, or internal smooth muscles such as the intestines, airways, ovaries or uterus.

On another page on the website, you can discover more about the actions of medicinal plant constituents, as well as learning more about the plant meadowsweet,  from where salicylic acid was extracted to make the popular drug, aspirin

Cramp bark can also be taken internally as a decoction or applied topically. It has long been used to treat breathing difficulties in asthma as well as menstrual pains associated with excessive uterine contractions. Some authors have noted it as being useful where miscarriage is threatened. Cramp bark is also helpful in cases of irritable bowel syndrome, colic, and the physical symptoms of nervous tension.

The molecule salicin, upon digestion, converts to salicylic acid. As a known anti-inflammatory, it will heal and support internal smooth muscles.

This plant also has value in treating cardio-vascular hypertension and is known to relieve constipation associated with tension. Read more on the cardio-vascular system here. The anti-spasmodic action is known to be conferred in part by the substance valerianic acid.

In some cases of arthritis, where joint weakness and pain have forced muscles to contract until almost rigid, cramp bark can be usefully employed and can bring often remarkable relief. This is because as the muscles relax, more blood can flow, metabolic waste products such as lactic acid can be removed and some degree of normal function can return.

Cramp bark can therefore be used in acute and chronic cases of muscle pains and cramps. It can also be usefully used before embarking on any physical activity likely to bring pain.

The berries are not used medicinally. Some authors class them as poisonous whilst others mention them as edible. Tasted straight of the tree they are very bitter due to the substance viburtine.

The berries have been known to cause gastroenteritis when consumed raw. But cooking with the addition of sugar can make a nice enough preserve, but personally I prefer other fruit jams to this one.

Using the bark of Guelder rose is safe and effective for long and short term use, although maybe not if the patient is on anti-coagulant medications. This is because the coumarins and salicylates are both known to thin the blood.

The plant has been reported to cause hypotension in large doses or even in average doses if taken by previously hypotensive individuals. Pregnant women ought to refrain from taking the bark of Guelder rose until they have consulted a qualified practitioner.

Would you like to make learning about foraging fun? Well with my foraging cards you can! Visit the shop to see them.

Foraging Shepherd’s purse – Like the last 60,000 years!

Foraging for Shepherd’s purse in the UK

Capsella bursa-pastoris – Shepherd’s purse – Brassicaceae

Shepherd’s purse is a remarkable edible and medicinal herb in many ways.  This plant grows quickly in numerous settings, so that with sharp eyes, we can generally find it all year round.

This plant is the only member of the genus Capsella and is native to temperate zones in Europe, and now naturalised in North America and parts of Asia. The scientific specific name  bursa-pastoris, literally means ‘shepherds purse’ in Latin, and has been derived from the distinctive heart-shaped seed pods, which are similar in shape to traditional shepherds purses, made from the scrotum of a goat.

Where to look when foraging Shepherd’s purse?

This can depend on whether you live in town or country, as your habitat will influence its most likely habitats! This is another plant usually easily found growing in all lowland settings up to around 750 metres. It is one of many ephemeral weeds that are common to our gardens, cultivated fields, roadsides, and waste-grounds. It  thrives in areas of wateground and undermaintained parks, especially found germinating away on disturbed soils and in times of drought.  More information can be found in our article on where to forage?

The leaf roseete is a common sight across the country, and for almost all of the year, when you are foraging shepherd's purse
The leaf rosette of younger plants is an almost all year round affair when foraging for shepherd’s purse

Some of these plants only take a few weeks to complete their life cycle, from germinating seed to setting seed. So, you will often see shepherds purse in both its rosette and flowering form near to each other. are being researched by pharmaceutical companies for medicinal use. 

Shepherds purse initially grows as a rosette of pinnately-lobed leaves (typically up to 15 cm long), then quickly produces its flowering stalks to around 40 cm high. Its flowering stem has alternate leaves, found clasping the stem, with basal lobes.

The inflorescence is a sparsely branched and loose raceme. The flowering stems bear tiny (2.5 mm across) white flowers on 1-2 cm long horizontal stalks. Its flower stem continues to grow as the first seeds are ripening. The flowers consist of four petals, six stamens and two carpels, which quickly give rise to the distinctive heart-shaped fruit. Looking closely, you can see a seam running from top to bottom, splitting the pod in to two. 

The heart shaped seed pods will draw your eye to this plant in the summer, when foraging for shepherd's purse
Shepherd’s purse and its distinctive heart-shaped seed pods

Over on the plant family patterns page, you can find more details about these easy to remember patterns of the brassica family, as well as other plant family patterns of importance to foragers

When ripe, the pod releases two seeds, which can happily lie dormant for many years before germinating. One plant can produce up to 1000 seeds! If moistened, the seeds produce a sticky gel which is known to adhere and trap small aquatic animals, before dissolving them. This possibly provides fertiliser for the emerging shoots from germinating seeds.

