Foraging for Alexanders. A versatile & abundant wild food.

Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.

Dense patches are a common sight when foraging for alexanders. This patch stretched on like this for more than 100 metres

No matter the time of year, it is always time to go foraging for alexanders

Foraging for alexanders, just like many other plants I cover in these pages, is a never ending affair, offering us all year round harvesting opportunities. This plant deserves our attention. In fact, invasive plants such as alexanders demand my foraging attention because of their abundance as well as thier versatility in the kitchen. Although their impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues need highlighting, especially with austerity defining our economic zetigeist. Invasive edibles need harvesting, processing, experimenting with, and eating.

A flick through antiquated gardening books will show that alexanders is one of numerous wild edible species that were formerly consigned to the compost heap of history, but thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, are  now rightly regaining favour in the kitchen of the adventurous.

When foraging for alexanders, I uprooted a plant growing happily on top of concrete. See the right angled root growth at the top

Brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’, this biennial plant took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially around the coast. It can now be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in these habitats.

This plant is endowed with some extraordinary abilities to thrive. I once picked a specimen, from what I thought was soil covered by leaves, only to find a large concrete slab just a couple of inches below the leaf mold. Yet a substantial tap-root had adapted to these surroundings and grown in an ‘L’ shape and was as big as if grown vertically in a rich, loamy soil.

The tender young leaf shoots are a favourite foraging nibblee, and will be found all winter when foraging for alexanders

Permaculture designers as well as foragers can utilise this vigorous growth, and other useful competitive advantages. These includes the setting of copious amounts of freely germinating seed and a winter/spring growing season. Both of these traits ensure that masses of plants establish themselves early each autumn.

Because of its vigorous/invasive nature, foragers are likely to discover that simply asking landowners if you can uproot the plant (a legal requirement), will be greeted with “Please! Take as much as you want”!

Botanical description to help identification when foraging for alexanders

As a member of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking. 

The yellow compound umbel flowers helps to stand this plant out from the crowd of similar-looking umbellifers

Aside from their well-documented potentially poisonous qualities, their photo-toxicity needs mentioning. And while it is true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the beginner an easy introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants and becoming acquainted with the carrot family as a whole. 

Alexanders is a hairless and aromatic plant, containing its essential oil glands within the leaves. This contrasts to another aromatic family (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external glandular hairs. So when seeking out the aromatics unique to a species, crushing and sniffing a leaf is, as ever, vital. More information on medicinal plant constituents and their actions can be found here.

The generic name Smyrnium alludes to the myrrh-like aromatics, whereas the specific epithet olusatrum refers to the black colour of the mature seeds and the skin on the roots.

The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base, and often found with a pink-tinge. The hollow petioles are shaped like flattened cylinders, and covered with thin lines. Upper stem leaves are sessile (without stalks).

When out foraging for alexanders,it is possible that untrained eyes may confuse it with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), which can both be found sharing the same coastal habitat.

On close inspection however, you will notice a number of clear differences. Alexanders leaves are triangular-shaped – like numerous umbellifers, but the leaflets appear in groups of three (ternate) – in contrast to many other relatives with pinnate divisions (pinnae: Latin feather).

This short video explains how to identify pinnate-leaved carrot family plants 

Alexanders leaflets are in groups of three and on close inspection reveal tiny white hydathodes on the serration tips.

The glossy lime-green leaves of alexanders are able to be identified with a single characteristic: the tiny white hydathodes (glands that exude water on the teeth or tips of a leaf). These are not found on any other umbellifer in Britain. The leaflets are oval(ish), with rounded crenate-serrations.

Fully grown angelica leaves will reveal 3 or 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk. Where as celery has glossy, once pinnate leaves, with lobed leaflets, on deeply grooved and ridged petioles. The distinctive celery smell immediately sets it apart from other umbellifers.

A typical sight if foraging for alexanders in spring…a mass of yellow flowers on stems that are now unfit for harvesting

Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you can briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes.

The umbrella-like inflorescence quickly unfurls in early spring sunshine. The yellow flowers have five petals, and are followed by the large aromatic seeds – green at first, turning black when ripe. More information on identifying plants using their observable plant family patterns can be found here.

Cookery ideas using alexanders

The leaves can be added to soups or used sparingly in salads when chopped. The young emerging leaf shoots with their tender white bases, are great steamed, stir fried or battered in rice and gram flour.

