Aerial herbs M-Z

This being the second part of an otherwise rather long file, newcomers may find it useful to look at the introductory paragraphs of ‘Aerial Herbs ‘A-L’.

Marigold herb, Calendula officinalis – 1:3 30%, 10-14 days

The Pot Marigold, often known simply as ‘Calendula’, is most valued for it’s resin-rich flowers. However, a gentler tincture of the whole herb is often useful and is specific for the treatment of glandular fever and post-viral effort syndrome. The whole aerial herb is collected in flower – (this can be done conveniently from mid-summer when sufficient of the flowers have already been gathered – the plant is not likely to recover from cutting. Beware of mildew if you leave it too late). Coarse comminution is sufficient, perhaps by ‘twisting plugs’ manually.

See also in the ‘Flowers’ section.

Marshmallow leaf, Althaea officinalis – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

Marshmallow is in flower late in the summer. Normally the leaves and flowering tops are used – stripping the leaves down, plucking off the flowering tops, and discarding the stems. The necessary fine comminution is easy. A 1:2 tincture is possible but increase the alcohol to 30%. If supplies are short, it’s acceptable to incorporate the top half of the stem or thereabouts.

The indigenous ‘true’ mallows, Malva sylvestris, M. moschata, M. pusilla & M. neglecta can all be used, prepared in the same fashion and with near-identical uses. See also in both the ‘Flowers’ and ‘Roots’ sections.

Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria – 1:3 25%, 2-3 weeks

Meadowsweet is harvested in full flower in mid-summer – hold off until the flowers have developed the strong and distinctive smell of salicylates. Use the aerial herb including the stems, but cut about a third of the way up as the lower stems are of little value and too tough to comminute easily. Run through a shredder or secateur into 3-4cm sections.

Meadowseet is sometimes confused with Dropwort, Filipendula vulgaris, which prefers a very dry as opposed to damp habitat – although it is has been used in medicine the indications are different and it lacks the powerful salicylate content for which Meadowsweet is prized.

Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

The leaves and flowering tops are harvested in full flower, often as early as June, which will allow for a second cut in late summer. Strip the leaves downwards off the stem and pluck off the flowering tops. Beware if you’re working with well-developed plants, this cuddly-looking plant has a surprise for you – viciously spiny calyxes. The lower leaves have a habit of yellowing off so pick through carefully. Coarse comminution will suffice.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Hieracium pilosella – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

Harvest the whole aerial plant in full flower any time during the summer. Choose your moment carefully as the leaves are usually no more than a tight little rosette sitting on the ground, so take when reasonably clear of soil-splash. Don’t worry if occasional root fibres remain attached. Little or no comminution will be required.

Mouse-ear is a classic example of an indigenous herb that has fallen into disuse simply because it doesn’t dry well. A tincture of the fresh herb is an extraordinarily useful pulmonary remedy with a marked bronchodilatory action.

Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris – 1:3 30%, 10-14 days

Although the whole aerial herb can be used, it’s usually abundant enough to afford the luxury of taking just the leaves and flowering tops. The leaves tend to start about a third of the way up the stems, so cut here, strip the leaves off downwards and pluck off the flowering tops. Bunch and twist into plugs by hand, or pass through a shredder. An even higher quality tincture can be made from the flowering tops alone if you have a surplus of both the herb and the time.

Mullein herb, Verbascum thapsus – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

Although Mullein flowers are considered in all respects superior to the leaves, they are time-consuming and low-yielding by comparison. A good compromise is to take at least some of the flowers day by day during early summer and, in July, harvest the leaves and flowering tops. Don’t delay too long – the leaves are prone to wilting and mildew, whilst if the handsome caterpillar of the Mullein Moth gets there before you, all will (literally) be lost. The leaves and flowering tops are soft – fortunately, as very fine comminution will be needed for a 1:3 tincture or stronger.

There are several other Verbascums, some of which have been used for similar purposes, plus a number of garden cultivars providing variations in flower colour. However, the stunning native Verbascum thapsus is both common in the wild and such an easy garden subject there seems little point in looking elsewhere. (See also Mullein flowers).

Nettles, Urtica dioica – 1:2 25%, 2-3 weeks

The whole aerial herb is used, any time during summer when it’s in flower. Some prefer to wait for a late harvest when a high proportion of seeds is present. You may consider managing Nettles in the same fashion as Comfrey, using the bottom two thirds to make an iron-rich liquid feed, whilst the flowering tops are tinctured. Two cuts are possible in most years. The stems are tough so a garden shredder or secateurs will be needed to achieve fairly fine comminution. This is of course the Stinging Nettle – if you want to avoid being stung somewhere or other whilst handling the whippy stems, do as beekeepers do and cover every inch of flesh that you can.

