Category Archives: Herbal medicine

dream number one: a community clinic on every corner (or so)

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A new season, a first full year of being a ‘qualified’ herbalist (apostrophes relate to the question of whether it’s the piece of paper that marks someone as a herbalist, or their own journey): always evolving in thoughts, doubts, uncertainties, joys and revelations.

As the summer closes and the hectic activity of July and August settles into this time of slowing down, and bright-coloured landscape and darker evenings, I think about the early excitements of the year, in meeting so many people keen to find out about herbal medicine, whether through our herb walks on the marshes or our workshops sharing knowledge of this, our oldest interaction with our habitat. And I also think about where I feel myself to be, in trying to practice. There are all those people whom I’ve met, and shared enthusiasms with. And then there is a wider setting where contradictions abound and the supporting ground beneath my feet seems shifting and tenuous.

Our world is of course one of contrasts, confounding ones. There are all those people who are interested and believing and want to support herbal medicine. But stepping out of the cocoon of herbalists, teachers and like-minded folk through the years of study, I emerge into a world where our impact seems negligible. I know this is not true; I know that world over, traditional medicine is central and vital. But here, now, where I live, I see a mass of maddening contradictions, ever splitting us, and the value I see in herbal medicine seems sidelined, or disparaged, or just relegated – as if seen to be of no importance or relevance, if noticed at all. This I find in all quarters – among friends who are in theory supportive, among the wider world of folks that I meet, many of whom have never heard of it or don’t realise what it is, and probably most of all in that delightful bureaucratic canker of a ‘governance’ that often seems hellbent on stripping all human compassion and connection from peoples’ lives. This is one perspective. Another one that I commonly have is that massive, deeply exciting and gently revolutionary change is afoot, with wide open creatures all over our planet thinking, visioning, dreaming and working with all their will to improve our ways of being. Did I say contrasts?!

Coming back to this specific place and time, and my own path: in relation to the position of herbal medicine in our UK society, clearly there is a lot of good work to be done in the area of communication, connection between us and the people. This is where the community activity comes in and I feel that for me this is the key at the moment – building that missing link between how people feel about their health and their lives, and the potential of using plant medicine. Using it themselves, and not having to pay many pounds for products in little bottles made by companies, but having some practical knowledge and in collaboration with practitioners, being able to enjoy plants as food and medicine in their lives with confidence and beneficial outcomes. Being able to find, access plants; being able to find valid, quality information about how to use them, and being able to practice using them with other people. I know that many of you already do this, and that many more want to; this is great. However, the space between doing this as a foundation stone for health, and it being allowed as such by the ‘orthodox’, by ‘science’, by the capitalist system, is (enragingly) large. Of course that isn’t in the interests of those systems. And the system we have grown in, all of us, over the last few hundred years, means that we are conditioned automatically to dismiss herbal medicine.

However: many days, these days, I hear a story from someone about an unsatisfactory experience they have had with their GP, or an astounding lack of clarity, or caring, from a healthcare provider. Obviously this is not to say that this is the only thing that happens, I know it isn’t. But the frequency of the story, the repetition, makes me always think: just imagine if we herbalists could share the burden. Not just we herbalists, but the other professional therapists who want and are carefully trained to spend their lives helping people.

If statisticians want to weigh up harm caused by (a) pharmaceutical drugs that are given to vast numbers of the population by qualified physicians whose primary aim is to support healthcare but are often required to use certain medicines made by an industry that has profit rather than healthcare as its mission, compared with (b) harm caused by herbal medicines dispensed to clients by qualified physicians whose primary aim is supporting holistic health and whose medicines are made with care and good intention, what will they find?
The evidence base: if in our current biomedical system we are only using evidence-based approaches, why don’t they always work? Why are many people left stranded between pegs, with nothing really helping their ongoing conditions?

It’s not that I want to speak about numbers and statistics – but these are cited in the case against herbal medicine. I can speak about what I have seen in clinics and what people relate to me. This is real, even if it is not in number form. But anecdotal evidence: not enough for belief. Whatever – I believe that herbalists can help the healthcare system. We seem to be in a constriction, a spasm of rules (or commercial concerns) that hamstring us from accessing positive change! I have only just started practicing and this is only my viewpoint, from where I’m standing just now – many herbalists in the UK see plenty of people and make a lot of change; others see fewer and have to work in other areas to earn enough to live; some have positive relationships with other primary care professionals and some practice within the NHS.