A jar of rhubarb and alexanders jam

I think the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. This timing will always be site and specimen specific, as my article on the edibility of edible wild plants discusses. Stems need to be picked well before the flowers are out, to ensure tenderness. When steamed, they are magnificent served simply, with cracked black pepper and butter or olive oil.

In other pages I have created a guide to harvesting wild plants as well as a discussion on how the timing of harvests greatly influences edibility.

Alexanders and rhubarb jam on sourdough bread. A lovely late winter / early spring wild food treat

For lovers of preserves, the stems also make a superb late-winter jam when combined with early forced rhubarb. Somehow, the two plants produce a melon or kiwi fruit flavour! I recommend leaving the thinner stems unpeeled, as the stripes add more visual impact in the finished product.

The stems can be candied if you fancy, just like angelica, but most of the aromatics are lost with repeated heating, and its a fiddly, time-consuming business. Better still, the very young, tightly packed flower buds can be made into an unusual aromatic fudge-like sweet, with muscavado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!)

With seven plant parts to use, there are lots of reasons to go foraging for alexanders
The jet black seeds of alexanders were formerly used as a seasoning, before pepper became widely available

I use the roots in soups, or par-boiled, before being sautéed or roasted. They have a somewhat floury texture when roasted, but will retain a hint of bitterness. Upon flower initiation (up to five weeks before we see evidence), the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.

Alexanders seed are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle, lacto-fermented, or used just as they are, where their volatile constituents and bitter green tones offer slightly different flavour profiles than the mature, black seeds.

They offer similar textures and a hint of a pepper-like top note. If pan roasted first, the flavour profile softens and balances out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assa-feotida, and fennel.

A selection of my wild food recipes, including alexanders and rhubarb jam, can be found here.

This plant is another of the 52 featured species in my foragers playing cards – a perfect way to learn and play! These cards together with my other sets of wild food cards, are available from from the shop.

Happy foraging!

Foraging Garlic Mustard / Jack-by-the-hedge / Alliaria Petiolata

Foraging Garlic Mustard – The Creme of the Hedgerow

Learn about foraging garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Brassicaceae

Wild food hedgerow walks in winter are almost guaranteed to throw up opportunities to go foraging garlic mustard. For me, it’s one of the best wild food resources you can find in the hedgerows.

This plant is also mentioned in my winter foraging guide, and features in my foragers card game sets. The subject of cooking with and foraging garlic mustard needed an article all to itself, so here goes. You can find a recipe for a garlic mustard creme  in the wild food recipes page.

Why go foraging garlic mustard?

Abundance, and simply because it doesn’t really stop giving. There are 8 different plant parts you can use throughout its gradual metamorphosis, and as the seasons pass, you will almost always find something to harvest.

  • Tap roots
  • Leaves
  • Petioles from new growth in spring
  • Stems, when young and tender
  • Flowering Shoots
  • Flowers
  • Seeds
  • Microgreens

Foraging garlic mustard can offer us similar health benefits to those we know from some closely related species, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) and hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale).

When we go foraging garlic mustard we are helping to keep in check a plant that is counted in certain parts of North America, where it has no natural predators, as a virulent invasive weed, proving so far impossible to .

Botanical and sensual description to help I/D when foraging garlic mustard

Garlic Mustard is an annual or biennial herbaceous plant.

Remember that in practice, the terms ‘annual’ or ‘biennial’ are often ambiguous, and are frequently used as purely descriptive categories for the nurseries and gardens to explain cultivation.

Annual’s – are mostly used to describe plants that complete their life-cycle in less than 12 months. However, these plants can sometimes grow longer than 12 months. Some of the plants  grown in the UK are treated as annuals, i.e. chili peppers,especially when they originate in sub-tropical climates.

Biennial’s – Taking more than one whole growing season to complete life cycle. can often be found over-wintering as a basal rosette. However, many seeds germinate in July and August, and can be in flower by  the next summer.

Garlic mustard produces overwintering rosettes of simple, kidney-shaped leaves, found on long petioles. These typically grow to approximately 10-15 cm across and can be a darker green colour during the winter. The leaves are net-veined with wavy and crenated margins.

 

Its’s leaves give off a recognisable pungent garlic / cabbage aromas when crushed. This is due to the presence of volatile sulphurous compounds, which as I mentioned in the watercress article are proving to be more than efficient at arresting the growth of some common cancers.

A large number of the Brassica family plants are identifiable from smell alone. Given that this family are all edible, then you can proceed to experiment when you know you have a brassica. Other recognisable Brassica  family patterns in the flowers, and the leaves will soon become apparent when you begin to use this easy-to-learn system for identifying plants.

