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The Joys of Wildcrafting

Pick herbs when they are dry, we are told, preferably first thing in the morning before the sun has stressed the plant too much, but after the dew has gone. Every new herbalist wants to follow the advice of the masters, yet it becomes more and more difficult when rain falls relentlessly and the sun puts in an appearance only when other commitments make it impossible to gather your own crops.

I became seriously interested in herbs and their uses about a year ago. Soon the culinary herbs in my garden were not enough to satisfy the need to find treatments for various common ailments. An article in the Spring edition of "Herbs" made me eager to gather elderflowers. A minor problem was the lack of appropriate trees not engulfed by traffic fumes and the continual rain.

In desperation one sunny Sunday evening, I set off for the quiet roads of Warwickshire armed with carrier bags, scissors and wellington boots. Thankfully my quest was rewarded, despite discovering the hard way how deep the boundary ditches of fields were when I leant over too far! Soon I was laden with elderflowers to turn into cordial, elderbark to simmer in sunflower oil and thicken with beeswax to provide a lotion for bruises and yellow honeysuckle to dry and add to rose petals gathered at work. These flowers formed the basis of my Christmas pot pourri when the nights started drawing in.

The joy of wildcrafting is the unexpected nature of bounty. The summer had brought news of yarrow, important for treating fevers and stopping bleeding. I knew what it looked like, but could not find it locally. As with all things, it appeared in front of me when I was least expecting it – on the cliff tops above a Cornish beach during our annual holiday. I picked a bunch, taking care not to gather too many, so that the overall numbers were not depleted. Red clover and mint were also found nearby and great swathes of fennel hung over a harbour wall, the flowers caught by passing boats and discarded on the roadside.

As summer drew to a close, we visited Bristol for a kite-flying festival. When the antics of formation teams began to pall, I went in search of blackberries, ripe elderberries and bright red haws. I had already dried blackberry leaves from the briars in my garden to use for stomach upsets and the berries were frozen to use in pies, jams and for flavouring nettle tea. The elderberries produced cordial to be sipped hot, with cinnamon, when winter colds struck as well as a jelly for toast. The haws spent a long time hanging by the hot water tank in the airing cupboard until they were sufficiently withered and then were dunked in brandy to use as a heart tonic and to aid circulation problems.

Last autumn I joined a herbal news group on the internet and learnt about the healing properties of greater plantain. A trip to the Cotswolds saw me determined to find some plants and relieve my father of the chickweed taking over his carrot patch to make a cream to relieve itching. Undeterred by torrential rain, I found my quarry in my parents’ greenhouse and even larger specimens amongst the roadside mud. I'm sure the passing motorists wondered what I was doing digging in the grass verge and picking rosehips in the freezing cold. Once home again, I was able to cover the drier plantain leaves with vodka to produce a tincture to be taken internally, while the rest of the leaves and other aerial parts were infused in hot oil.  I was very grateful for the healing properties of the plantain  oil when I fell victim to London Underground repairs and used it to treat my bruised instep.

My garden has provided the usual selection of culinary herbs. I have rosemary for nerves and to help stimulate circulation, parsley for digestion and the seeds can also be used as a treatment for nits. There is antiseptic sage for digestion and chest problems, which can replace toothpaste if necessary. A selection of mints, hyssop and lemon balm also grow profusely. Two formally unknown plants decided to visit last year, jack-by-the-hedge and hedge woundwort could both be placed on minor wounds as a poultice, but only when fresh. This year I hope to have comfrey to use as an oil or ointment to treat long-term bone problems and encourage wound healing.

The only problem with my new-found interest is the lack of patients to treat. My family remain doggedly healthy and if offered the mildest of mint teas suddenly discover that they feel remarkably better, even if they have been languishing in bed a few moments before! My husband is resigned to drinking "lawn-mower clippings" (coltsfoot, sage and grated ginger with honey) when he has a bad cough, but the other herbs seemed destined to be used in herbal candles, home-made soap and other useful Christmas presents.

Despite all this, my joy in wildcrafting remains!


Sarah Head - email


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