But in the main, the fact that people have to pay to access us is limiting. The fact that those herbalists who can practice in an NHS setting are often severely restricted in terms of which herbs they can use, means they cannot practice as they normally would. The ‘lack of evidence base’ for using herbs is dealt out as an absolute truth, and as detrimental to safety. Again: pharmaceutical medicines’ safety record? So there is a wider agenda at work clearly. But for healthcare practitioners, healthcare, and equality of care, should be the primary agenda. Can we apply some antispasmodic relaxant action to the rules and explore the potential for relieving pressure on our struggling system? A Get Well UK pilot study carried out between 2004-2008 assessed outcomes from referring patients from GP practices to CAM therapists in London and Northern Ireland, finding positive results and favourable responses from patients and GPs. This seems to me a worthwhile direction to move in – it can help all parties surely. Apart from the profit-making ones I guess.

Other ways? People around me have great visions – of community clinics in every neighbourhood, shared resources and communal healthcare, supplied with medicines grown and made from local gardens and apothecaries. I know this is starting in some places. Self-organisation is happening around me and people are seeding projects in Walthamstow and Brixton, Bristol and Leeds, oh, all over the place! I am replacing my doubt and disillusionment with hope and inspiration as I write. The Radical Herbalists Gathering is a good place to start with changemaking and linking together all these strands.

My reflections are probably simplistic and plenty of you will have been thinking these thoughts for years – I am only just beginning and this is what I see. But people, share your knowledge with me and let’s share our visions; I know there is a whole universe more that I don’t yet know and want to learn…

Yours faithfully
Rasheeqa
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Glorious summer

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So July passed in a blaze, of heat and wanderings, walks and workshops, people and discoveries, swimming and intense summer greenness. It came with a vengeance eh, our long-desired summer! Today is hot again and though it was good some rain came for the plants and the earth, the wonder of a continental-style summer morning in London never stops amazing and lifting the heart. The city is really open and exciting in this kind of time, its possibilities magnified and lightened.

Charm and I have enjoyed our work a lot these last few months, and each bit of time and activity that happened showed us a shift in perspective, in potential, in ways of working, an opportunity to explore how and who we are, to find new paths – like London, our worlds have opened up through working as herbalists with plants and people. As keeps happening everywhere, people show themselves to be the key in change and development – in themselves, in our approaches – people in collaboration with the learnings of the earth that we find around us.

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As we started to do herb walks on the marshes, and offer workshops in making natural cosmetics, the energy of people showed me strongly that the work and the future of herbal medicine is here, in the community, and this lesson offers so much excitement for the future. At the Radical Herbal Gathering in Somerset in June, a big collective of enthused folks came together to share their activities and their ideas for working with plants to make good change in social and health injustice, in our relationship with natural ecology, and to make plant medicine accessible to all people. It was a timely gathering for our growing consciousness of all the things that are going badly in the world, and for thinking about how we can repair them, and for my personal learning and journey in being a person and a herbalist.

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Working in Walthamstow with a range of different folks this year has shown me that many people, maybe most, have some way of connecting with plants and the wonder of the natural world. It seems the case to nurture the diversity of approaches; if we combine everyone’s different ideas we’ll mix up a rich pot of creative possibility. Much like the biodiversity of Orley Common in Devon where last weekend a group of us visited this ancient area of native grassland and woodland where rangers are trying to replicate the influence of grazing animals, whose patterns and times of eating the plants meant that a very wide range got the chance to flower in turn – meaning a madly species-rich situation. Like the cattle, we can help each other to flower more vitally. Many people have been doing it to me! Go here if you’re interested in reading an account of the Native Herbs Gathering that a few of us attended in Devon last weekend, learning about using our home grown plants as medicine (rather than importing from far afield).