As the seasonal weather patterns change here in the UK, due to human’s increasingly stark effects on the climate, flowering times may become somewhat erratic. Currently, we see full blooms of garlic mustard during April and into May. Flowering stems have a number of branches.

Leaves are alternately spaced on the stems, and gradually become more refined in size and shape, with a much smaller leaf stalk. They are soft apart from in winter, when they are somewhat more coarse – a necessity I suppose, given the lack of available sunshine coupled with the lower temperatures. Something worth noting for quite a few hardy herbaceous species.

The broccoli-type floret heads soon expand to reveal the pretty white flowers. These get to 10 mm across. Both are a beautiful wayside nibble. More moments to enjoy ambulating consumption!

All brassicas display flowers similar to a mini broccoli type head. Foraging garlic mustard will quickly bring you up to speed
Foraging garlic mustard flowers from March through April. Thy are a familiar brassica display of a broccoli type head

 

A common scene of ripening garlic mustard seed pods in late spring, having taken over municipal beds

 

Long, thin seed pods eventually form, that will split in two, revealing lines of brown seeds. These seeds are a mini cigar-shape, rather than round as found in many other family relatives such as mustard. Pods are held at angles on the flowering stem. The seeds are pungent when crushed.

During the early summer the seeds mature, pods wither, and eventually split to reveal their treasure. As many as 8000 seeds per plant are produced, which reportedly converts to a staggering potential seed bank of 100,000 seeds per square metre!

Germination en masse is the inevitable result  of this tactic, by a plant from the superb brassica family, for these plants are well-known for their indifference to soil, and without need for mycorrhizae. In the plant kingdom you can forage for a multitude of these plants on poor soils by the sea and estuary, together with the Chenopodiaceae family of beets, goosefoots, oraches and samphires. On these types of soil, mycorrhizae won’t be found, or for that matter, any soil humus. In this harsh environment, both these two plant families are reliable exponents of mass germination, and can sometimes offer a plentiful source of micro greens.

Garlic mustard can appear as small carpets of microgreens from the thousands of seeds each mature plant can produce

Habitats to look in when out foraging garlic mustard

This plant can be found in a number of settings. Unsurprisingly for a plant that has the word ‘hedge’ in a couple of common names, its favourite habitat are hedgerows.

You can also find it at woodland edges, shady grass banks, on waste-ground, at the base of walls and fences in urban settings, and as a common weed of cultivation.

More distribution information, including a map, its ecological requirements and other nuggets can be found on the British and Irish online flora. Another great Scientific resource for garlic mustard and other plants is the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International

Culinary uses of garlic mustard

Cultures from around the world have long used this plant, primarily the European people, because the plant is native to the NorthWestern region.  Its abundance wherever happy to grow means the leaves or other things are always available to add to the pot.

You may have already seen numerous recipes online for pesto, soups and salads based on this ubiquitous plant. I like a pesto, but prefer the leaves of this plant as lightly cooked greens dressed with olive oil / butter and lemon juice.

At some points of the year I inevitably throw them in to a well seasoned and spiced gram flour batter, along with a dozen or so different plant leaves, to make a wild leaf pakora. Look out for mass germination carpets of microgreens during late summer/early autumn, or in spring.

From mid to late spring, the flowering spears appearing everywhere are fantastic, being juicy, sweet, crunchy and peppery. I think they’re perfect raw, on the hoof, or in salads. These are my favourite food.

But the best medicinal part the plant are the tap roots. This then is my cream of the Garlic mustard crop. The root has no garlic flavour though. What you get is a poky blast of horseradish-like, sinus cleansing, microbe-killing heat! Brilliant, that’s any germs or beginnings of infection killed too!

 

The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots. An easy to find, sinus blasting replacement for horseradish
The result of two minutes foraging garlic mustard roots

 

It takes just minutes to collect and only 15 mins or so to wash, scrub and chop the roots, before making something I reckon you will regularly want on your dinner table. Alliaria creme sauce.

From malicious to delicious. Alliaria creme sauce

The recipe for this simple condiment is going up soon on the foraged food page.

Happy foraging

 

 

 

 

Foraging Sweet Chestnuts

Foraging sweet chestnuts in the UK

One of the great delights of autumn is foraging sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) from your local woodland. European people have been collecting these delicious and nutritious little food parcels for thousands of years.

These tasty nuts are now a staple of Autumn and winter high streets, being readily available from fire heated braziers in many major cities. But buying them can only ever offer a fraction of the pleasure as foraging.