Parts used All parts can be used,

Harvest As and when required.

Key constituents Amino-acids (including tyramine, histamine, choline, acetylcholine); flavonoids (rutin); saponins; tannins; glucosilinate (sinigrin); carotenoids; Vitamin C; volatile oil (including camphor).

Actions Diuretic, haemostatic, astringent, urinary anti-septic, mild anti-lithic, hypotensive, circulatory-stimulant.

Pharmacology and uses  Shepherds purse is available almost all year round, so this is one of the plants to cherish for offering us regular, ongoing chances to harvest medicine and food.

This unassuming and often overlooked little plant has created quite a reputation for itself as a chief plant remedy for women. All of the plant can be used,

The Brassica family are renowned not only for their excellent nutrient profile but also for their medicinal compounds. The compounds formerly known as the mustard oil glycosides – the glucosilantes – are now known to be useful cancer preventative agents. The seeds of shepherd’s purse are rubefacient and vesicant due to the glucosilinates. 

Certain molecules prominent in the plant family, are being researched by pharmaceutical companies for medicinal use. These include di-indolemethane, indole-3-carbinol, and some of the isothiocyanates, such as sulphoraphane. You can read more about the common medicinal plant constituents and their actions here

This research will likely reinforce what we already knew – that eating your cabbage family greens can prevent illness and disease! As foragers, we have a superb array of brassica greens  freely available for 365 days a year…

Amongst its primary medicinal uses are for treating blood in the urine, as well as for gravel in the kidneys and excessive bleeding from the womb. During World War 1, Shepherd’s purse was reportedly used as a styptic to reduce and prevent bleeding when preferred drugs from goldenseal and ergot ran out. It works by contracting tissue, hence its use in arresting bleeding.

The plant is now known to reduce capillary and blood vessel permeability. Shepherd’s purse is considered by many herbalists as one of the best remedies for stopping haemorrhages of all kinds – for the lungs, stomach, the kidneys especially, and for the uterus; specifically where uterine cramps and colic are associated with it.When you are foraging for shelherd's purse, you will see numerous small seedlings readily germinating on distubed and bare sols

Unsurprisingly for a plant that can contract tissue and arrest bleeding and haemorrhage; the leaves of shepherds purse have been traditionally employed to combat menorrhagia, as well as finding use in treating diarrhoea, and acute catarrhal cystitis. The German Commission E approved this plant to treat pre-menstrual syndrome and mild menstrual irregularities such as menorrhagia.

A decoction of the roots can be successfully used in cases of diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, and dysentery.  It has been locally used as a vulnerary for nose bleeds. For this, you can simply apply the juice of the plant onto cotton wool.

Culpepper knew centuries ago that it helps to stop bleeding from wounds, inward or outward, and…“if bound to the wrists, or soles of the feet, it helps the jaundice”. He also states that “…the herb made into poultice, helps inflammations, and the juice dropped into the ears heals the pains, noise and matterings thereof. A good ointment may be made of it for all wounds, especially wounds in the head.”

As a food this plant has been used for thousands of years. It is still cultivated in China and other parts of the Far East, and often used in stir fries.

The leaves are unsurprisingly slightly peppery and hot to taste, and somewhat salty, which may well be accentuated when found by the coast. The young leaves and the young flowering tops are a lovely salad addition and garnish, working well with vegetarian and fish dishes. Get more cookery ideas from our selection of wild food  recipes

I offer UK-wide foraging courses all year round, suitable for both beginners and the more experienced wild food enthusiasts. My courses are updatred regualarly so sign up for foraging alerts!

Foraging Coltsfoot

Foraging coltsfoot – An ancient and potent herbal medicine for the lungs

Tussilago farfara – Coltsfoot. Asteraceae family

We have been foraging coltsfoot for medicine for thousands of years, and its importance to our materia medica remains.

We know from Roman times that this herb was one of our ‘go-to’ remedies for respiratory disorders. Such was its prominence, if you were to walk into an apothecary in the 17th and 18th Century, you would recognise this flower immediately from the picture on the signage outside.

Coltsfoot is a small, creeping perennial herb, notable for its habit of producing beautiful yellow  dandelion-esque flowers in late winter and early spring, before its leaves appear.