There is current interest in tincturing the seeds (from the female plants) – these are collected by ‘threshing’ the drying tops late in summer. You may be lucky enough to encounter the annual Roman Nettle, Urtica urens, with more vicious stings but considered superior. (See also Nettle Root).

Pelargonium, Scented, Pelargonium graveolens – 1:3 45%, 10-14days

This is the same plant from which the ever-popular ‘Rose Geranium’ essential oil is produced. The best cultivar is ‘Attar of Roses’. It’s really a greenhouse subject but can be planted out in open ground in the summer, or it may survive outdoors against a south-facing wall if it’s given a covering of straw in the winter months. If it’s going to flower this is most likely to happen in late July or August when it’s best harvested anyway, pruning off the upper two thirds of the plant, which is soft and easy to comminute.

Pellitory-of-the-Wall, – Parietaria diffusa – 1:2 25%, 10-14 days

Collect the whole aerial herb from clean growth as soon as the (insignificant) flowers appear in late May, allowing for a second cut later in the summer. It’s easy to comminute – a fine mulch will be needed for a 1:2 tincture of this bland but invaluable herb.

You may well find your herb nursery has supplied you with the more vigorous Parietaria officinalis, indigenous to France & Germany, but fear not, it’s therapeutically indistinguishable. However, don’t confuse it with Pellitory, Anacylcus pyrethrum, which bears no relation.

Peppermint, Mentha x piperita – 1:3 45%, 10-14 days

Harvest the whole aerial herb early in flower from July onwards, stripping off the leaves, adding the flowering tops and discarding the stems. They could be comminuted finely for a 1:2, or if supplies are plentiful you may prefer to macerate twice.

This is an example of a herb said to require drying to develop acceptable therapeutic strength – but it turns out to be a myth. The ‘Black’ Peppermint, M. x piperita is preferred for most purposes, or you may like to use Spearmint, M. spicata as a gentler digestive remedy. The indigenous wild mints such as Field Mint, M. arvensis can be used, as can any number of foreign imports and cultivars from this voraciously hybridising genus. There are sometimes unexpected differences therapeutically – studying the Mint family as a medicinal group is a lifetime’s work for any willing volunteer. One to treat with caution is Pennyroyal, M.Pulegium­ – certainly women of reproductive age should not go near it.

Pilewort, Ranunculus ficaria – 1:3 25%. 2-3 weeks

Although it’s the tubers that provide the ‘doctrine of signatures’ appearance of haemorrhoids, it’s the aerial herb that’s used, gathered during flowering in early spring. It’s low growing but seems fairly immune to soil-splash, so take the whole aerial herb. Little or no comminution will be required for tincturing.

Often referred to as ‘Lesser Celandine’, one wonders how the ancients could have possibly associated it with Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus), with which it has nothing in common apart from yellow flowers. To add to the confusion, it’s sometimes called Figwort, sharing this name with Scrophularia nodosa, the seed heads of which are also reminiscent of piles but the plant is not used to treat them. Pilewort is most often used in ointments or suppositories for topical application to haemorrhoids.

Ribwort, Plantago lanceolata – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

The common Ribwort is unimpressive as a grassland subject, let alone a lawn weed, but without competition will grow vigorously to 25cms or more on wasteland or in a garden bed. It’s harvested early in flower (often as early as April), taking the whole aerial herb from clean growth. It may involve cutting quite a way up the plant as it’s very vulnerable to soil-splash, but on the other hand this improves the chances of the plant recovering well and providing one or more further cuts later in the season. Pick through carefully to discard any blemished leaves. Work quickly as the all-important aucubin content quickly denatures. Snipping coarsely with secateurs will suffice.

In modern practice Ribwort is preferred to the Greater Plantain, Plantago major for internal use, although the latter is superior as a wound herb (especially for impromptu first aid when out and about).

Raspberry leaf, Rubus idaeus – 1:2 25%, 2 weeks

Raspberry leaves can be harvested at any time during the summer, but will be at their best just before fruiting buds set. This not only provides the best quality (identified in the tincture by a distinct flavour reminiscent of the fruits), but if not too many leaves are taken the plant can go on to fruit successfully. The leaves are thus best plucked off the canes carefully. Fine comminution is easy, and recommended to produce a 1:2 tincture of this bland subject.