With the majority of wild plant foraging, you mostly need to spot the plant you are after, and simply harvest by cutting or pinching out the leaves, stems, or flowers.

Whereas with sweet chestnuts, you will find the need to search on the forest floor, excitingly scraping back fallen leaves and the carpet of open shells found under larger trees, all the while concentrating and looking around in expectancy, or hope, for its shiny dark brown fruits to reveal themselves like gems.

Their yields can be heavy in a good year, enabling you to find lots of them in a small patch of the ground directly under the tree.  So foraging sweet chestnuts can be a fun family treasure hunt.

Although some authors may try and say that September is the start of the season, there is really no point in foraging sweet chestnuts earlier than October, because any that have fallen will have no real flavour when green and unripe.

You will need gloves to handle the spiny nut cases when foraging sweet chestnuts
Sweet chestnuts are typically found in clusters, and have a dense covering of spiny shells.

You can begin looking for the ripe chestnuts in early October following a period of windy weather, when numerous green spiny shells will be easily found under and around the base of the tree.

However, many of these may also contain nuts that haven’t yet quite ripened, and naturally require a period of a few more days in their shells to finish off their brown colouring. Handily, the green nut shells begin to brown and split of their own accord when the fruits are pretty much ready for picking.

This plant is not to be confused with the inedible and potentially toxic horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which sometimes grows in close proximity to the sweet chestnut in park-lands and larger gardens.

The two trees are completely unrelated, even though the nuts look similar at first glance. Sweet chestnut is in fact related to the oak and beech trees, in the family Fagaceae. My article on horse chestnut covers the basic differences.

Botanical description to help identify Sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnut cuts a distinctive figure in many parklands.

It can grow up to 35 metres. These trees are known for their broad crown, longevity and a massive trunk girth. Its narrow fissured grey-brown bark occasionally reveals blueish-green colours.

From a relatively young age, the plant begins to produce its distinctive spiralling bark pattern. In old age, the plant can produce beautiful gnarled burrs into eye catching shapes.

When foraging sweet chestnuts you can find their trunks exhibiting large burrs, sometimes making alluring shapes

Its glossy green leaves will reach 20 -30 cm long, with margins that are reportedly unique when comparing it with any other member of the widely found British flora. Each of the serrations has a noticeable curved tooth.

The leaves are simple, oblong-lanceolate, and are alternate on the stem, with relatively short petioles.

When foraging Sweet chestnuts, you can easily identify them from their pointy-toothed leaves
Sweet chestnut leaves have distinctive pointy toothed margins

The newer stems are ridged, usually a red-brown colour, and often heavily speckled with its array of lenticels. The alternate buds finish with a terminal bud close to a side bud.

This tree is one of the very last species to flower and set fruit, as well as being one of the last fruits to fall. Its long spikes of male catkin type flowers will appear late in the spring, typically around the 3rd week of June.

Smaller female flowers  will be found nearby found towards the base of the spikes. For a good few weeks in early summer you can spot the swelling spiky shells together with the skeleton male flower stalks.

Checking your tree for potential harvests should reveal the flower stalk and fruits sat together for a few weeks
Sweet chestnut fruits and skeleton flower stalks are visible on the plant for a few weeks

Habitats to look in when foraging sweet chestnuts

The plant is widely naturalised in many woodlands, though the larger more productive specimens will mostly be found in parklands and estate gardens.  It is known in the UK as an ‘honorary native’,  due to the ease in which the plant seeds and grows here.

The nuts are the new joy of October for me, just when any S.A.D may begin to kick in. During the last few years I have travelled quite a bit around Britain, but only this year have I found such a haul as I did in Devon just recently.

Harvesting sweet chestnuts

When foraging sweet chestnuts, you find them more easily on the floor although they will persist on the tree. If you want the nuts out of the bigger specimens, you will need to employ a stick, as always done with conkers.

Careful handing of sweet chestnuts is required when foraging and preparing.
Be careful when foraging and harvesting sweet chestnuts, as the spines on the cases are sharp!

Handling the spiny shells and freeing the prize can be a difficult business. You will likely need gloves, especially with the older fruits.  A strong heal on sturdy boots greatly helps in breaking the freshly felled cases open.

Inside the cases, the nuts from the true wild species will be present in twos or threes, whereas nuts gleaned from the cultivar known as ‘marron’, will be on their own and substantially larger than the wild ones.