We now know that coltsfoot flowers open before their leaves, giving rise to the old latin name Filus ante patrum, or, the son before the father. previously people foraging coltsfoot flowers thought they were harvesting a different plant to the leaves, because of the unusual floral display
The ‘son before the father’ was how coltsfoot was formerly described, due to its flowers opening before the leaves

As a result of this floral phenomenon, the ancient Latin name given to it by botanists of the renaissance period (before Linnaeus and his binomial classification), was Filius ante patrem, which means ‘the son before the father’. The ancient apothecary physicians used this flower as the emblem for their shops, and it is still used by many herbalists today. 

This plant is one of 15 different species in the genus. Many scientific plant names contain clues as to a plant’s origins, or its favourite habitat, and sometimes to a plants main actions or uses. With coltsfoot, the generic name Tussilago offers the hint towards its medicinal use.

It has been a popular anti-tussive (cough reflex inhibitor) herb for centuries and recent research is backing up some of the ancient claims. The specific name farfara, is apparently derived from the ancient name for the white poplar tree (farfarus) whose leaf colour and form resembles coltsfoot somewhat. Our ancestors obviously thought it looked like the foot of an animal, hence the name coltsfoot.

What to look for when foraging coltsfoot.

This is a hardy plant, native to Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. It re-emerges each year from a rootstock of stout, scaly, white (ish) rhizomes. These give rise firstly to its yellow flowers, before the long-stalked, somewhat hoof-shaped, sea-green leaves appear.

The leaves will typically grow somewhere between 10-25 cm long. They have a few, small angular teeth on somewhat undulating margins.

People who regularly go foraging coltsfoot, know that it can be found on the poorest soils.
Coltsfoot is happy finding a home on the poorest soils

The leaf surfaces when young are  covered with loose, white, woolly hairs, but those on the upper surface will fall off as the leaf quickly grows and expands. The broad leaves have angled, sometimes pink-tinged, main veins, running away from the central vein, akin to the burdock to which coltsfoot is not too distantly related.

Coltsfoot’s composite flowers are pretty similar in appearance to the dandelion at first glance, although the flower stems are quickly seen to be different. Coltsfoot’s terminal flowering stems are scaly and slightly woolly (unlike the dandelion), topped with striking yellow flower heads. More information on how to identify the daisy family can be found in my plant family patterns article.

These striking blooms consist of yellow disc florets and yellow linear ray florets (unlike dandelion which has ray florets only). The flowers will generally grow to no more than 20-25 cm high, and always appear before the leaves have emerged. 

As with many of the daisy family plants, coltsfoot produces a spherical seed head of tiny fruits (achenes), attached to downy white, silky, pappus hairs. Goldfinches were known to line their nests with these soft hairs, as were the Highland peoples of Scotland, who reportedly suffed mattresses and pillows with them.

This plant used to grow far more abundantly throughout England. Yet it can still easily be found on a range of sites up to altitudes of 950 metres. These include waste-grounds, along the sides of railway banks, on cliffs and dunes, and occasionally on roadsides. It grows as well in wet ground as in dry situations.

Nowadays however, with the ever increasing development in 21st century Britain, its abundance has been curtailed somewhat, especially in urban areas. However, when foraging coltsfoot, you will find it still thrives in towns, in any place that remains a little wild, rough, and unkempt.

Young coltsfoot leaves, already displaying the angled margins without serrations

Be sure it is not the young leaves of Butterbur (Petasites officinalis, syn P.vulgaris syn P.hybridus), or the winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) you are collecting by mistake when you are foraging coltsfoot! To help your identification, I have covered winter heliotrope in my foraging videos.

Make sure you know the difference in the foliage between Petasites species and Tussilago when you are foraging coltsfoot
Winter heliotrope has larger leaves, without the angled margins or downy white covering

Both of the Petasites  resemble coltsfoot in flowering habit and leaf shape, although butterbur is less likely to be mistaken when mature, because its leaves are so much larger than coltsfoot’s. 

Both of the Petasites species have more rounded leaves, and without the slightly angled and toothed margins or the white downy fuzz. Butterbur can frequently be found dominating areas of canal and river banks.

Winter heliotrope will similarly be found in large carpeting expanses, be this at the edges of woodlands or hedgebanks, as well as other shady spots.

Coltsfoot loves life by the sea. On the Jurassic coast in Dorset for example, and repeated on much of our coastline, this plant grows in reasonably large populations. When I was there in 2011, it was clearly enjoying the North West coast of England close to the Lake District, enjoying the long stretches of sandy dunes and eroding field / beach edges to be found there.

Coltsfoot has been classed as an invasive plant not suitable to garden cultivation by the RHS, but to be fair, this organisation is not widely known for either their medicinal herb gardens, or specialisation in wild medicinal plants, or come to think of it, organic gardening principles.

