Foraging St John’s wort

Hypericum perforatum  (St Johns wort)

Hypericaceae family

This summer-flowering medicinal plant grows wild and free throughout many areas of Britain. With a liking of numerous settings it will be easy for foragers to find St John’s wort, and with unique observable characteristics, it is simple to identify. You can find out more about plant identification on my foraging walks and courses.

The scientific name for the genus, Hypericum, is thought to originate from the two Greek words – hyper, meaning above, and eikon, meaning ‘picture’.

The bright yellow flowers, which many centuries ago were felt to be symbolic of the sun, or spirit, were placed above religious pictures, specifically St John, to help ward off evil spirits during the celebrations of the midsummer Christian festival. Church leaders placed their festival onto the ancient summer solstice festivities (since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this has traditionally been celebrated on 24th June, previously falling on or around the 5th July).

The extractable red flower oil was previously meant to symbolize the blood of St. John. The species name perforatum is derived from the Latin word meaning perforated. Visible translucent perforations on both the leaves and the petals are visible with the naked eye.

The blood red stems of young spring growth on Hypericum perforatum.

Botanical description of St John’s wort

St Johns wort is a native British perennial, from a genus containing over 400 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials; deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen shrubs and trees. This plant grows throughout Europe.

St Johns wort is a clump-forming perennial which can grow to a height of up to 90 cm in flower. Re-appearing each year from its crown, it produces numerous red stems that eventually branch towards their upper parts. The stems bear small and hairless leaves, which are opposite and mostly oblong, but always sessile. The leaves typically grow to 3-4 cm long.

If you hold the stems up to the light, close inspection will reveal the leaves have numerous translucent glands, as well as a few dark ones at the edges on the undersides. The lanceolate petals and shorter sepals in the flower are also marked with dark dots.

The presence of the dark oil bearing glands, as well as the slight, opposite ridges on its round stem are crucial identification factors between this and one of more than half a dozen other Hypericum species that populate Britain.

The bright, glossy yellow flowers are similar in size to a buttercup. They have five petals and are borne on a corymb inflorescence. These types of flowering displays are often referred to as umbel-like.

When in full display, the shiny, showy blooms are noticeable for having more than fifty stamens spraying out from the centre of the flower. These are fused in the lower part into three bundles.

Hypericum perforatum flowers

Flowering Period

The flowering period for this plant is usually lengthy, and occurs between June and September, with the seeds ripening from late July to October. The self-fertile flowers are pollinated by bees and flies.

Soils and Habitats

St Johns wort absolutely delights on calcareous (alkaline) soils, as will be seen by the propensity of it when visiting chalk grasslands such as around Winchester and in West Sussex on the South Downs. It’s not a completely fussy plant, so will also be found on mildly acidic ground.

It can do well on waste-ground and some woodland edges, and is often seen happily populating pastures, as well as roadsides and occasional hedges. This is a lowland plant, so will be found at maximum altitudes up to around 480 metres.

St Johns wort can grow in the semi-shade of light woodland, or will be even more happy in full sun. The large tap-root helps it to flower right through the summer, even during periods of drought.

Although the plant can set viable seed, regeneration also occurs through its creeping lateral runners, arising at various points on the rootstock.

Parts used Leaves, flowers.

Harvest In summer (Flowers only for an infused oil).

Key constituents Hypericin; pseudohypericin; flavonoids (including hyperforin, kaempferol, luteolin, quercetin, rutin); phenolic acids (including caffeic acid, ferulic acid, chlorogenic acid); xanthones; mono-amine-oxidase-inhibitors (MAOIs).

Actions Anti-depressant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, mild astringent.

Pharmacology and uses The chemical composition of St. John’s wort has been well studied, especially in the last thirty years. Documented pharmacological activities include anti-depressant, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial effects. These provide supporting evidence for several of the traditional uses stated for St John’s wort.

In terms of the recent history of British herbal healthcare, St Johns wort has had a somewhat meteoric rise to prominence. Many of its pharmacological activities remain unclear, although a number of actions have reportedly been attributable to hypericin and the flavonoid constituents.

Evidence from a number of randomised controlled trials during the 1990s, highlighted and confirmed the efficacy of St John’s wort extracts over placebo’s, in the treatment of mild-to-moderately severe depression.