Traditional and contemporary uses of Sweet chestnuts

In the kitchen, sweet chestnut is a superb and versatile ingredient. It is one of the few nuts that contain little fat; instead, they have a surprisingly large amount of water. This means they are not suitable for processing into oil, but do produce a great flour.

You can use chestnuts for a few delightful seasonal treats, including chestnut purée,  chestnut paté; turning it into flour for pastries and cakes, making chestnut stuffing,

On a visit to Devon recently, I was inspired by a friend into researching  and experimenting with chestnuts more. And so followed a wild mushroom and sweet chestnut paté, then with thoughts to the yuletide festive period and winter solstice,  we made a chestnut and port paté .  I won’t say how fantastic that was, as you can make your own quite easily, but I will say I’ve since made a couple more batches at different friend’s houses.

I’m currently hooked, making some sweet chestnut purée for all manner of festive dishes, essentially following a recipe from this interesting site, and began trying to make the delicious but rightly expensive Marron Glace

These delicious candied chestnuts when cooked in the traditional style, require some time and dedication.  My first attempt though followed the River Cottage recipe and video from Pam the Jam, but the end result is nothing like the fully candied Marron Glace that originated where the tree was plentiful. So more experiments are to come.

Sweet chestnut is one of the featured plants in my 2018 diary, and in my card games, available from my foraging resources shop.

Foraging plants for the respiratory system

Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system

The respiratory system is our interface and connection with all of life, via the gases that permeate our atmosphere before permeating our blood. Through the mechanisms of the lungs we receive oxygen in the form of O2, and release carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of ongoing cellular respiration.

However, due to the open nature of the lungs we will also encounter a continual bombardment of foreign matter and harmful, disease-spreading, pathogenic organisms.

The respiratory system represents the following tissues, muscles and organs.

  • The nose and mouth – The beginning of the airways. Oxygen is brought in to the nose and down to the trachea. When carbon dioxide (CO) is expelled, it comes back through the trachea to the nose.

  • The pharynx – Part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system, because it carries food and air.

  • The larynx – Otherwise known as the voice box. It sits at the beginning of the trachea and essentially is a short tube that contains a pair of vocal chords.

  • The trachea – Essentially a smooth muscle and pipe-shaped airway, it is protected by the sternum and spine. Divides into left and right bronchus tubes.

  • The lungs – They connect to and begin at the trachea. Acupuncturists view the tongue as an extension of our lung.

  • The bronchi – These increasingly small air tubes carry the CO2 / oxygen to and from the lungs from the trachea.

  • The diaphragm – This muscle contracts when breathing in, and expands when exhaling CO2.

The pulmonary system has its own circulatory system. Deoxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. It then flows back to the heart and is pumped around the body and brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell.

During a normal day, we breathe nearly 25,000 times, and take in large amounts of air. The inhaled air contains mostly oxygen and nitrogen. But air also has things in it that can hurt our lungs. There are two major causes of problems with the respiratory system – pollution and smoking. Obviously there are diseases and other issues also.

Many illnesses of the lungs are as a result of infection. These can be in the throat, or in the airways down towards and inside the lung itself. The inner surfaces of tissues in the respiratory system are coated with a film of mucus to aid peristalsis higher up the airway, as well as facilitating the ejection of foreign particles which can come to lodge themselves in the lungs.

Some disorders of the respiratory system, with suggestions of herbs we can forage to treat it.

Be careful about reading health books – you may die of a misprint!” – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

To facilitate treatment of the respiratory system, herbalists usefully distinguish between the lower and upper halves. The upper consists of the structural conducting organs: nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx, whilst the lower half consists of the conducting air-ways of the trachea, including the bronchus tubes, respiratory bronchioles and alveoli.

Pulmonary tonic herbs are plant remedies with a wide range of actions on the system, strengthening and restoring tissues and membranes. They include mullein, plantains, elecampagne, and coltsfoot and are typically recommended by herbalists for treating symptoms of respiratory disease and to strengthen tissues and function. Coltsfoot has been called the best remedy for children.

Coughs can be treated in a number of ways with various herbs exerting different effects.

Anti-tussives inhibit the cough reflex. Aside from the well known and controversial opium poppy (containing the effective anti-tussive opiate alkaloid -codeine), these herbs include coltsfoot – the plant named in honour for its all round abilities to alleviate coughing; wild lettuce – which specifically sedates and dampens down the cough reflex in a similar way to the opiate codeine (an ingredient in many cough remedies); and wild cherry bark (Prunus avium) which is believed to work due to the presence of saponins.