You, like me, may think that invasiveness and rapid colonising of bare soil is a valuable asset in the medicinal herb gardener’s fight against weeds. If I had a medium-large medicine garden, then this plant, along with other effective ground-covering medicinal species, such as ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae), would be a most welcome  and valued addition to the medicine cabinet.

Parts used Leaves and flowers (the flowers were formerly much used, but not so today as you will shortly discover).

Harvest Leaves: when fully-grown. Flowers just before opening.

Key constituents Flowers: mucilage; flavonoids (rutin, carotene); taraxanathin; pyrrolizidine alkaloids (senkirkine, senecionine, tussilagine). Leaves: mucilage; flavonols (quercetin, kaempferol and their glycosides); tannins; inulin; phytosterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol, taraxasterol); sesquiterpene (tussilagone); zinc.

Actions Expectorant, anti-tussive, demulcent, anti-catarrhal, anti-inflammatory.

Pharmacology and uses Coltsfoot was formerly a prized pulmonary tonic and curative against emphysema, chronic bronchitis and whooping cough. There are still many reasons to go foraging coltsfoot.

Culpepper mentions that  “…the fresh leaves, or juice, or syrup thereof, is good for a bad, dry cough, or wheezing and shortness of breath”.

With the emerging flower buds and yellow flowers, foragers will know that its almost time to start foraging coltsfoot
The buds and first flowers signify that its soon time to start foraging coltsfoot.

The substantial amount of mucilage in coltsfoot confers the demulcent and expectorant activities.

This is also true of other soft leaved plants, such as mallows (Malva spp) and mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and is something worth remembering when out and about foraging…namely, that soft-to-the-touch leaves, usually mean a soft and demulcent medicinal action when taken internally.

Previously, this meant that many people smoked the flowers to help with coughs. The ancients of Greece and Rome were known to advises this, including Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. We now know that this method is not the best way forward, although you can still find coltsfoot in a number of herbal ‘tobacco’ blends.

Just like its relative elecampagne (Inula helenium), the roots and flowers of coltsfoot have been used to make a cough sweet. Boiled in honey or sugar syrup, a type of ‘rock’ made with coltsfoot was once a popular remedy to alleviate coughs and asthma, which was especially useful to people who almost unfailingly were to sit in dusty churches for a few hours, at least once a week.

The overall anti-inflammatory action of coltsfoot is reportedly similar to the pharmaceutical drug indometacin. The water-soluble polysaccharides are partly responsible for the anti-inflammatory action, as they are in a number of other species in the daisy family. The trace element zinc, reportedly found in reasonabaly high amounts in coltsfoot, also adds to the anti inflammatory action. 

The alkaloid tussilagine has been demonstrated as an effective cardiovascular and respiratory stimulant. However, as with a number of plants containing the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, liver toxicity from chronic low exposure has been demonstrated in tests, albeit mainly on rats.

Further to this, pregnant women are known to pass on toxic pyrrolizidine compounds to their unborn child, resulting in at least one reported case of fatal, hepatic veno-occlusive disease. This death was of a newborn infant whose mother had regularly taken cups of herbal tea containing coltsfoot and a Senecio species (a genus also known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids).

It is now believed the budding flowers of coltsfoot contain the highest concentrations of these compounds, so current advice from pharmacologists is usually that only the leaves should now be used in a tea, and not for prolonged use.

Coltsfoot has been shown to be anti-bacterial against bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, Proteus spp and Psuedomonas aeruginosa.

It is also a mild diuretic and has been used to treat cystitis. There are no documented adverse drug reactions recorded for coltsfoot.

Coltsfoot leaves have also been used as a vegetable. The downy leaves can be simmered and blended with onion and potato into a thick soup, or the leaves can be steamed like spinach, then served with a knob of butter. Some authors have said the leaves have a liquorice flavour. I do detect a sweetness in coltsfoot leaves, but liquorice is pushing the description somewhat. Well, to my smokers palate at least.

Want to know more about foraging coltsfoot? Try the classic Mrs Grieves online herbal.

Discover lots more plants that can easily be found in winter and spring in my short seasonal guides.  Alternatively, you can peruse my monthly wild food guides, that began this January, in conjunction with these colour coded seasonal harvest charts, that are available as a download, so you never a foraging trick this year.

If you are wanting more help in the field with learning the arts and crafts of foraging, then check out these pocket sized, waterproof I/D cards, created in a field guide style, then pop over to my foraging courses page and find a course near you.

