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Seasonal Pestos

by Louise Gorham

What a brilliant way to get out and use the first of the Spring Bounty. I made the Ramsons pesto and shared it with my one year old daughter who ate hers with gusto and then tried to elbow me aside to pinch the rest of mine.

All measurements are rough estimates – use them as a starting point and adjust them to your own taste.

Ramsons Pesto

100g ramson (Allium ursinum) leaves, washed (3 large handfuls)

10g fresh basil leaves

1 handful roasted pine or pistachio nuts

Juice of ½ lemon (up to 1 lemon depending on your taste)

3 cloves garlic, crushed

50g grana padana (or any hard cheese) grated

2-4 tbspn good olive oil

Salt and pepper

Put everything into a food processor (or use a bowl and a hand blender), you could also use a pestle and mortar if you have all evening. Blitz, blend or pound away. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, lemon juice or anything else that needs adjusting.

Nettle Pesto

2 large (gloved) handfuls of fresh nettle tops, washed (probably about 70g)

1 small handful fresh basil leaves

1 handful roasted pine or pistachio nuts

Juice of ½ lemon (up to 1 lemon depending on your taste)

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

30-50g grana padana (or any hard cheese) grated

2-4 tbspn good olive oil

Salt and pepper

Get a large pan of water on the go and when it’s boiling add the nettles. Put the lid on and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain and then run them under some cold water to stop the cooking process (you don’t want them too mushy). Add everything to the blender, blitz, taste, adjust seasoning.

Pea Pesto

Not strictly seasonal but still fresh, green and tasty. This is really good with pasta and can be made in less time than it takes the pasta to cook.

300g garden peas (fresh or frozen)

2 cloves chopped garlic

A small handful of grated hard cheese

A small handful of fresh parsley/basil/mint depending on your taste

Salt and pepper

Boil the peas for about 2 minutes. Drain, reserving some cooking water, and put into a food processor. Fry the garlic for a few minutes, add to the peas. Add everything else plus 10-20mls cooking water. Blitz. Adjust seasoning & more cooking water if needed.

All of the above pestos can be frozen, and need to be kept in the fridge & eaten within a week.

Coming soon – Hip and Haw Ketchup…


Oleaginous constituents

These are effectively oils, (vegetable or mineral), or other substances that will freely mix with oils, such as waxes, fats, greases, and volatile oils. When they are mixed with aqueous constituents to form an emulsion, they are known collectively as the oleaginous phase (or oily phase). However, when we are discussing creams and the like we often talk about ‘oil’ as a sort of shorthand to include all the oleaginous constituents present.

Aqueous constituents

This refers to water or anything that is dissolved in water or can mix with it – there’s quite a list, including infusions & decoctions, alcohol and ethanolic extracts such as tinctures, vinegars, glycerine, and honey. When making an emulsion such as a cream, these are known collectively as the aqueous phase. Once again, we may be lazy and just refer to the whole lot as ‘water’.


Emulsifiers (aka emulgents or emulsifying agents) must be present in creams and other emulsions in order for a stable mixture of oleaginous and aqueous constituents to be formed. Strictly speaking oil and water never actually mix together – the effect of emulsification is to cause, for instance, the oily ‘phase’ to break down into very tiny droplets that are held in suspension in the aqueous phase, (or it could be the other way round). Very ‘runny’ emulsions are usually temporary in nature (as observed when dairy cream separates from milk) but they will recombine when shaken together. In the case of a cream, some of the constituents (usually the oily ones) will set hard at room temperature, forming a stable, semi-solid product. Emulsifiers occur naturally, albeit often in very small quantities, in useful substances such as beeswax and unsaturated vegetable oils. However, much greater versatility is possible if you use a commercial emulsifying agent such as Emulsifying Wax BP, or it’s more natural predecessor, Lanette Wax.

Formulation of creams is primarily about bringing therapeutic substances in contact with the skin, but one also has to weigh up other factors: –

  • Very oily creams will tend to be occlusive, tenacious and moisturising. Conversely very watery creams will tend to be drying, well absorbed, and are soon gone.
  • It’s often advantageous to include constituents that help to make a cream more ‘sticky’, so it will spread over and adhere to the skin better. Alas, the oh-so-useful lanoline is a thing of the past, but we still have things like glycerine and soft paraffin to perform this role.
  • Because creams contain water, they are vulnerable to infection. It helps if the product and its container start their working lives sterile – but in use, exposure to the air and microbes transferred from fingers will soon cause a cream to go off… unless a preservative is used. Including essential oils for this purpose is often disappointing – they’re mostly tucked away in the oily phase, so they have very little preservative effect on the water-based constituents. Further, in order to achieve an adequate preservative (antimicrobial) effect the essential oil content of your cream would need to be at least 4%. At this level it will probably affect the emulsifying properties of the cream, and will almost certainly irritate the skin. So usually it’s necessary to use a commercial preservative if you want your creams to last more than a week or two.



