Thursday, 12 January 2012

Intro and January's Practical Tasks

Hello reader and welcome to my first ever blog post!
I would never in a million years have created a blog account unprompted, but the explanation for this unprecedented event is simple: I have decided this year to become an apprentice with Sarah Head ( ), who I met about 6 years ago when I first attended one of her wonderfully informal yet informative(!) herb days at Springfield sanctuary in the Cotswolds.
During the 1st year of the apprenticeship (Jan – Dec 2012) I will be undertaking a range of tasks set by Sarah (some practical some theoretical) relating mostly to the medicinal uses of various herbs and plants, as well as looking at various common conditions/complaints and which herbs might be best to treat them. As far as possible my tasks/ activities and additional herby findings will be recorded on this blog for anyone who is interested (tho’ I can’t guarantee daily updates – it’s likely to be a rush of info all at once when I get time to write stuff up!).
Although the blog is likely to mainly look at medicinal uses of herbs, I expect I will occasionally chuck in a reference to culinary, spiritual, cosmetic or simply ornamental properties as well – since I anticipate all sorts of wonderful things coming to light as I get to know the plants better. Also my interest in wellbeing and alternative therapies extends to massage (I am a qualified massage and Indian head massage therapist), reflexology, healing with energy & reiki, aromatherapy and nutrition so don’t be surprised if I wander off down these paths as well on some of my posts, whenever I have discovered something that needs to be shared!
I am very excited about starting the apprenticeship as I have been interested in herbs ever since being a young teenager and being constantly drawn to fiction which seemed to feature main characters with various healing and “wise woman” roles or skills! I have fed my interest in fits and starts over the years, sometimes dabbling identifying wild flowers or food plants or with making various potions –  but have to admit that I am ill disciplined when it comes to doing it, partly due to being busy with lots of things/ living away/ work/ sport/ friends/ family/ life in general, partly due to being easily distracted but mostly due to lack of confidence when it come to experimenting with herbs, as well as not being in the habit of using them as part of daily life – two things that past apprentices tell me were easily overcome once they started the apprenticeship and had tasks to try and fantastic workshops to attend every month J!
So, I am hoping that this year will help build my confidence with using herbs and my knowledge of why they work, as well as provide me with a “prod” every month to get out there and get gathering! Also, from past experience of Sarah’s workshops I can’t wait to meet the various people from all over who will be attending them through the year to find out what they are doing and swap knowledge with them.
Think that’s more than enough intro, so let’s take a look at the first tasks…..
Pre Apprenticeship Tasks
Herbal Ally - Lovage
First of all I needed to choose a herbal ally for the year. A number of possible plants came to mind, including dandelion, calendula and meadowsweet but in the end I have decided on lovage.  Lovage was one of the first herbs I planted out in a pot in our back yard and, since it seemed to be thriving and my partner wanted something to plant out in a shady spot at the front of the house, I suggested replanting it there. Some years later we have a triffid of 8-9 feet tall which is spreading wider and getting taller every year and attracts no little attention from visitors and passers-by! I thought I'd include a picture of it here so readers can watch it grow with me throughout the spring and summer. Despite having such a good supply of this plant I have not actually got to know it or used it as much as I should have so when I was trying to decide on a herbal ally I suddenly felt that I should pay it a bit more attention.
Herbs to Study
In addition to the herbal ally, I also needed to decide on up to 20 herbs to study in depth for the year. My list is as follows (yes, I know there are only 17 plants on it at the moment but I am leaving some space for late additions...):
Calendula (English marigold)       Calendula officinalis      
Cleavers                                               Galium aparine
Chamomile                                         Matricaria recutica
Dandelion                                           Taraxacum officinale                                    
Dill                                                          Anethum graveolens
Elder                                                      Sambucas nigra
Feverfew                                            Tanacetum parthenium
Ginger                                                  Zingiber officinale
Hawthorn                                            Crataegus mongyna
Lemon balm                                       Melissa officinalis
Lovage                                                  Levisticum officinale
Motherwort                                       Leonurus cardiaca
Stinging Nettle                                 Urtica dioica
Self heal                                               Prunella vulgaris
Rosemary                                            Rosmarinus officinalis
Rowan                                                  Sorbus aucuparia                                                           
Yarrow                                                  Achillea millefolium