Foraging hawthorn

Foraging hawthorn for heart boosting medicinal food

Crataegus monogyna / C. leavigata  

Hawthorns  Rosaceae family

When you are out in the hedgerows foraging hawthorn, you are face to face with a truly remarkable tree. Hawthorns are the plant mainly responsible for the success of numerous acts of enclosure here in the UK, from the 14th century onwards.  This plant is one of the reasons that I, and most other people living in the British Isles, are landless

As common a tree as you can get, these spring flowering, summer-beckoning mainstays of the hedge, offer us unique nutritional and medicinal benefits.

image of haw berries, one of the prizes of foraging hawthorn
Haws are one of our native superfoods, and foraging 2 kg hawthorn berries doesn’t take much time.

The hawthorns will easily be found mostly anywhere up to altitudes of 600 metres, classically as a principle component of a hedge (from which it derives its name – the word haw being a corruption of haeg, from the old English for hedge).

They love the edges of woodlands and can often be found on waysides and roadsides, as well as in little groves in some districts. Hawthorns are also happy on their own in a great number of places, as can be seen by the large numbers of amenity plantings.

A number of the 250 Crataegus species able to be grown here carry larger and far tastier fruits, and some have documented scientific evidence supporting their medicinal use in China and India.

However, it makes sense to concentrate here wholly on our two native plants. Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus leavigata are almost identical and offer us very similar medicinal benefits so we can use either one interchangeably.

The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. This could be in allusion to the dense hard-wood found in hawthorns or, as recent science has discovered and you are about to, the potency of the medicine found in hawthorns to strengthen the heart muscle and blood supply. The species name monogyna reveals the fact that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna). C.laevigata in contrast, has more than one seed in the fruit.

As with many of the rose family, these plants have oval-shaped leaves, albeit in hawthorn’s case deeply-lobed and with serrated margins. The midland hawthorn typically has leaves without such deep lobes, and grows mainly in the northern reaches of Europe. C.monogyna on the other hand, is found throughout Europe, and far into the Middle-East.

Hawthorn flowers are unmistakably of the rose family, having five petals and numerous stamens. They often reveal a pink-red tinge on the stamens, and some varieties have pink petals.

Our native hawthorn’s branches are decorated with sharp thorns, approximately 2.5 cm long. Both the infamous blackthorn and the less dangerous hawthorn will give you a very nasty sore from a puncture wound. Be extra vigilant when foraging hawthorn, especially in thickets and dense woods.

hawthorn spine and bud

The hawthorns are one of the first woodland species in leaf to herald the returning spring, following the blackthorn and elder tree. Within a couple of months or so of breaking into leaf, the swollen flower buds burst open beginning their spectacular display. The magnificent multitude of white flower clusters, are a signature of the hawthorn and of hedges in May.

When foraging hawthorn in the evenings during this time, the subtle yet pervading scent is easily caught on the wind. I think hints of almond can be deciphered amongst the sweeter tones, though it has been written that the midland hawthorn has blossoms emitting an odour of semen or rotting flesh! Beauty is in the nose of the beholder I suppose!

Some of the aroma is due to the methylamines present in the flowers of hawthorn and also found in some Sorbus species, such as the rowan tree. Other aromatics detected will be due to the bitter almond quality of the cyanogenic glycosides found in small amounts within many stone fruits of the rose family. 

Of the numerous hawthorn species which have beautifully-tasting berries, the University parks in Oxford contains an avenue of around 18 different species, which have an array of orange, scarlet, red, brown and black haws.blackhaws

Until you try some, you must take my word for their diverse array of aromas and flavours, ranging from subtle peach and apple to mild rose tones. It is possible that your local park will have hawthorns with similarly delicious fruits.

Ok, the common or garden haws are generally not superbly tasting from the hedgerow plants, due to their small size and tough living conditions, but they are more than palatable raw.

When ripe, they take on a creamy, somewhat avocado-like texture, which becomes drier, mealier and claggier when over-ripe. It has been written that ripe haws taste a little like sweet potato. Unripe flesh is a green colour, changing to a light creamy-yellow colour in ripe fruits. Over-ripe flesh turns brown. Certain trees from my experience, mainly with the darker duller red haws, give decidedly sweeter, and apple-tasting fruits than others.

Parts used Young leaves, flowering tops and berries.

Harvest Leaves and flowers in April and May. Berries from late September-November (dependent on species and location).

Key constituents Flavonoid glycosides (1-2% including rutin & quercetin) ; saponins; coumarin; cyanogenic glycosides; trimethylamine; condensed tannins (oligomeric procyanidins 1-3%).

Actions Cardio-tonic, hypotensive, vaso-dilatory. relaxant.

Pharmacology and uses One of the reasons that foraging hawthorn is a super idea is because hawthorn is a superfood.

