Magenta takes us through her garden and shares her knowledge of healing plants. “Magenta’s Musings” will appear on the blog every two months, on the second week of the month.
As many of us in recent weeks have spent a lot more time in our gardens, I thought it would be nice to share some information on one of my other passions in life: plants, but in particular, healing plants.
I love plants of all sorts, whether they are ornamental or edible! I am a keen gardener and my interests in plants started as a child. We lived next door to my Dad’s parents and both Dad and Grand-dad were keen gardeners, although this was more from the necessity to grow food I think.
I was lucky to have the run of two large gardens as a child, and spent many hours making potions and brews from all the wild flowers I found. I didn’t actually poison anyone, although I will admit to giving a brew to a school bully, which did made her sick!
A friend of mine who reads Auras, said that she had seen me as a Druid in a past life, mixing up herbal preparations, so I guess this could be where the interest in plants has stemmed from (sorry no pun intended there)!
Although I’ve been interested in plants for years, it is only recently that I took and passed a Diploma in Herbalism and another in Magikal Herbalism. I thoroughly enjoyed doing these Courses and learned a lot about both the common and some of the more unusual herbs and plants for healing. Being a gardener, I grow many of the plants and herbs in my garden which I now use in various herbal home products I sell under the name of Magenta Crafts.
Now the use of herbs and plants, as you probably know, has been around thousands of years and the usage for medicinal purposes was no doubt at the beginning, very much trial and error, as you can imagine. How many unfortunates were made worse after being given something poisonous for instance?
It’s not surprising then that the wise man or woman was considered to have the power of life or death in their hands! We might view some of the old remedies as being bizarre or out of date now, but having said that, some old remedies are still in use today although the original format has changed considerably. Look at aspirin for instance.
A lot of work on Herbalism was done by Nicholas Culpeper who lived from 1616-1654. He was an English apothecary and physician. Inspired by the work of other medical reformers who rejected traditional medical authorities, Culpeper published books in English, giving healers who could not read Latin access to medical and pharmaceutical knowledge. Culpeper was a political radical who wrote pamphlets against the king, all priests and lawyers, and licensed physicians. He dedicated himself to serving the sick, the poor and the helpless and in 1644 he set up his own shop in east London.
Culpeper wrote and translated many medical books, but his biggest success was The English Physician of 1653 (now known as Culpeper’s Herbal), which was one of the most successful publications of early modern Britain, and North America too surprisingly. Culpeper’s Herbal was an attempt to integrate folk law use and even astrology into herbal medicine. It also included a translation of the descriptions of plants and their medical uses from the Latin used originally by the College of Physicians. Not surprisingly, the college protested against the publication, but the book has actually been in print ever since.
Just as a point of interest, Nicholas Culpeper was a descendant of Thomas Culpeper who was a lover of Henry VIII’s wife Catherine Howard. I wonder how he would have fared, writing pamphlets against Henry VIII?
Before the modern array of drugs we have available now, plants were generally the only source of healing, other than things like leeches and arsenic even. Each village would have had its own wise woman or man, who would have mixed up the various lotions and potions. In latter years of course, these folks were those who were persecuted for being ‘witches’ because of their seemingly magical knowledge.
Many monasteries also had monks who would help treat the sick with herbs in their infirmary. Years ago there was a TV series called “Cadfael” which was based on a monk who had herbal and healing knowledge at Shrewsbury monastery. Anyone remember this? It was a medieval murder mystery thing.
Ongoing medical research is always looking at numerous plants for their healing qualities. In this research though it is sometimes difficult to prove that one plant is better than another for a particular illness or problem, or even to pinpoint the exact element that gives that particular healing quality. This is because plants are a whole collection of substances, a special blend if you like, where each ingredient complements the actions of another.
Let’s take for example, the common Dandelion, often considered the bane of a nice manicured lawn, but I love them. Both leaves and roots are used for their active ingredients. Dandelion leaves are used as a diuretic and are often administered for urine infections. Now, when you go to a GP for this sort of problem, they will prescribe a diuretic to get rid of the infection, but this also flushes out a lot of potassium from the body. So, in order to counteract this, replacement potassium is also prescribed. However, in the Dandelion leaves, they actually contain a very high level of potassium already, which balances their function as a powerful diuretic. Potassium is therefore being replaced as it is being flushed out. Clever eh?
Dandelion roots are used to treat liver problems as they have a detoxing affect and are also used for liver damage due to excessive alcohol consumption. Both leaves and roots act as a tonic for the gallbladder too, helping to remove the effects of pollution on the body, and they are also good for lactating women.
The leaves can be eaten raw in a salad, added to soups or made into herbal teas, and of course the roots are used dried to make a fairly acceptable coffee substitute. And all of this from a humble Dandelion.