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I am off to Italy this month for holidays, which I will truly enjoy, and I’ll be seeking herbs there as ever. Watch here for some pics from that sunny side in the next few weeks. Happy times to you all, and enjoy the glorious energy of summer.

Inspirations for the next season:
Making links with different projects and communities to share the value of herbs
Doing more growing and medicine making, in gardens and allotments                                      Continuing being part of building our networks of people working together for positive change
Learning new practical skills
Writing more stories!

Come and join us.

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Gathering us together around native herbs

Native Herbs Gathering
Althea Herbal Healing Garden

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Frances Wright is a herbalist based in south Devon with some twenty years of experience in practice. At the core of her work is the strong belief that we as herbalists and as people should use the native plants that grow around us and freely offer us their help and abundance, rather than plants that grow very far away, that may be harvested and processed in callous or exploitative ways and are transported long distances using fossil fuel energy. This means a lot of potential for negative impact on the earth, on people and on the quality of the herbs that we use. Instead, Frances makes 50% of her medicine from the herb garden in Devon where she (mainly) lives and practices. She hosted a weekend there at the end of July 2013 where those interested in learning about and supporting the use of native plants came together to share their knowledge and experiences of growing and making home-grown medicine. We talked about various different issues and challenges relating to growing our own herbs, wildcrafting and medicine-making that herbalists face these days.

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Present were a mix of women and men from Bristol (Becs & Annwen from Rhizome Community Clinic), London (workshop leaders in herbal medicine and soapmaking at Walworth Garden Farm and herbalists Rasheeqa Ahmad & Melanie Shaw), Leeds, and the local southwest surrounds (Emma and Lizzie from community living projects in Totnes and Exmoor, Dawn Ireland) who are working in community herbal education, herbal medicine practice, food and medicine growing, permaculture activity, forest gardening, holistic therapies, social and political activism and radical anthropology. On Saturday morning we all walked together on Orley Common, a site of ancient grass- and woodland species being managed by the local council to promote wildlife biodiversity, and were amazed and overjoyed by the wealth of wildflowers and medicinal herbs growing there. I met a whole load of plants in real wild life for the first time (at least, met them knowing who they were!): Hemp Agrimony, Wild Marjoram, Centaury, Wild Basil, Wood Sage, Melilot, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Fleabane – and saw others whose uses I wasn’t that familiar with but with the wise crowd of herbalists, plantlovers and rangers I was in company with, I could definitely learn something new! For example, that Teasel is carnivorous and exudes a liquid that traps flies in the little hold between stiff pointed leaves and hairy stem, that there are 8 different species of Hypericum, that Yellow Rattle eats rye grass and so is used as a natural predator to get rid of it and allow other the mix of other species to thrive. The rain came as our walk ended, a helpful prevailing pattern over the weekend.

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Frances’ garden home in the valleys between Totnes and Newton Abbot, near the south Devon coast and the river Dart, is a lush site centred around the flourishing circular medicinal herb garden at its heart, laid out around which are her clinic and dispensary cabins with shelves full of home-made tinctures in giant jars and a false ceiling giving perfect drying area for gathered herbs; two pretty bowtop gypsy caravans where WWOOFers and garden volunteers can stay; a kitchen and classroom for the courses she runs, a giant table for festal suppers; a friendly group of roosters; polytunnel and veg gardens, a hayfield where we camped, and at the bottom of the site a couple of caravans where some folks live and pay Frances rent, and another kitchen area as well as compost toilet. All around are the hills and woods, neatly enclosing this domain of physic garden, medicine-making, learning and growing. Volunteers come to help her with the garden and herbalists and students are welcome to come and work in exchange for herbs and knowledge-sharing. She also offers a range of short and longer herbal medicine courses including a 3-year professional practitioner one. Though having had help over the 8 years of Althaea’s development, Frances often finds herself working alone these days on top of seeing clients and all the rest of her activities and it is a stretch. She needs more help but says WWOOFers can be unreliable and sporadic. This kind of work needs group sharing and Frances in part has brought us together to think about ways in which herbalists can support each other in the work that we do.