St. Johns wort and extracts of it have been shown to be effective against short-to-medium term mild depression, but not long-term or severe depression. As with a lot of plant medicines, there is a need to further assess the efficacy of St. Johns wort, compared with that of standard anti-depressants.

Although the anti-depressant actions of this plant were only elucidated during the last 40 years or so, this plant had an acknowledged ability throughout history to relieve melancholy, as was noted by Gerard in his Herbal (published 1597). Folk medicine records also show many lay-people knew of its power to cure nervousness and low spirits, so it was also used it as a general tonic.

St John’s wort and mono amine oxidase inhibitors

St Johns wort contains molecules known as MAOI (mono-amine oxidase inhibitors). As their name suggests, the MAOI action is an inhibiting one. These molecules are known to increase the availability of mono-amine neuro-transmitters such as serotonin in the brain (thereby helping to combat feelings of depression). This plant is known to increase deep sleep and can be useful in cases of insomnia. 

Hypericin – a weak MAOI, but exerting effect on other neurotransmitter sites.

Interestingly though, the MAOI in this plant are weak and have been shown not to be responsible for the anti-depressant effect of St. Johns wort! However, what scientists do know about hypericin and the flavonoids are that they exert a number of effects on both the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) and Glutamate receptor sites in the brain. These neurotransmitters are directly involved are in feelings of well being and in helping our central nervous system relax.

A number of concerns have been raised by allopathic practitioners over possible dangerous interactions between St John’s wort and certain prescribed medicines (including warfarin, ciclosporin, theophylline, digoxin, HIV protease inhibitors, anti-convulsants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), ‘triptans’ and oral contraceptives).

Medical advice in Britain and America usually states that patients taking the aforementioned medicines should not take, or stop taking St John’s wort! Before embarking on a course of St Johns wort, and especially when on other medication, you need to seek advice from a pharmacist or another healthcare professional with detailed knowledge about these potentially dangerous adverse interactions!

Concentrating on the anti-depressant substances in St Johns wort could detract somewhat from the many other traditional applications for which this plant has been used.

Interestingly, a book by Gabrielle Hatfield and David E Allen, titled ‘Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition – An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland’, which was published almost 10 years ago, suggests that the reputation St. Johns wort has for healing cuts, grazes, and more serious wounds and burns, is likely to be more attributable to all of the Hypericum species found in Britain, rather than the one species under discussion in this monograph.

A different Hypericum species on a limestone cliff in the Gower, south Wales

Moreover, St John’s wort is a name given to more than one Hypericum species, and judging by maps of the British flora, H.perforatum won’t be found in all the areas that records of ‘St Johns wort’ use has been documented.

In their fascinating book, pieced together using information from before mass public travel and transportation, and sourced notably from unconnected areas of the UK and the Isle of Man, the authors report that various Hypericum species have been used, and seemingly with much effect.

St Johns wort oil has long been known of, for its topical pain relieving and soothing action on burns and scalds, ulcers, inflammations, and various forms of muscular pain.

Tutsan – Hypericum androsaemum. Likely to have been used medicinally in lieu of St Johns wort.

The red-coloured infused oil, extractable from the petals, has been used for these and other related complaints. St Johns wort can be usefully employed to treat conditions such as neuralgia, fibrositis, sciatica, excitability, anxiety, and as a general nerve tonic.

St Johns wort also aids the regeneration of granular tissue during healing of wounds. Indeed, Nicolas Culpeper, described in the 1640’s that it was “a singular wound herb” and that “it closes up the lips of wounds”.

Today, St Johns wort is a well known species and one of our most widely used herbal remedies. Contemporary uses have built on the fragments of traditional folklore collated from these islands. It is one of the staples of any Materia Medica here in Britain, and due to it being so common, one you can easily harvest, process and store each summer.

Foraging nettles. A guide to identification and uses

Foraging nettles (Urtica dioica, Urtica repens): A hedgerow superfood and remarkable medicine

How foraging nettles can provide food drink and a remedy for enlarged prostate

Although nettles are well known and foraging nettles commonplace,  many do not know that this common plant has a remedy for a common accompaniment of ageing, an enlarged prostate.

The genus Urtica includes about 50 species of annuals and perennials that are widespread throughout the temperate regions.

The generic name Urtica is the old Latin name given for the plant. Our most common nettle derives its specific name dioica from the fact that this species has male and female flowers on different plants. The other nettle species that grows here – Urtica repens, takes its specific name from the Latin word for creeping.