Searching for the ‘wild’ Raspberry is regrettably likely to yield only escapes from cultivation, however ancient, and have nothing particular to recommend them. Aggravating though it may be to purists, the best quality comes not just from a cultivar, but from a primocane (autumn-fruiting) variety, ‘Autumn Bliss’. Syrups and other preparations are made from the fruits, valued for their astringent and nutritive qualities, but have not been demonstrated to have the same effects as the leaves on the womb.

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis ­– 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks

Rosemary can be harvested at any time if year. Winter Rosemary is ‘heavier’ and works better as a peripheral circulatory stimulant, whilst a summer harvest, particularly in flower, is more effective as a stimulating nervine. Prune off no more than two thirds of the way down the new season’s growth, for fear of causing die-back. Strip the leaves (and flowers if present) downwards, pluck off the soft tips, and discard the stems. No further comminution is required.

Avoid the many more floriferous garden cultivars of Rosemary, as they are less potent and usually more tender. R. officinalis is not fully hardy in the UK anyway. It should be carefully pruned annually to avoid it becoming ‘leggy’ – which it will eventually, but fortunately is easy to propagate from heeled cuttings.

Sage, Salvia officinalis – 1:3 45%, 14 days

Sage leaves can be harvested at any time from spring to autumn, but it’s best to harvest in full flower in late June or thereabouts. Prune back no more than half of the previous year’s growth or you’ll kill some or all of the plant. The flowers should be plucked off the (often quite tall) flower stems and the leaves stripped off downwards, discarding all stem material. Little or no further comminution will be required.

Salvia officinalis comes in a number of variants – ­ the classic ‘Garden Sage’ is broad leafed with ‘white’ leaves (for which read grey-green) – but it seldom if ever flowers. The narrow leafed variant is preferred for medicine as it flowers profusely. Although ‘Red Sage’, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) is often preferred in dried form, it makes for a lax and troublesome subject in the UK. There are hundreds of Salvias – most are not known to be medicinal, and those that are tend to have substantially different uses.

Savory, Winter, Satureja montana – 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks

Harvest in full flower, but wait until the leaves develop a strong peppery flavour. Use the flowering tops, stems and all, by pruning the plant back by about a third. Bunch and secateur into 2cm sections.

Winter Savory is medicinally superior to the annual Summer Savory, S. hortensis. However, you may be using the latter in the vegetable garden to discourage blackfly, in which case why not tincture it at the end of the summer, using the whole aerial herb, and to the same formula.

Shepherd’s Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

A garden weed of extraordinary tenacity, Shepherd’s Purse should be gathered in flower from April onwards – it’s not too late to harvest once the purse-shaped seed heads have developed, but regrettably it is too late to stop prolific self-seeding. The whole aerial herb is used – timing may be crucial as the main rosette of leaves is very close to the ground and will only now and then be adequately clean. For tincturing, chop coarsely by your preferred method.

Skullcap, Scutellaria altissima – 1:3 45%, 10-14 days

Skullcap should be in flower by June, but is one of the most notable ‘cut and come again’ herbs, providing three or a record-breaking four cuts in a long hot summer. Take the whole aerial herb from clean growth and run through a shredder, or bunch and secateur into approx. 4cm lengths, or use the manual ‘twisting off plugs’ method. A characteristic burgundy colour is present in a high-quality tincture. Some authorities recommend using 30% alcohol.

Texts always refer to Scutellaria lateriflora, an American species that is preferable as an imported dry herb but is a slow and unhappy subject grown in the UK. S. altissima from Southern Europe grows well here as a vigorous and unfussy perennial, and produces outstanding medicine from the fresh herb – confusingly, many herb nurseries supply this as S. lateriflora anyway. The two native species, S. galericulata and S. minor can both be used for the same purposes, but tend to be of variable potency according to habitat. S. baicalensis, prized in Oriental medicine for its roots, is a popular garden subject in the UK but proves medicinally indifferent.

St John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum – 1:3 45%, 14 days

Traditionally expected to come into full flower on St John’s Day, June 24th, it may be earlier after a warm spring, which will allow more chance of a second harvest at the end of the summer. For the best quality, wait a while anyway until there are a proportion of seed heads amongst the flowering tops, which contain extra oil. You can cut the whole aerial herb from clean growth, but the ideal (and less stressful for this easily discouraged plant), is to take the flowering tops only, by snipping or breaking off between the thumb and fingers of one hand, if you develop the knack. The narrow stems are nonetheless very fibrous and may require a couple of passes through a shredder, or painstaking secateuring of bunches at 3-4cm intervals.

There are several native members of the Hypericum genus that can be mistaken for St John’s Wort, and are often found interspersed with them in the wild – only H. perforatum has the necessary (and distinctive) oil glands in the leaves. The flowering tops of St John’s Wort are also used to make the famous Red Oil by steeping them in Olive oil in full sunlight.