The first sort of cream to attempt, water in oil creams are useful to practice and perfect as they are made from such simple ingredients. The two stage process is important, keeping the aqueous and oleaginous phases separate until the latter is fully dissolved and they both have the same temperature – this makes it easier for the emulsifier to do its work.

Basic Cold Cream

Water in oil creams are often referred to as Cold Creams (a historic term from the days when the only comparison was ointments – creams feel more cooling on application).  Although they are seldom found in modern cosmetics, they are useful therapeutically. They are indeed more cooling and less greasy than an ointment and are more easily spread over the skin, useful for dry areas such as elbows, feet, hands, knees and legs. Because they leave a good occlusive barrier behind, they can be useful for conditions like nappy rash and haemorrhoids.

Beeswax pellets

5 – 10

VO Vegetable oil


Water or infusion


EO Essential oils



This is a general formula to make 100g. Try this to start with until you’ve got the knack, after which you may want to make larger quantities for convenience. Variations to consider are: –

  • You can substitute one of the ‘butters’ (Coconut, Cocoa or Shea) for some or all of the beeswax.
  • Vegetable oils might be plain Sunflower or Olive oils (cold-pressed will work best) or an infused oil such as Marigold or Comfrey.
  • The water could be an infusion… perhaps of the same herb as the infused oil.
  • Essential oils can be chosen to compliment the therapeutic activity of the cream. If in doubt, use Lavender!

As an example, you might use Marigold (Calendula officinalis) infused oil, an infusion of Marigold flowers, and Tea Tree essential oil).

First make a good, strong infusion of your chosen herb, filter it, and return the infusion to the pan, (or just warm up some plain water if you prefer). Whilst doing this, melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the infused oil until it’s all melted. Adjust the temperature to 70°C (using a thermometer). Warm the infusion again until it also reaches 70°C. Remove both from the heat and pour the infusion in a slow, steady stream into the melted beeswax/oil mix, whisking furiously all the time. Keep whisking as it cools down to make sure the water stays finely dispersed in the oil. When it starts to thicken, stir in your chosen essential oils, transfer to a jar and seal when fully cooled. This simple cold cream has no preservatives – keep it in the fridge, but still expect it might go off within 3 months.

You may get away without using a thermometer – 70°C is close to the point at which beeswax will melt, whilst in an aqueous infusion 70°C is a comfortable ‘sipping’ temperature. The important things is that both phases should be close to the same temperature, otherwise things will probably go wrong.

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Ointments contain no aqueous constituents whatsoever, hence require no emulsifying agents or preservatives. Oily constituents can sometimes be mixed together cold if they’re all sufficiently soft to work together with a pallet knife on a glass plate, marble slab (or just your worktop if it’s clean enough), but more commonly gentle heat will be required to form a mixture with hard waxes such as beeswax.

An old-fashioned word for ointment is ‘unguent’, from which comes the adjective, ‘unctuous’. So next time you come across somebody you think is a bit oily…

Before making an ointment, consider first if it’s the right medium for the therapeutic strategy you have in mind. Ointments are very moisturising so, for instance, would be ideal for applying to the dry plaques of psoriasis, but a disaster applied to a weeping eczema. Ointments can also be excellent for wounds and rough or broken skin, as they will provide an occlusive layer preventing secondary infection. Ointments are also common choices as lip balms, for bruises, to soothe aching muscles, to help improve varicose veins, and shrink piles.

Ointments should keep for well over 6 months – as there is no water there isn’t anything for fungi (or most bacteria) to grow on. For this reason it’s rare to add a preservative to an ointment. Most ointments will still eventually go rancid. Although rancidification can be caused or accelerated by bacterial infection, it is more commonly the result of oxidation of fatty acids into aldehydes, ketones, etc. Impurities, fluctuating temperatures and time contribute to this. Either way, once an ointment starts to smell ‘off’ it’s time to throw it away. Un-opened jars will keep for much longer… and it also helps if the ointment isn’t dug out of the jar with dirty fingers.

A Simple Ointment

The very simplest ointment uses only two ingredients – an infused oil, and beeswax, simply melted together. As often as not this is the first product any aspiring herbalist makes. These ointments can be produced from homemade infused oils detailed in the previous section. The combination of St John’s Wort & Marigold oils (‘HyperCal’) is famous as a healing salve. Add Comfrey to make the popular ‘Traffic Lights’ oil (red, amber, green…) which should be able to heal practically anything.