Expectorants are a wide range of plants used to facilitate and accelerate the expulsion of mucous or sputum from the bronchial tubes. These may be relaxing or stimulating.

  • Relaxing expectorants are useful for easing spasm and to loosen mucous from the airways. They usually contain some soothing mucilage and are of great benefit when treating dry and irritable coughs. Both Ribwort and rats-tail plantains, as well as coltsfoot, marshmallow, and burdock have all been traditionally used.

  • Image of rats tail plantain
    Rats tail or greater plantain is a traditional herb used to treat the respiratory system
  • Stimulating expectorants such as thyme, mullein, elecampagne and garlic are good for productive coughs. They work by irritating the bronchial tubes, which initiates a reflex to cough. Plants with either of these components help to reduce mucosal viscosity, thereby enabling sputum to be passed more easily up, out, and away, via what doctors sometimes call the muco-ciliatory escalator.

Demulcent herbs typically contain substantial amounts of mucilage. Plants such as comfrey, the plantains, coltsfoot, chickweed, marshmallow, and mullein will all soothe, protect and heal damaged, exposed surfaces of the respiratory system. These plants are often soft to touch, and broad-leaved. They often work through reflex action of the gut nerves, easing irritation in other areas such as the digestive and urinary systems.

Image of chickweed, an emollient medicinal herb that helps the respiratory system.
Chickweed is an emolient herb used to treat the respiratory system.

Anti-catarrhal herbs reduce the amount of mucous and phlegm produced. The following herbs have been used for centuries with success: Garlic, coltsfoot, yarrow, lungwort, plantains, elder, elecampagne, and mullein.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterised by wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. One proven and powerful herb useful for asthmatics is Ephedra sinica (Ephedraceae family). This plant is a well-known bronchial dilator, which helps dry up sinuses and decongests the bronchioles, allowing more air into the lungs.

Comfrey, coltsfoot, elecampagne, white horehound, and mullein will be of value, as will regular massaging of the chest and back with essential oils such as lavender or thyme.

image of Inula helenium - elecampagne, a popular remedy for the respiratory system
One of the finest respiratory herbs, elecampagne (Inula helenium) is also stunningly beautiful!

Anti-septic and anti-bacterial herbs for the respiratory system

Anti-septic herbs are useful for treating throat infections. Mullein, garlic, thyme, calendula, and coltsfoot are all traditional herbs for infections of the bronchial tubes. It can be beneficial to help the lymphatic system cleanse the blood following infection and so plants such as cleavers or burdock are helpful. Sage is a great anti-septic gargle when inflammation of the tonsils or other throat glands occurs.

Anti-microbial remedies are often combined with any of the above where infection has or is likely to occur. Thyme and garlic are renowned anti-microbials. Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary and many other essential oil containing plants, when taken as steam inhalations, are also effective anti-microbial plants and antiseptics.

Find out more about foraging on one of my foraging walks or courses.

.

Wild Plant Guide 2018 Foraging Calendar

Introducing the 2018 Wild Plant Guide foraging calendar.

Here is the latest yearly foraging calendar from Wild Plant Guide.  Once again it features 36 species, with their common and scientific names given.

The calendar is a double A4 size, with plenty of space in the daily boxes to write down your important reminders.

The main photos have snippets of edible information provided,  while further knowledge of the individual species, such as medicinal uses, how to identify them and such like, can be gleaned from other pages here on this site, for example  in the seasonal wild food guides.

image of rock samphire, one of 36 plants in the 2018 foraging calendar
rock samphire, one of 36 plants in the foraging calendar

I have been producing these calendars since 2015. Each year I try to include a significant number of new plants, as well as showing different shots of previously displayed species, taken at a different time of year, revealing other aspects and identifying features.

Image of silver birch, one of the plants in the 2018 foraging calendar

This foraging calendar also has full moon, new moon, equinox and solstice dates as well as the usual bank holidays, so you should never miss a foraging opportunity in 2018!

You can get a calendar from the foraging resources shop,  where  you can also find a range of other gifts, games and resources. 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 plants for the nervous system

Reclaim health autonomy by foraging plants to help the nervous system!

The third in the ‘reclaim health autonomy’ series, revealing how you can easily go out and start foraging plants to help with numerous ailments. This time we look at the nervous system and how foraging for and using wild plants can help many of the disorders and dis-eases of the mind and nerves.

Overview of the central nervous system 

Diagram of the nervous system. Credit: William Crochot. Reproduced under CC.