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On Saturday afternoon we discuss our individual and collective challenges: Annwen from Rhizome points out that with teaching and practicing, little time is left for focusing on the growing side, although making medicines is certainly what she wants to do more, and it seems that growing herbs and all that that entails is a whole job in itself. Paired with this is the fact that those of us who live in cities may not always have much land for growing. Frances comments that the growing is integral to the experience of being with the plants; but every herbalist works differently and I can see where Annwen is coming from. It raises the notion that each of us have different strengths and specialisms: we of the cities are often heavily engaged in community connections and knowledge-sharing and so comes the idea that the growers can play a role in supplying herbs grown with love and care, and this is where the network and the collaboration come in. Several times over the weekend the possibility is discussed of making a network whereby people growing herbs can supply those who need them, through sale and exchange. These seeds of plans are crucial I think for our future mutual support and cooperation. Now we know Frances is there with her garden, we can strive to bring people to her, and come ourselves – and she’s not alone, despite her reiteration that she is a rare UK example of a herbalist who grows and makes her own medicine. It may well not be the majority doing this (and do come connect if you are), but people that come to mind are Lucy Jones of Myrobalan Clinic and Chris Roe (based in Glastonbury) who was there with us and who makes tinctures from wildcrafted plants as the main part of his herbal activity. There are gardens throughout the land and it’s a case of matching them with the people who want to nurture them.

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Next we observed the process of distillation to make hydrosols, or the concentrated, sterile, distilled water of herbs produced using heat and condensation, as a result containing some of the aromatic volatile essential oils with their therapeutic properties. Dawn Ireland, lovely Torquay-based herbalist showed us two processes, one with the beautiful copper still and one with a big saucepan, heavy weight, bag of ice and pan lid for home use if not in possession of a still. She made Hyssop hydrosol from the musky, deeply-scented, lung-clearing Mint family purple one at large in the garden. We smelt and tasted a whole range of them that she had been experimenting with: Yarrow, Rose (still roundly fragrant after 8 years), Lavender (deep and moving), Wild Carrot seed, Mugwort, Bay Leaf (wow). Dawn discussed the uses of these and we explored the idea of using hydrosols internally, as the water part of a tincture, in which case a lower volume would be used as they are concentrates. An example was given of a pregnant woman with a persistent UTI that doctors had been unable to clear, which got better in 2 days after taking 1 tablespoon of Echinacea hydrosol in a glass of water. Dawn is in the process of doing some interesting research around constituents of useful plants from far away and possible native substitutes for them: for example, she has found that Alexanders contains some of the same parts as Myrrh – could this be a replacement antifungal? And using Sloe Gin syrup for coughs instead of American Wild Cherry bark, as they both contain prunicin, the ‘active ingredient’. Or even domestic Cherry from the UK! Dawn also made some interesting mentions of humble native plants and traditional uses, including eyewashes from Buddleia flowers and from the juice of Daisy leaves. (All the UK native plants are astringent, was the universal conclusion of the group, as the rain came throwing down outside). We rounded up by listing some ‘crucial’ herbs we could not be without, which do not come from here, and Dawn noted that one, Astragalus, has its closest counterpart in Burdock in terms of immune support, glucose regulation and anti-inflammatory activity. (Which stimulated a lively discussion about Wild Licquorice and whether it is an Astragalus species).

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Saturday evening saw us relax around a little fire looking out down the valley and eating yummy soup concocted by Frances from garden vegetables including Fat Hen and some local seaweed followed by a herby omelette made by Dawn. We drank red wine as the group peeled off one by one to bed under the stars, and Becs told me the intense tale of her work with the Common Ground clinic in New Orleans where herbal medicine was offered as primary care in the wake of Katrina and still is, in the wake of the clinic organisers’ discovery that healthcare injustice was deeply embedded in that fabled town; the clinic now does social outreach work in conjunction with physical healthcare. Tales of community and health in widely disparate parts of the world, shared around the fire, surrounded by the plants breathing us through the night.