Urtica dioica is perennial, rising each year from a creeping, underground network of yellow-coloured rhizomes, and can easily attain heights of 180 cm given good growing conditions.

Nettles are often a sign of fertile, if neglected land, and are found usually en masse, on waysides, roadsides, hedges, in fields and woodland edges as well as gardens, parks and waterways, up to 850 metres.

Nettle leaves are simple and cordate, with dentate-serrate margins and pointed leaf tips. The leaves sit in opposite pairs on square stems and typically reach 7-12 cm long. All these features are also commonly used to describe members of the mint family as well, but we know that floral characteristics are often vital for correct identification. Nettles have a different inflorescence compared to mint family plants, which places them in a family of their own.

Nettles also display tiny stipules at the base of the leaf, where it meets the stem. These small, leaf-like growths are not a characteristic of mint plants, so can help you identify between nettles and the similar looking dead nettle tribe of the mint family, even without the flowers.

Nettles were reportedly first introduced to Britain by the Romans and were used by the soldiers as a flogging aid to warm them during long cold nights and as an aid for sore, stiff bones and joints! This practice, known as ‘urtication’, is regaining popularity, especially on the continent in places such as Germany, where a lot of the most recent research into nettles, and other herbal remedies, has been carried out.

Nettles have very fibrous stems that have formerly been processed into cloth, as well as cordage. Native Americans and other indigenous cultures have woven nettle fibre into cloth and bags. German soldiers had uniforms made from nettles in the First World War. The British army are known to have used the green dye extracted from chlorophyll-rich nettle leaves, for making camouflage. 

Nettles are also a well known green manure crop for the garden and allotment. The nitrogen rich leaves are added to comfrey for a balanced liquid feed.

Parts used

Leaves, roots.

Harvest

Leaves: in spring, choose just the tops. Roots: best in autumn.

Key constituents

Leaves: contain up to 20% minerals (especially iron, calcium, potassium, sillic acid); phenolic acids; flavonoids (including kaempferol, quercetin); histamine; volatile and resinous substance glucoquinone; Vitamin C. Roots: contain lignans; lectins; sterols; polysaccharides, and several phenolic compounds.

Actions Nutritive, haemostatic, astringent, circulatory stimulant, galactagogue, hypoglycaemic, diuretic, anti-prostatic.

Pharmacology and uses Nettle leaves contain high concentrations of iron and minerals and are therefore highly recommended for cases of anaemia and other deficiency conditions.

The tannins present in the leaves exhibit astringency. An extract of nettle leaf has been found to slow the heart of laboratory animals, as well as helping to dilate, and constrict, the blood vessels, alternately under different conditions.

Nettles increase the excretion of uric acid and are mildly diuretic. The leaves are full of protein and make an excellent fasting tea to help flush out toxins from the kidneys and the rest of the elimination systems. With notable concentrations of Iron and Calcium, nettles are a very useful supplement for pregnancy and breast feeding.

The sometimes painful and irritable nature of nettles and the silica stinging hairs can be counteracted through one of the various plants easily found around nettles. I personally find the creeping ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) far more soothing and relieving than any other plant I’ve tried so far, including the useful plantains (Plantago species) and docks (Rumex species). You can find videos on both plants on my youtube channel

As an alterative, the leaf can aid the clearance of acne and other skin complaints as well as reportedly helping counteract the overproduction of dandruff. As an astringent it can be a useful wound staunching herb for the nose.

Nettles can significantly help to reduce blood sugar levels in the treatment of ‘type-2’ or ‘late onset’ diabetes mellitus. The presence of glucoquinone reportedly helps to account for the perceived hypoglycaemic action. Other indications for nettle use include the treatment of arthritis and gout. In Germany, there is a tradition for making beer and wines from nettles in the spring, specifically to treat arthritis. 

Nettle roots and the prostate

The root contains the most medicinal magic as far as men are concerned. Rich in plant sterols, sugars and other medicinal compounds, the root has repeatedly shown to arrest benign growths of the prostate.

The prostate is special to men. So special in fact, that the majority of males wouldn’t know where to go looking for it. It sits behind so as to surround the urethra, which as we know, carries urine from the bladder through the penis to the outside world.

The prostate gland enlarges as men get older, although usually not starting until after the mid-thirties. It then tends to enlarge in middle to late old age due to excessive growth of the glandular cells it contains. This growth is benign, not malignant, and has often been linked to decreased sexual activity. Gradual enlargement has been recorded in slightly more than 50% of males over 50 years of age in the UK and up to 75% of all men over 75 years of age.

