Native Herbs Gathering
Althea Herbal Healing Garden
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frances’ website with details of WWOOF volunteer weekends and how to arrange a visit with her – Green Lane Herbs