Now another herb with a multitude of uses is Garlic. Used extensively around the world in cooking, this member of the Allium plant family, along with all onions, contains allicin, amino acids, iodine, selenium & sulphur as well as other trace minerals. For instance, Selenium promotes and enhances the body’s self healing ability. It is said to be one of the oldest herbal medicines and remains of Garlic have been found in caves inhabited 10,000 years ago and a clay tablet dating from around 3000 BC, records the first Garlic prescription.
The collection of ingredients found in Garlic makes it anti-biotic, anti parasitic, anti-viral and an expectorant. Its uses are numerous, from lowering high blood pressure, clearing cholesterol from arteries to treating bronchitis and colds. In fact, the ancient Roman Pliny the Elder, advised Garlic for more than 60 different health problems. It is one of the most commonly used health supplements in the world. And it’s also used to keep vampires away! However, raw Garlic should only be eaten with other foods and it is not recommended for children under the age of 12 due to its strong constituents.
We’re all familiar with many of the other common herbs, like Thyme, Sage, Basil and so on, which are used more in cooking for flavouring rather than for their healing properties, so let’s look at some of the more unusual herbs and plants. These can often be found growing in the garden, but do be aware that their use for medicinal purposes will depend on the particular type or species. For instance not all of the Cone Flower family or Echinacea can be used medicinally.
Another herb which is found widely across Europe is Valerian and like Garlic, is in fact one of the oldest herbs in use. It has been the subject of much research too. This herb is very good for any sleeping disorders, nervous anxiety, stress and tension. There are also substances in Valerian which have been shown to possess anti-spasmodic activity in muscles too. Very helpful if you have the jerky leg syndrome at night.
Cleavers, often considered a weed in the garden, is a plant used as a detoxifier, diuretic, anti-inflammatory and anti-obesity agent. It has also been found to have some effect on enlarged lymph nodes and other cystic and nodular changes in the glands. It was used in the ancient world for cancer, and although there is not any current research to support this as a remedy, as we know that many ancient remedies do have some truth in them, this is perhaps a herb to consider further in the treatment of cancer.
I am fortunate to have friends on the Greek island of Crete who I go and see frequently. Several years ago, one of my friends, knowing that I liked herbal teas, sent me a bag of a herb called Malotira. Not knowing quite how to make the tea, my efforts were not particularly palatable! So, on a subsequent visit to Crete, I had a glass of this tea at the local taverna to see how it should taste. Much stronger than my tea and laced thickly with honey, it was vastly superior to my attempts, that’s for sure. The locals say that it is a cure-all and particularly good for coughs and colds and now I always bring some back with me. Malotira, also known as Cretan Mountain tea, is a distant member of the sage family and grows profusely in the hills in Crete but is also known in other Mediterranean countries like Turkey and Bulgaria.
So, how do you use your herbs for remedies? Well, I mentioned cooking earlier, whereby herbs are used more for flavouring rather than medicinal but there are several ways to use herbs as remedies. The most common way is to make an infusion or tea with fresh herbs and hot water. The herbs are left to steep or brew before being strained and the liquid drunk. Some herbs are not particularly palatable, so like the Cretan tea, honey is widely used to sweeten the infusion. There are of course numerous herbal tea bags available from health shops in a wide selection of flavours and blends if you didn’t want to make your own. However, not all herbs can be used internally, or by children or by pregnant women, so it is worth consulting a qualified herbalist if you have any concerns, and as mentioned before it is always a good idea to check with your GP if you are already taking medication for an illness or condition.
As I’ve just mentioned, herbs can be added to the bath and this is the field of herbal use that I am currently working with. There is nothing more relaxing than being in a nice warm bath that smells wonderful too, is there? The warmth of the water releases the volatile oils in the herbs which are then absorbed into the skin. This is how aromatherapy oils work too. It’s recommended that you spend 15 minutes in a warm bath for the herbs to do their stuff.
Sea salt, and in particular Dead Sea salt has been used for centuries for its healing properties. In fact a dip in the Dead Sea, with its high salinity, is a very popular remedy for skin complaints like psoriasis. I use Dead Sea salts as the basis for my Bath Salts range and add essential oils and a few dried herbs and flowers to make the various blends.
I also make Bath Sachets which are just the dried herbs and flowers in a small muslin bag. You pop the sachet unopened into the bath, and like a tea bag, the ingredients steep in the warm water to give you the healing benefits of the herbs but without blocking up the plug-hole with all the bits! I use organic ingredients wherever possible and as I mentioned earlier, many of the herbs and flowers I have grown in my garden, so I know where the majority of my ingredients come from. I get the herbs that I cannot grow from reputable suppliers, like Baldwin’s in South London. They have been in business for years and years.
I have crammed in as many plants as I can into the garden, but there’s always room for one more, especially a herb or healing plant! I also have a beautiful 120 year old Ash tree, which is very significant to Druids of course, and is one of the reasons why my partner and I bought the house! I use many of the plants in the garden when making up magical charm bags too, but that is a story for another day!