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Sunday morning was accordingly slow and sleepy, commencing with a tour of the herb garden and its quarter sections of perennials and annuals and all that danced around in between, curling over mosaicked paths and pretty Jasmine trellis seats. Magnificent Marshmallow, aromatic Yarrow, the handsome Mullein, a lot of Calendula bobbing and both kinds of Chamomile (the Roman flower is hollow and the German isn’t – thank you Becs), Fennel, Wormwood, elegant Echinacea, ubiquitous Borage, Skullcap, Vervain, Burdock, St John’s Wort, Silverweed, Lavender, Rosemary, Tansy… it’s a wild and rich and gorgeous garden. My friend Olya, also a lover of using the plants that grow within ten minutes walk of her cabin near Totnes, rejoiced in telling me when I met her the next day about the original meaning of ‘abundance’ – that which provides what you need, now, in this moment – not a greedy glut of stuff that you can’t use. This Althaea physic garden is abundant – and now, in high season summer, it offers plenty of what we need. Frances has done a great work, and continues to.

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We enjoyed hearing from Anne Stobart in the garden – former leader of the herbal medicine course at Middlesex University and researcher in historical domestic use of herbal medicine, she now lives on the land in Devon with her partner at Holt Wood where they have a plantation of trees and are seeking to explore provision of native tree medicine like Witch Hazel distilled water instead of importing from the Americas. She talked about the idea of the introduction of community stills and dehydrators as she had seen in a botanical sanctuary in Ohio. She is setting up a Medicinal Forest Garden Trust and a Land Learning Network and the potential connections there between us all felt truly exciting.

After her visit we sat on the decking around Frances’ pond and talked about everyone’s uses of native plants, until the rain drove us back to the classroom and to tea and the most scrumptious Victoria sponge and chocolate brownie brought by herbalist Sarah from her supremely talented baker friend. Plants discussed were the tiny red Scarlet Pimpernel (whose name comes from the Greek for ‘loud laughter’ – Frances noted that it has an antidepressant action but in too high doses can cause mania), Nipplewort (hypoglycaemic), Pennywort and Self-Heal (skin conditions), Woundwort, Enchanter’s Nightshade (“Elfshot”), White Deadnettle (discharges, leucorrhoea), Red Deadnettle (good pungency in omelettes), Couchgrass, Hemp Agrimony (liver, biliousness, immune enhancer), Gravel Root, Parsley Piert, Honeysuckle (antibiotic), Periwinkle, Fumitory, Figwort, Horseradish… what a world of variety and helping allies to explore and get to know.

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So we learn and see that wherever we are, there is possibly the means to heal ourselves all around. Of course everything is complicated in today’s world, and we didn’t only grow here, and we eat food from half a globe away, and have health issues that maybe these native plants didn’t evolve with. But the discussion is important, and the weekend was a good drive to think about knowing the land and plants where we live, and being able to grow, and find, the medicine that we need, right here. This is going on in food-growing up and down the land – so why not with medicine, as the two are traditionally interchangeable? Then we’d have abundance indeed.

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We left Frances and the bowtops and the chooks and the wonderful herbs, bidding farewell and thanks after getting some of her heartful medicine from the sunlit dispensary, and promising to send people her way. If Althaea Herbal Healing Garden sounds like a place you could spend some time and energy in exchange for accommodation and learning, do get in touch with her.

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Frances’ website with details of WWOOF volunteer weekends and how to arrange a visit with her – Green Lane Herbs

It’s summer!!!

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O my, and my first year as a qualified herbalist shows to me the very essence of the seasonal nature of our work. Not that herbalists aren’t up to some busyness all year round but this last month has really seen the pulsation and the pounding of life gearing up in every respect! Also I’m getting it from the community around: our herb workshops and walks are being met with such a response. It’s felt like an exciting power that’s overwhelming at times but so encouraging and heartening. Is it the times – the massive sense of awakening and unfolding that’s happening everywhere, the movement of change: evolution! It’s our rich & beautiful mother Earth that shows us it and it makes me feel positive even with tales of woe and horror all round. The walking, singing, pots-and-pans banging people of Turkey particularly inspired me in June, as did the fact that 100 people turned up to explore plants on Walthamstow Marshes in May: scary & amazing in equal measure haha! Add to this the Radical Herbalism Gathering that happened last month – the first meet of its kind in the UK to bring together people questioning and discussing the connections between ecology, plant medicine, accessible healthcare and social justice (shared with a lot of lovely plant people) – and you have a potent mix of hope and action.