They are literally everywhere, so it is no problem introducing them into your diet. Traditionally, this plant has been used to treat arteriosclerosis, hypertension, and cardiac failure. All are prevalent killers in western societies, especially Britain. Hawthorns will thus help prevent these conditions.

The flavonoid molecules will expand the blood vessels and strengthen capillaries. Hawthorn helps blood vessels dilate and therefore assists the peripheral circulation significantly, but also has a specific action on the coronary circulation itself. It is now well known to improve the nutrition, activity, energy reserves and energy release of the heart muscle. This and the power of the cyanogenic glycosides make hawthorn ideal for those people with either high blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmias.

An alcoholic extract of leaves and flowers has been proven to improve cardiac functions as well as reducing blood pressure, whilst not affecting heart rate! Through eating hawthorn berries it’s known that we stimulate increased performance of the anti-oxidant called superoxide dismutase. This enzyme promotes the scavenging of harmful ‘free radical’ molecules.

Other anti-oxidants packed into these trees are in the form of oligomeric proanthocyanidins. These molecules were saluted by the mainstream press only a few years ago. Adverts sprung up in popular daily papers enticing us to pay lots of money for a few grams of exotic berries shipped from halfway around the world purely because they contained these medicinal compounds! Unsurprisingly, there was no mention anywhere of foraging hawthorn for free!

In diverse places such as Devon, the Isle of Man, and the Highlands of Scotland, hawthorn has traditionally been used in folk medicine as a primary heart tonic, as well as being used for centuries to correctly balance high and low blood pressure.

Hawthorn has no contra-indications for use, although it can reportedly interact with beta-blockers and other hypotensive drugs. It may increase the effectiveness of them, as well as potentially beneficially interacting with foxglove cardiac glycosides. Patients already on heart medication should seek advice before using.

One of the many delights of this and some other medicinal trees is that come the autumn and early winter, we can go back to the same trees we visited for leaves and flowers early in the season and then harvest the berries. Plus, you will have had another cardiac-strengthening walk under your belt!

The leaves are a more than useful addition to salads during the early spring. Always take the fresh palatable new leaves, rather than the tougher, far more fibrous and darker-green, older leaves. A number of tree species can give off a new spurt of growth around the end of July, sometimes referred to as the lammas flush. This is another opportunity to harvest new leaves, although in far smaller quantities.

Many books make reference to hawthorn leaves being called ‘bread and cheese’ by rural folk. Now, either our taste buds are completely different to a few hundred years ago, or country people were not eating much bread and cheese back then and were probably wishing they had some as they nibbled on hawthorn! Saying this, the young succulent leaves are lovely accompanied by a dressing and mixed with grated roots such as beetroot (Beta vulgaris), carrot  (Daucus carota), and ginger (Zingiber officinalis).


Every autumn I make a hawthorn ketchup from the haws, simply simmered in cider vinegar and a muslin bag of spices, for 45 mins or so, before straining through a sieve, adding molasses and muscovado sugar and some seasoning. It’s a stunningly delicious and simple sauce that livens up many a dish. Foraged food at it’s best!

As I write, the leaves of hawthorn are just starting to appear, so I hope you will see the benefits of going out and harvesting this super medicinal food! Next week, another monograph from another commonly found plant…Happy foraging!

Burdock Monograph for foragers.

Arctium lappa / Arctium minus


Asteraceae family


Although appearing as one species when first meeting them, these two species reveal differences that become increasingly evident as you get to know them.

The greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and lesser burdock (Arctium minus) both have a long-standing tradition of use as a medicine and food.

These two plants belong to a genus of about 10 species. The generic name Arctium apparently comes from the Greek- arktos, meaning bear, which alludes to the rough coated fruits.

The specific name of the greater burdock – lappa, is derived from the Latin word- lappare- to seize, referring to the clinging ability of the burs. It is this unfailing ability to attach to passing fur or clothes that allegedly gave a Swiss scientist- George de Mestral, the idea for Velcro during 1948. His idea is an example of ‘bio-mimickry’, or man copiying nature’s designs.

The species name for lesser burdock – minus, relates to a number of size differences between these two species when compared with each other, be this leaf size or fruiting stalk size.

The other notable difference between species can be seen in the leaf stalks, which on the lesser burdock are hollow, but on the greater burdock are solid.

Today burdock may possibly be best known as one half of the once popular spring tonic drink, ‘dandelion and burdock’. However, it is probably more widely known by gardeners as an imposing and commonly found weed.

Habitats to look in when foraging burdock

In the wild, burdock’s thrive near hedges, on roadside verges, on waste-grounds and old building sites, as well as liking the edges of cultivated fields and sunny spots in woodland edges. Burdocks are essentially lowland plants and will be found at elevations no higher than about 390 metres.