The brain, as you may well be aware, consists of billions of brain cells, called neurons. Enclosed within a fatty membrane lies what is known as the ‘blood brain barrier’. This is a layer of tightly packed cells with a role to prevent unwanted substances, such as certain drugs, chemicals, and viruses, from entering the brain.

To feed the brain, all nutrients must cross this selective membrane, as fat-soluble molecules, in order to reach the brain cells. Of all the sugars consumed in our diets, only glucose can cross the blood brain barrier.

In between the brain cells are microscopic gaps known as synapses where messages from one cell can be passed to another. These messages are relayed by the numerous monoamine neurotransmitters. They are either made by the brain/body itself from available stores, or are processed directly from diet (given the sufficient availability of zinc, selenium and magnesium together with many ‘B’-vitamins, all of which are needed by our body to process monoamines).

In effect, monoamines are always required from the diet because the brain/body will continually consume available nutrients over a short space of time. Foraging plants with a high nutrient load such as nettles and mallow, can help provide the essential trace elements into the diet.

Ageing reduces the amount of neurotransmitters produced and our bodies ability to respond to them. Estimates from America suggest that 60% of all adults over 40 years of age have some form of neurotransmitter deficiency. The actions (or lack of) by these neurotransmitters are largely responsible for a range of our moods as well as a myriad physiological processes.

Anatomically, the nervous system can be divided into the C.N.S which is comprised of the cerebral hemispheres, cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord; together with the peripheral nervous system (essentially, the cranial nerves and spinal nerves).

Aside from this classification, the nervous system can also be divided functionally into two distinct systems. The somatic, or voluntary nervous system is associated with impulses to body wall and limbs, while the autonomic nervous system is associated with impulses to the smooth muscles of the viscera (a collective term used to describe the organs within our body cavities).

The autonomic nervous system maintains the physiological equilibrium of the body, yet at the same time it is not completely independent of the C.N.S, because factors that affect higher centres may also influence some physiological functions. The effect of fear and anger, and subsequent release of adrenalin on the pulse rate, is an example of that interdependence.

The important neurotransmitters with regards our moods are the endorphins, serotonin and melatonin (made from the amino-acid tryptophan), as well as dopamine, noradrenalin and adrenalin, made from the amino-acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. They are constantly relayed between nerve cells throughout the nervous system.

To reiterate, these monoamines are themselves absolutely vital, but are of no real help to our nervous system and ipso facto our mental and physical health, unless the essential fatty acids required for each and every cellular membrane, together with aforementioned catalysing metabolic co-factors, are present in the body or diet. This can easily be assisted through foraging plants such as those  listed in the nervous system disorder section.

Some of the important mono-amine neurotransmitters

Tryptophan 

Found in many foods and converted in the body to 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP), then finally into serotonin (5-Hydroxy-tryptamine or 5-HT). The main plant foods include bananas, lentils, nuts and many seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin. However, without magnesium and B vitamins to help metabolise tryptophan, then much of this amino acid may be converted into the B vitamin niacin instead.

Serotonin ‘the happy molecule’

5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is one of the most intensively studied neuro-transmitters. Commonly found in the gastro-intestinal tract where it is reportedly used to regulate intestinal movements. Some reports state that up to 80% of available serotonin is located here, as well as throughout the C.N.S.

Serotonin can also be made in the brain from the precursor amino-acid tryptophan. It is known to be associated with various moods and behaviours including reducing appetite, curbing impulses, enhancing mood and promoting sleep. Low levels of serotonin can be responsible for feelings of depression.

Adrenalin, noradrenalin and dopamine

These mood molecules are well known, especially adrenaline (almost universally known as the ‘fight or flight’ molecule.) They are derived from many foods especially the pulses, seeds and nuts. Basically these substances keep you feeling good.

They are stimulating and motivating and help the body and mind deal with stress. Dopamine is known as one of the pleasure molecules, due to it being released when we do something that makes us happy, whether that comes from food or other stimuli.

Gamma-amino-butyric-acid (GABA)

This important inhibitory neuro-transmitter acts as a counterbalance to the stimulating molecules above, helping to relax and calm you down after stress. An imbalance can make it difficult to wind down, relax and sleep

Acetylcholine (ACh)

This helps regulate the speed at which the brain processes information. Satisfactory levels help keep the brain sharp, improving mental alertness and functions such as memory recall. Deficiencies are believed to lead to Alzheimer’s disease. ACh is found in the peripheral and central nervous system. In the peripheral, it activates muscles, enabling them to contract.