So June has been heightened and July follows with more to add to the bag of energy: plenty of earthy events to lure you to the green. Visit Herbal Happenings for details. Herbal Medicine Awareness Week was last week and to celebrate we did a talk and our first apothecary stall in Walthamstow Village. Also an intern from Copenhagen has arrived to work with us on herbal community activity over the summer – welcome Sara!

Here are some illustrations of our activities this spring and summer so far:

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Why Are Dandelions Naughty? or, the Art & Science of Tasting Plants

If you’re into plants and things, and notice all the stuff that’s going on with plants-as-food-and-medicine (and there seem to be plenty loads of you out there, which is good), you may have clocked that this week in the UK is ‘National Be Nice To Nettles Week’. Be nice to nettles. What would it mean to be nice to a nettle? Maybe to go out and have a chat with one, or with one and its clan, as they’re standing greenly and erectly in a patch at the end of your garden, or sitting up against wire fencing on a city street, or dancing in the wind below a hedgerow. You can’t give it a nice stroke though, or a hug… which is why I think this national week has a bit of a silly moniker.

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The thing is, it’s people not being nice to Nettles that often allows them to be what they are – they are one of those herbs that famously ‘follow where man has trodden’ as many botany handbooks have it. We don’t need to caress and plant and tend Nettles – they are wild and spring up by their own wild selves each spring (unless they are shorn of course by not-very-Nice council people with heartless mowing machines). I don’t know how far a domesticated Nettle plot would differ from its untamed counterpart in its offering of rich earthy minerals and vitamins and blood-cleansing tonic activity and green goodness for soup and risotto and support for arthritic joints and most importantly of stinging power to urticate yourself with (please refer to ancient healing practice of beating oneself with Nettles on inflamed joints, or ancient Roman action to import Nettle seeds to this island on invading it, in order to counter the abominable cold through such practice). However, it is an eternal relief to me to see big wild patches of those serrated leaves under the trees and the dreamy green air around their straight elegant stalks, and the sticky Cleavers shooting up between them, all around us at this time.

At the first event of Healing Foods and Plant Medicine, a monthly series at Passing Clouds in Dalston, east London, looking at medicinal plants and exploring body ecology/contemporary health issues, around 70 people in a room did a mass herb tasting. This was brilliant. Herb tasting – usually of teas – was the way that I learnt to learn about herbs when I first started my herbal medicine course in Scotland five years ago. It was always the most interesting way to meet a plant if you were sitting in rainy Govan rather than roaming a rainforest, and often the most useful (of course apart from seeing and touching and tasting a plant in its own place). At Passing Clouds this February in our groups, we sniffed and smelt, sipped and savoured an unknown green-brown tea that was ceremonially poured into our cups, and I was transported back to our little classroom of herb students.

‘Salty!’ ‘Fishy’ ‘Mossy’ ‘An old iron spoon in my mouth’ ‘A freshwater river inside…’

were some of the cries that rose from the groups. These were all reactions to tasting our earthy weed spinster sister the Nettle (whose sting, by the way, cleverly makes you notice but does no real harm, as Christopher Hedley points out). What’s startling sometimes when tasting herbs is that all kinds of different people form similar responses to their experience. They have very different, individual, subjective ones as well – see the river comment above – but interestingly on my second tasting at Healing Foods… which was of another springtime plant whose ace yellow flowers, green leaves, hollow stems, milky sap and sweet and bitter roots all have healing purpose and play in them – one comment rose up more than once from the different groups.

‘A certain kind of… naughtiness.’
‘Feels a bit, naughty to me!’

This reminded me of when we first tasted Dandelion root tea at the Scottish School. I was overwhelmed-ly overtaken by the feeling of a bright, sunshiny, spinning little gold king – a naughty king. Funny this word came up both times. What is it about drinking Dandelion that brings the word ‘naughty’ and its associated sensations from the depths of mind and body? Here is the ineffable thing of plants and what they give us that is beyond language and is based in physical – or some other kind of – feeling. What does this mean for our interpretation of the Dandelion and how we can use it? What is it telling us? Did people in olden days have different, or simpler ways of understanding this feeling? In Glasgow we were taught that it’s this that’s most important for herbalists, and indeed anyone, in our learning journey – the experiencing of the plant and its energy.