Botanical description to help identification when foraging burdock

Burdocks grow as a rosette in their first year, before flowering in the second. The leaf shape can be classified as broadly ovate, or cordate, with wavy, undulating margins.

The leaf grows to around 45 cm long and 30 cm wide, although growing larger in shady spots. They have relatively wide and long petioles. White-pinkish leaf veins run on an approximate 45˚ angle parallel to the rose-pink mid-vein. Underneath, the leaves are of a much lighter colour.

The Burdocks have erect, branched, flowering stems that will reach 150 cm or so tall, and are conspicuous for their spiky flowers. The individually delicate, purple or rose-pink flowers are produced in a composite flower head, borne on terminal clusters and much like the inflorescence of a thistle. Discover more about a fast track to foraging success with my article on the patterns method of identification.

The colour we see in the flowers emanates from the numerous stamens. Burdocks’ flowers can grow to 4 cm across and wither to leave the common ‘burs’ that are deeply ingrained in many childhood memories. These are easily collected unawares on clothing or in hair when playing and tramping through unkempt land.

Parts used
Root mainly used for medicine in Britain. Leaves, flowers (in Chinese medicine) and seeds are also used.

Roots: in the autumn or spring. Leaves: before flowering. Flowers, when first opening. Seeds, when ripe.

Key constituents
Acids (including butyric acid, linoleic acid, linolenic acid, oleic acid); aldehydes (including isovaleraldehyde, valeraldehyde); carbohydrates (including up to 45% inulin, mucilage, pectin, sugars, fats); volatile oils (including sesquiterpene lactones); bitters (lappatin); resin; phytosterols (stigmasterol and sitosterol); tannins.

Detoxifying, alterative, lymphatic and blood purifier.

Pharmacology and uses
Burdocks have numerous uses. These are examples of very common planta, previously much used in days gone by, now little employed and subsequently with scarce available scientific literature to back up any traditional uses.

Burdocks are used medicinally in most continents where they are naturalised. For the last 200 years or so, burdock has been chiefly employed in this country as an alterative medicine.

Whole burdock extract has been reported to cause a sharp reduction in blood sugar levels. The roots and leaves are recognised diuretics and hypo-glycaemics. The compound arctiin is a C.N.S stimulant and muscle relaxant as well as being anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal. The anti-microbial activity is attributable to bitter components. A summary of medicinal plant constituents is provided in my article here.

Internally burdock has been traditionally used as a treatment for a number of skin diseases and disorders, as well as inflammatory conditions. These include: eczema, psoriasis, rheumatism, gout, and boils. Topically applied, the leaves are similarly used for a host of dermatological problems.

Burdock helps our general elimination processes by assisting the liver function, the circulation, and through the elimination of toxins via the kidneys, urine, and skin. It can therefore assist all manner of skin disorders, such as acne and boils.

In Chinese medicine, the seeds are used for similar conditions and are also employed to treat colds, pneumonia, and throat infections.

Although currently out of fashion in this country, burdock has had a long-standing use as a food plant. In Japan this is still the case where it is known as a prized vegetable and ingredient of the staple dish ‘gobo’. A number of different burdock cultivars are commercially grown in the far-east. The long taproots from one year old plants are harvested by digging up in the autumn or early spring.

The well-known dandelion and burdock soft drink, made from the roots, is a useful springtime cleansing tonic formerly taken in many counties in Britain, especially in Northern England.

Burdock’s long petioles and immature pre-budding flowering stems can also be eaten, when blanched to reduce bitterness and fibrousness. They will need the outer skin peeled off beforehand.

I prefer the flowering stems, and will make a wild food chutney in the summer using these stems, alongside hogweed and willow herbs.

Another monograph next monday morning!

Red clover monograph

Red Clover – Trifolium pratense – Fabaceae family.

Red clover is one of numerous leguminous plants to grow on the British Isles. Found almost everywhere, red clover helps feed the soil as well as us. Although only small in stature, this little member of the pea family could have a big role to play in our lives.

Red clover has long been used by people around the world, both as a food and medicine – we know it has been used in the ‘Western world’ since ‘classical’ times, but surely for far longer where-ever indigenous cultures have known of it.

It is a plant in the large genus Trifolium, alongside approximately 300 other species. Believed to have originated in Asia, red clover has spread far and wide through cultivation and passage on boats. This self-fertilising plant is now naturalised in most parts of the world.

The generic name literally translates from the Latin as ‘three-leaved’. The specific name pratense, is a much used scientific plant name for a plant and denotes the favourite habitat of meadows and fields.