Cholecystokinin

This controls the feeling of fullness or ‘satiety’ after a meal is consumed. As food is passed along the digestive tract through the stomach it reaches the duodenum before the small intestine. It is here that signals are sent to the brain telling it the stomach is full. Or at least they should be. Eating too fast can easily negate the action of this neurotransmitter.

Endorphins

These are the body’s own ‘morphine-like’ substances (endogenous morphines). They can produce feelings of euphoria and well-being, creating high self-esteem as well as a reduction in physical and emotional pain.

They are technically classed as a neuromodulator rather than a neurotransmitter by chemists; that is, endorphins modify actions of neurotransmitters through a number of effects associated with pleasure and pain.

When consumed in foods such as chocolate, and if taken regularly and in large enough quantities, a risk of an addictive relationship with the food in question can begin.

Endorphins are known to increase appetite through activating the pleasure and reward areas of the brain. It is now known that abnormal levels of endorphins in the brain can lead to depression or autism.

For example, an autistic patient may produce so much endorphin that they do not need to react to the world outside, whereas a depressed person may not produce enough endorphin to withstand daily stresses and pressures of ‘normal’ life.

Melatonin

This substance is secreted by the pineal gland and is made from serotonin. It controls our sleep/wake cycle with the amount secreted proportionate to the amount of darkness in a 24 hour period. The cycles we experience every day are known as circadian rhythms (circa=about, dia=day) and every organism on the planet regulates its own metabolism within a cyclical framework.

Histamine

This is an important substance for the body’s immune system and allergic response. It is made from histadine, an amino acid found in protein rich foods. High and low levels of histamine are associated with mental health problems.

Symptoms of excessive histamine (histadelia) have been linked with abnormal fears, addictions, compulsive behaviour, confusion, depression, schizophrenia, emotional instability, hyper-activity, insomnia, obsessions and suicidal thoughts.

Low levels of histamine (histapenia) have been found in people suffering with anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia and schizophrenia.

Foods containing high levels of histamine include: aubergines, fermented foods such as soya and sauerkraut, chocolate, pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo), spinach, strawberries (Fragaria spp), tea, and tomatoes (Lycoperiscon esculentum).

Foraging plants to help nervous system disorders

These can take on many guises. A number of different plants greatly assist the following different common nervous afflictions. They will typically have anti-spasmodic and relaxant or sedative effects on the central nervous system.

Anxieties

The various factors behind anxiety need addressing. Plants that help are hops, oat straw or grain, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian, lavender, and lime-flowers.

Depression

Dietary changes may well be all that’s required for many cases of mild depressions. Cases of clinical depression need professional care and are not recommended for un-assisted self-medication. Lavender, oat straw, ginseng (Panax ginseng), valerian, lemon balm, and St. Johns wort are also beneficial for mild depression. Hops, although a relaxant, is contraindicated for depression.

Headaches

These can manifest in different ways in numerous locations. They can stem from any one of a number of psychological and physical dysfunctions, from nervous tensions and stress to digestive disorders and dehydration. Lemon balm, ground ivy, lavender, peppermint, thyme, and valerian can all be of benefit.

Migraines

These extreme headaches are particularly disabling for many people. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has proven to be a wonder herb for some people with crippling migraines. Traditionally taken as a prolonged course for a month or so, it will often clear up regular migraine headaches. Feverfew grows wild as a naturalised escape of cultivation and can be seen in numerous settings enjoying free-draining soils.

Insomnia

As we age, sleep disorders can become increasingly frequent. Foraging plants such as Chamomile, hops, passionflower, wild lettuce, valerian, oat straw, St Johns wort, and lavender can all help you get a good night’s sleep. All can be infused. Hops and lavender pillows are effective, as is a little lavender oil sprinkled on bed clothes or massaged into the chest or back. Read more on foraging St Johns wort here.

Neuralgia

This is an often debilitating nerve pain caused by trauma and through shingles, diabetes or multiple sclerosis. Oats, both the grain as food and the straw as tea, alongside the topically applied infused oil of St Johns wort are both effective at repairing and restoring the proper function of our nerve endings. You can discover more about Oats in my foragers monograph.

Stress

Our nervous system can be effectively treated with plants, always dependent on the nature of the stress. Even the simple act of foraging plants can help to alleviate stress. Herbs such as oats, valerian, lavender, chamomile, lime-flowers, and borage are all recommended.  Learn all about the lime tree in this article.

 

 

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 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’.