The most common disorder is benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostate enlargement. The other is known as prostatitis (prostate inflammation). This condition is more prevalent in older men but can be present in young men also. Prostatitis can be passed on to your sexual partner and in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.

Typical symptoms of prostate enlargement:

  • Bladder obstruction with need to urinate more frequently and at night

  • Incomplete emptying of bladder

  • Pain, burning and difficulty in starting and stopping urine flow

  • Presence of blood in urine

  • Sometimes associated kidney damage and bladder infections

Typical symptoms of prostatitis:

  • Pain between scrotum and rectum

  • Discharge from penis

  • Frequent urination with a burning sensation

  • Aches and pains in back, rectum and between the legs

Prostatitis can develop leading to increasingly difficult urination, as well as premature ejaculation, blood in the urine, and impotency. Be warned! This condition, if left untreated will eventually obstruct the bladder outlet resulting in blood in the urine. Ouch! Prostatitis is believed to be hormonal in nature.

As one of the major health issues for males, allopathic medicine continues to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into research for new drugs to combat cancers and to help arrest BPH. Western drug treatment will usually involve drugs such as Alpha-blockers and 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors.

Alpha blockers work by helping to relax the muscles at the neck of the bladder and in the prostate. 

5-alpha-reductase inhibitors work by blocking the conversion of testosterone to another substance, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that is known to have a key role in prostate growth.

Should either of these two prove unsuccessful, then they are usually combined and added to other drugs. Doctors also often employ hormonal therapy, although this carries side effects, including change of libido and mood swings! Yet evidence is already out there which points to the power of nettle root extract to inhibit certain enzymes in the body which ordinarily affect our levels of male sex hormones.

One particular enzyme which affects the levels of testosterone is the sex-hormone-binding-globulin (SHBG). This is an enzyme that the body produces more of with age. SHBG tends to bind more readily with testosterone compared to oestrogen, thereby reducing the amount of ‘free testosterone’ available to find receptor sites and consequently decreasing libido. This may eventually lead to possible enlargement.

What nettle root does, or more specifically, a lignan fraction within it, is to inhibit the binding action of this enzyme, thereby ensuring that more testosterone can bind at its receptor sites. Nettle’s lignans have also been shown to reduce cell proliferation in prostate tissues.

The fat-soluble extract of nettle root is pharmacologically active in fat tissues where androgen hormones such as testosterone are produced. The more water-soluble methanol extracts exhibit the greatest BPH arrest, with resultant high levels of inhibition of prostate growth.

Nettle root also increases urinary flow and urine volume.Nettle root can be as effective in arresting prostate growth as finasteride, a pharmaceutical 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, although nettle root does not demonstrate this particular type of inhibition.

Research is continually being carried out to determine the precise nature of a number of other different active compounds, yet the many successful treatments with nettle root extract are already testament to the demonstrable abilities of this plant.

Undoubtedly a medicinal food, nettles are one of the most nutritious greens we can eat. Lucky are the urban foragers because they have the opportunity to easily gather nettle tops in different spots from March through to late November in most towns. Remember to only take the succulent sweet and tasty tops.

Nettle soup is the classic way of eating this herb, combined with onions or leeks and potatoes and seasoning. Many people like adding blanched leaves to pesto, and a friend of mine makes an interesting nettle chutney. The leaves also work well as a general spinach replacement in many other dishes such as ‘saag aloo’.

Leaves. Basic leaf shape and illustrations

An introduction to basic leaf shape.

Illustrated guide to basic leaf shape, with examples of plants.

Bearing in mind that there are more than 250,000 species of flowering plants, there are surprisingly few variations on the basic leaf shape.  Here I take you through them.

These illustrated guides offer a reference for budding and experienced foragers to take their plant identification skills to new levels.

Other summary guides that you may like here include:

 

Leaf shape

Many leaves are what we know as simple leaves. These are any leaves that are: not divided to the mid vein, and are attached on their own stalk to the stem. Example: nettle, lime tree, mints. The leaf shape below is  also known as cordate, or heart shaped.cordate leaf shape

Leave made up of leaflets are known as compound leaves. Blackberries and horse chestnut are examples of compound leaves.compound_leaf

Leaves can be compound and pinnate (from the Latin for feather) This is where leaves are made from a series of leaflets, sitting opposite each other on the leaf. The leaves may or may not have a terminal leaflet. Examples are found on vetches, the ash tree and elder tree.