January Tasks
I was somewhat daunted by the potential scale of the first part of January’s practical task (find & map all the hawthorn, elder and wild rose bushes within a 1 mile radius of my house). Having quickly decided that to complete this task to the letter could well take the next several weekends, I opted instead for a walk down to the country park where I know there are several elder trees along the bank of the river and even more hawthorn trees which are well established across the whole of one side of the park area. These trees had been generous donors of berries back in September when I was experimenting with hawthorn berry chutney (which turned out tasty and Christmassy, due to the added allspice & cloves – which rather overpower the berries -  but also a bit runny as I didn’t quite cook it long enough, not being an experience preserve maker!). The elder berries went into a vodka tincture and a delicious elixir, which has been a pleasure to take along with copious quantities of raw garlic to fend off the colds and flu bugs that have been attacking friends & colleagues – so far so good...
So, I knew where to find these trees but enjoyed spending a bit more time actually looking closely at the bark and shape of the tree, which is sometimes difficult to make out under foliage in summer.
I was less certain about the whereabouts of wild rose bushes – and even more dubious about my ability to distinguish whether or not they were dog rose, briar rose or rosa rugosa, especially in winter when they have no leaves and few, if any, berries. In fact, so far I have only found 2 wild rose bushes tangled in with the brambles. I can identify that they are probably 2 different species of rose, based on the different thorns on each one (think one is dog rose & one is briar). However, they only had one hip to show off between the two of them so I will have to look a bit harder to find my ingredients for the task of making rosehip syrup or honey at the end of the month.
My other practical task was to collect elder twigs and make a double infused elder bark salve for bruises (linked of course to our theoretical task of finding out about the structure of the skin and how bruises form – info on this to follow in the next post).
I was looking forward to this task as I will admit to never having made a salve, although I have made a few double infused oils. I also really love elder and seriously considered this tree as my herbal ally this year so was pleased to be doing a task that involved it so soon. I therefore set to gathering twigs from 3 different trees (the 3 that I felt were most willing to donate) and soon had enough for the purpose of salve-making.
The bank holiday Monday afternoon on 2nd Jan was spent stripping bark from the twigs ready for 4 hours with the slow cooker on Tuesday evening after work (making a double infused oil is easy but does take a bit of time, since the herb has to be divided into 2 batches. The first batch cooks in the oil for 2 hours before being discarded then the second batch goes into the same lot of oil – hence “double infused” oil).
Since I had used fresh herb, I left the oil for a few days in a clean jar in order to separate out any water that remained in it (there was not much). Then finally on Monday night I did the final stage of adding beeswax to the oil and gently heating it until it melted. I had just over 8 fluid oz of oil so started by adding just over 1oz of beeswax. However, in the cold water test the salve still seemed too oily to me so I added a bit more beeswax. Once I was happy with it, I poured it into a jar and left it to set – not forgetting to use a bit on a bruise on my knee. I have had to make sure the jar is clearly labelled as it is a honey jar and the salve looks amazingly like honey – don’t want anyone getting a nasty shock when they spread it on toast! Though I imagine the “interesting” smell might put most honey lovers off….


  1. Lovely post, Jo! Have you made anything with the elder twigs yet?

  2. I love your herb choices, Jo :) Your green cabinets are so pretty!xx

  3. @ Sarah - no the twigs are still here & the intentions are good though! Not being a particularly artistic person (as far as making jewelery & artwork goes anyway) I may or may not get round to it...

    @ Comfrey Cottages - thank you! haha - there is a tale behind those green cupboards!!

  4. I would love to hear the tale, if you care to share:)I love the colors of green:)