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Many questions, and I don’t know the answers. The scientists might step up to shoot me for having the foolishness to ask such questions… but I think it’s very very interesting. Responses on a postcard please (or a parchment woven from Nettle fibres). Did you ever taste a naughty Dandelion?

the self healing power of the body – and of the hakim

A trip to India, this time after 5 years, always includes a visit to my dad’s family medicine house in Moradabad in the north… a wonder trove of traditional medicine. It always reminds me that herbal medicine practice around the world shares a common root and it’s doubly exciting this time as now I’m a herbalist myself and more initiated into the mysteries of the craft.

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Mushtaq Dawakhana, Moradabad

Last time I came here my cousin Aamir, the hakim (who is about my age but has a headstart on me as he qualified around the time I started studying) sat with me in between seeing patients and went through various herbs, in the same way as I would learn them in herb school – habitat, actions, indications, constituents, energetics and so on – only obviously they were different herbs than the ones we met on this side. This time, his practice has grown and he’s got a smart little consulting room at the back of the clinic, rather than sitting with people at a wooden table looking out on the street as my grandfather used to. But the old bottles and the old Urdu script are still there. I sat with him as a steady stream of patients came and had their pulses felt and their problems gently questioned. Aamir’s dispensing assistants in the front wrapped up powders and poured waters and syrups in speedy and efficient fashion.

Unani medicine was the original basis of western herbalism, having originated in ancient Greece and travelled with the Arabs over to their side and from there to Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent; it is still used widely there in Muslim communities. Its emphasis on patients’ unique humoral constitutions and the fluids (bile, phlegm, urine) whose balance or otherwise influence the state of health is central to its practice although hakims like my cousin have also trained, like herbalists here, in modern clinical medicine. It would be very interesting to spend more time with him and understand more about the actual (as opposed to theoretical) nature of energetics in his practice – like with traditional Chinese medicine, sitting with him I had the sense of a much more matter of fact approach, mixed in with biomedical analysis of symptoms, so perhaps the model as practiced by the new generation of hakims is not so dissimilar today from our own in England, where a range of knowledges are mixed and applied, the traditional with the new.

A major difference between our western herbalism here and the practice in the dawakhana (medicine house) there is the nature of the medicines: no tinctures in this alcohol-free zone, instead, sweet syrups (sharbats) are used for respiratory conditions and a whole range of distilled waters whose names my cousin pronounces with great poetic flair. Also there are mixes of powders (safoof), often spicy and pungent, and little pills, and pastes of herbs and honey. The place is brilliant, and my cousin has stoked it up again after some years of lag where it seemed to be just drifting along; he’s ambitious and tells me he has patients in Bombay and even further afield now. He is looking to start manufacturing medicines to sell – Unani medicine in India has its commercial side and Hamdard, a major producer, is well-known for its formulas. So there are some differences, and some things are lost in translation for me as my Urdu isn’t proficient – but how amazing to see this place, and most of all, to see the people who keep coming, after 100 years of this place being open, because the medicine helps them. We see it in action when Filippo, sitting in the consulting room, tells Aamir he’s got a tummy ache (first time in India hehe). The hakim tells his dispenser to bring a little paper wrap of powder which Filippo consumes and leaves – I sit with Aamir for half an hour more observing his consultations and when I get home Filippo says ‘I’m better, it worked!’

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Other Indian roamings included a couple of lush sun-baked botanical gardens (as well as a million loving relatives, friends, a LOT of excellent eating, a creative writing course in Calcutta, a Taj Mahal-Agra Fort trip, overnight train to Varanasi and dawn boat ride along Ganga-ma watching holy men covered head-to-toe in ashes and crowds bathing in the sacred water and the burning ghats, and a Calcutta-style cream tea at the famous Flury’s pastry house). Ahhhhhhhhhhhh very good.

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