The red clover can be found almost everywhere! Commonly on roadsides, hedge-banks, waste-grounds, and grassy areas in urban settings. Variably erect or low-growing, this perennial herb typically reaches 10-40 cm high and grows happily up to altitudes of 850 metres.Four leaved clovers find the lucky!

Well known by many for its trefoil appearance, on inspection the red clover has grey-green elliptical-oval leaflets with serrated margins. These typically reach 10-30 mm long. A more or less crescent-shaped white marking dominates the centre of the leaflet.

A distinctive feature of the species, aside from their trifoliate leaves, are the mainly globose, or oval shape of the flower heads. The red clover flower heads are approximately 30 mm long. The individual flowers are pink-purple coloured.

In the wild you may notice a variation in size of red clover leaves and flower heads. This is because many of the red clover varieties which escaped cultivation were bred to produce larger leaves and flowers. As with all peas, the individual flowers have their petals arranged in the characteristic banner, wings, and keel arrangement.

The whole plant is hairy, which is an identification key between this particular clover and others in the clover tribe. If you are serious about learning to identify plants then using the easy-to-remember patterns method can fast track your foraging fun.

When unearthed, the roots of clover are seen to be fibrous and will reveal tiny little swellings on them. These nodules are sites of bacterial infection by specialist bacteria.

They work symbiotically with the host plant and fix nitrogen gas from the atmosphere, all the while making it available in the soil to the host plant.

A number of different plant families have root / bacterial associations. The leguminous plants are by far the biggest family with this adaptation.

You may well find red clover flowering away on two occasions during the year. The first time is from May-June and then potentially once again in September.

Some authors have noted only to harvest red clover from the late spring / early summer appearance – due to the presence of possibly toxic substances in the flowers in the late summer. For absolute peace of mind, you may wish to do the same.

Parts used
Flowers. Leaves.

Flowers: Late April-June. Leaves: Spring is best. Click here for more fantastic wild foods of spring

Key constituents
Coumarins; isoflavones (genistein, pratensein); vitamin E; flavonoids; phenolic glycosides; salicylates; cyanogenic glycosides.

Anti-coagulant, alterative, lymphatic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, oeastrogenic activity, expectorant, anti-spasmodic.

Pharmacology and uses
Some herbalists have called this robust little herb the ‘chief plant remedy’ for treating cancers. Since the 1930’s, interest has heightened over reports of red clover’s reported anti-cancer activity.

The discovery of the molecule genistein in red clover (found originally in the Gentiana genus) provoked renewed interest and research into a plant seemingly fit until then only for cattle fodder.

Red clover has had long standing use as an alterative herb, and with it, a reputation for helping to thin the blood. It is much valued for helping to clear cysts, and shift blocked, stagnating toxins, in specific lymphatic glands, most of which are in the neck.

This activity is partly due to the presence of blood thinning coumarin molecules, which are discussed in my article on medicinal plant constituents. Red clover’s coumarins assist the treatment of various skin disorders. Authors have referred to red clover as one of the most useful remedies for children with skin problems.

This plant has a long standing traditional indication for acne and eczema. It may also prove helpful in cases of psoriasis, especially when used in conjunction with other herbs, such as chickweed.

Red clover can help with symptoms and causes of the menopause. The isoflavones found in both clover and alfalfa, are widely believed to be responsible for helping to reduce hot flushes.

Other flavonoid-rich plants, with their noted strengthening and toning action on the blood vessels, can also help. Research has shown that a mere 40-80mg of red clover isoflavones per day, reduced the occurrence of unpleasant effects of menopause.

Many centuries of use have acknowledged the expectorant and anti-spasmodic actions, and ensure clover continues to have a role in treating coughs, bronchitis and whooping coughs. Respiratory herbs are discussed in my ‘reclaiming health autonomy’ article.

There are no adverse reactions recorded for red clover use, although practitioner advice is needed if already on anti-coagulant medication.

The most simple way of using red clover is eating it, but when thinking of it as a medicine, we’re thinking infusions, from the flowers. They can also be made into a tincture in alcohol or glycerine for preserving.

As a food, both the leaves and flowers are good in salads. The small flowers make an excellent garnish. Native American Indians are known to have eaten the leaves. Cordials and syrups can be made from the flowers.

In a wider Agro-ecological perspective, this plant is great for wildlife and soil. Bees love it! The red clover offers us a number of yields above and beyond food and medicine.

Sown as an annual in spring or early autumn, this is a non-creeping, nitrogen-fixing ground cover suitable for a range of polyculture in gardens, allotments, permaculture and Agro-forestry systems.