Image of pinnate_leaf shape

Pinnate leaves can be even or odd. The privet bush (Ligustrum species) has even pinnate leaves. The ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) has odd pinnate leaves.

Some plants in the carrot family have leaf shapes with repeatedly pinnate leaves, and in some cases these will be very feathery and have thin leaflets. Examples of the feathery leaved plants are dill and fennel.

image of feathery leaf shape as found on plants like fennel

Where leaves have opposite lobes, such as on dandelion or oaks, they are known as pinnatifid or pinnately-lobed leaves.

image of pinnately-lobed leaf shape

Sometimes the leaves are repeatedly pinnately lobed, and the divisions can result in leaves with finely feathered foliage, such as yarrow. These leaf shapes are sometimes to referred to as laccinate or bi-pinnatifid leaves.

laccinate_leaf[1]

 

Leaves are often comprised of lobes, sometimes deeply cut to the mid-vein. A common example is the palmate leaf, so named because it has five main veins, emanating from the leaf stalk, and / or five lobes, similar to the hand having five digits.

Examples of plants with palmate leaves include sycamore and other maple family plants, and marshmallow.

palmate_leaf[1]

A range of shapes are easily spotted when walking in  your local hedgerows, waysides and woodlands. These include lanceolate leaves, found on ribwort plantain.

lanceolate_leaf[1]

Lanceolate leaves are noted for their bases being wider than their tips.

Other military themed leaves include hastate leaves, that are shaped similar to medieval spears. Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is an example of a hastate shaped leaf.

hastate_leaf[1]

The other tasty sorrel from the dock family, common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) has a leaf shape known as sagittate, or arrow-shaped. These leaves will have basal lobes, in this case acutely pointed.

sagittate_leaf[1]

Some leaf shapes are uncommon, at least in the UK flora they are. Plants with flagallate or fan-shaped leaves are found on the fossil tree, Ginkgo biloba, but I havent found them on anything else.

flagellate_2[1]

Whereas many plants display kidney-shaped or reniform leaves. Plants such as ground ivy and common mallow spring to mind.

reniform_leaf[1]

Round or peltate leaves are less common. Wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) and nasturtium are two examples of plants whose leaves have their leaf stalk arising from the centre of the undersides.

peltate_leaf[1]

More common are ovate leaves. These are egg shaped leaves that are essentially egg shaped, but wider at the base than at the tip.

ovate_leaf[1]

You won’t likely be surprised to learn that there is an opposite to this leaf shape, known as an obovate leaf, which are essentially egg shaped but with wider tips than bases. A good example of a plant with obovate leaves is the common alder tree (Alnus glutinosa).

obovate_leaf[1]

When leaves are found without leaf stalks, they are known as sessile. Many leaves found on flowering stems will be sessile, and the ones found higher up may clasp the stem, and produce large basal lobes known as auricles. Take a look at the various sow thistles in flower, or the numerous cultivated brassica family plants like rapeseed, to see examples of clasping leaves.

clasping_leaf[1]

 

A whole range of plants are trifoliate, with a leaf made of three leaflets, like the clovers, or wood sorrel.

trifoliate_leaf[1]

The well known daisy provides us with a shape common to other members of the family…a spathulate or spoon-shaped leaf. These leaves are very broad at the top, tapering away towards to the leaf stalk.

spatulate_leaf[1]

Some plants always grow as a rosette, such as dandelion and ribwort plantain. Others never grow on rosettes, and their leaves are always found on stems, usually arising from a mass of rhizome roots. Examples include the willow-herbs (Epilobium species) or nettles (Urtica dioica).

One last feature to look out for on leaves are the tiny leaf-like growths found on almost ll the rose family plants, but never on buttercup family plants…these are the stipules. Nettles also has stipules, which are found sitting at the base of a leaf stalk, just where it joins the stem.

stipules[1]

My latest hedgerow pickings offer the regular in-depth look at our fabulous range of wild edible and medicinal plants. More than 20 species have been covered so far, with

Now, how about comparing the leaf shapes here with the plants in my gallery? Better still, you can book onto one of my upcoming foraging walks and courses, or book me for private tuition, via the contact form.

Happy foraging!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_7688
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).

IMG_1479

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!