Thyme, Thymus vulgaris – 1:3 45%. 10-14 days

Thyme can be harvested at almost any time of year, but is best in full flower. This may happen as early as April – careful trimming should be rewarded with a second flowering at the end of summer. Cut no more than the top half of plant, leaving plenty of leafy growth behind, otherwise you’ll kill it. Although Garden Thyme is listed as erect, in all but the firmest soil it’s inclined to ‘lie down’, causing lower growth to become grimy or even rotted – use an observant approach to pruning and picking through. Thyme is surprisingly tough so is best comminuted in a shredder or by secateuring in bunches into 2cm lengths. Some authors recommend stripping the diminutive leaves from the stems, but this seems pointlessly tedious.

There are hundreds of species and cultivars of the Thymus family, all worthy of exploration but none likely to compete with T. vulgaris for potency in the UK. Creeping Thyme, T. serpyllum is often recommended and with slightly different uses, but it forms dense low-growing mats that become too grubby in the British climate to consider. Thyme is a favourite constituent of syrups and linctuses.

Thuja, Thuja Occidentalis, 1:3 60%, 2-3 weeks

Thuja is also aptly called Arbor Vitae (‘Tree of Life’), a handsome and aromatic tree of the Cedar family. It can be harvested at any time of year, but is best in late August, when the new year’s leafy growth will have hardened off, and in most years can be gathered to advantage with a high proportion of small yellow cones. Some ladder-work may be needed with a mature tree. It’s easiest to pick straight off the tree, tugging off the leaves (with cones attached if present) by the fistful. Don’t worry if a proportion of twiggy material comes away with them. Little or no comminution will be required.

There are a number of other species of Thuja, popular for hedging or for specimen trees, but these have not been used medicinally. There are also many cultivars of T. occidentalis itself, often variegated (pretty but less robust), which will prove inferior, so do try to secure a specimen of the true species. As an incentive, it’s one of the easiest trees from seed, ready for an initial harvest within 3 years.

Vervain, Verbena officinalis – 1:3 30%, 14 days

Vervain, the ‘Wizard’s Herb’ is harvested early in flower, usually late June, with the possibility of a second cut before the summer is out. Take the whole aerial herb from clean growth, passing through a shredder or secateuring into 3-4cm sections.

Vervain is unrelated to Lemon Verbena, Aloysia triphylla, popular as a tasty infusion. It is however closely related to the American Blue Vervain, Verbena hastata, which can be grown in the UK, is arguably prettier, but is less hardy and shows no discernible medicinal benefit.

Vipers Bugloss, Echium vulgare – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

This all but forgotten biennial herb, invaluable for the treatment of bites and stings, is harvested in full flower – but as it flowers ceaselessly through the summer, wait until it has grown on and matured in August. Cut the whole aerial herb from clean growth. The herb is sappy and easy to comminute to a medium mulch -– but like most members of the Borage family, take care in handling as the fine hairs that cover the plant can cause skin irritation.

For garden cultivation, make sure you have the true E. vulgare species – there are many Echiums, popular as showy garden subjects, which are untried.

Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium – 1:3 45%, 2-3 weeks

Wormwood is harvested in flower in July or August. Cut no more than two thirds of the new year’s growth to avoid causing die-back, using the leaves, soft stems and flowering tops. Coarse chopping will suffice.

Of the many hundreds of species and subspecies of Artemisia, dozens have known uses, often similar to A. absinthium, but seldom rivalling it for its intense bitters.

Wormwood, Sweet, Artemisia annua – 1:3 45%, 10-14 days

This annual from the Far East is a surprisingly easy (and medicinally potent) subject from seed, sown under heat and planted out in May. It should reach full flower in late summer. Only the leaves and flowering tops are required – stripping from the stems may be painstaking as they usually branch freely. Coarse shredding or chopping is adequate for tincturing.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium – 1:3 25%, 2-3 weeks

Yarrow is harvested in full flower, any time during the summer. There are choices to be made. It’s customary to harvest the whole aerial herb from clean growth, shredding or secateuring coarsely. If you have Yarrow in abundance, better quality is gained from the leaves and flowering tops, discarding the stems. As a third choice, you might make separate tinctures from the leaf alone (very astringent) or just the flowers (more powerfully anti-inflammatory). In all cases the formula is the same.

The fifty-odd native European species of Achillea are augmented by a profusion of garden cultivars, none of which have been demonstrated to share A. millefolium’s extraordinary medicinal activities.

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