Infused oils(s) of choice


Yellow Beeswax



Solid beeswax is hard to cut up into the required weight and may also take a long time to melt: fortunately it can be purchased commercially in small pellets that solve both of these problems. Also avoid white beeswax, which will contain traces of bleaching agent.

Melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer. Once it has dissolved, pour in the infused herbal oil(s) and keep on the heat, stirring until the whole is fully mixed and melted – when it will appear smooth and clear. Pour immediately into jar(s). Wait until fully cool before putting on lid(s), and label.

This recipe will make a hard-ish ointment. However as with all things herbal there are no absolute rules; it will depend on your chosen vegetable oil, the herb you have infused into it, and the quality of the beeswax. To test the consistency you can dip the end of a cold teaspoon into the oil: if it sets too hard, add more oil (5ml at a time); if it’s too runny add more beeswax (1g at a time).

You can also add essential oils to the ointment. Stir them in just as the ointment starts to stiffen and become opaque (any later and the ointment will no longer be pourable). However, it will still be quite hot so some of the volatile oils will evaporate when added. To counter this, add more essential oils than would usually be needed: 2-4ml should be about right for the formula above.

Psoriasis Ointment

This is a variation on the formula given above – except the therapeutic actions of vegetable oils themselves are used, a little soft paraffin (‘vaseline’) is incorporated to make the result stickier, and there’s the added properties of the essential oils.



Soft paraffin


VO Castor


VO Neem


VO Evening Primrose


EO Lavender


EO Yarrow, Juniper aa



Melt the beeswax and soft paraffin together in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the vegetable oils in the order given. (The Neem oil may be solid – if so, weigh out 150 g). When everything is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir until the mixture starts to cloud again. Stir in the essential oils, pour into jar(s) and seal when cool.

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Having a good stock of infused (or ‘macerated’) herbal oils is more or less essential. Often they can be used on their own, perhaps with an essential oil or two added. Infused oils can be made from dried herbs, but always try to take the opportunity to use fresh herbs – cheaper and so much better. Never underestimate the value of a good herbal oil on the skin – there’s often no need to do anything more complicated. However, they’re also commonly combined in more complex external preparations such as ointments and creams.

It’s a common question to ask what vegetable oil to use for making infused oils. In essence we require three major things from a fixed oil: that it’s stable enough to be heated without degrading too much; that it’s light enough to spread well; and it’s not too smelly or otherwise unpleasant to use. Olive oil is particularly stable and can stand moderate heating, is nourishing, cooling in temperament and has good spreading qualities (but can cause the user to smell like salad dressing!) Where your chosen herb is particularly delicate, such as lemon balm, or where you want to show off the colour, such as Marigold, Sunflower oil is light, stable & cheap. Always use organic oils, as pesticides tend to be fat-soluble. If you want to use cold-pressed oils, take into account they can be expensive, some of their benefits can be lost on heating, and they are more likely to invite infection. On the other hand, they will be absorbed better and if used later to incorporate into creams will emulsify better. The choice is yours!

To infuse herbs, they will need to be comminuted in the same fashion as for making tinctures – this is largely a matter of common sense. Petals, flowers, seeds and small leaves may be infused whole. Larger leaves, stems, etc. should be chopped fairly coarsely – a fine mulch will not mix well enough with the oil to infuse properly, and will increase the chances of the whole thing going rancid. For the same reason, never pack in the herbal material tightly – let it find its own space.

Whatever method you use, you will need to filter the oil before bottling. First pass through a kitchen sieve, then either through a paper coffee filter, or place a ball of cotton wool not too tightly at the base of the cone of a suitably large funnel for the oil to seep through (start by pouring gently, otherwise the cotton wool will simply float to the top). Either method can easily block with debris after a while, so you may need to use a fresh filter paper or wodge of cotton wool from time to time.

There is always a potential for herbal oils to go rancid or ‘off’, particularly if you’re using fresh herbs – the oil has become infected, either whilst it’s being infused, or later during storage. Here are some tips:-

  • When using bulky fresh herbs, allow them to wilt in a warm place for 2-12 hours to reduce the water content before proceeding. (But be careful with aromatic herbs that you don’t loose too many volatiles this way).
  • When using the sun infusion method, it will help to place a teaspoon or two of salt at the bottom of the jar, which will absorb any settling water.
  • The final product should be clear – if it’s cloudy, there’s water in it, so heat gently to evaporate it off.
  • If you’re worried, heating the final product (made by whatever method) to 70°C for 20 minutes will effectively sterilise it.
  • Check your oils in stock often. If any water globules or debris settle at the bottom, decant the oil off from it before it’s too late. If the oil develops an ‘off’ smell, discard it and learn from experience.

Sun Infusion Method

Steeping herbal oils in the sunshine is a wonderful and magical process – the classic product, and also the most unproblematical, is the famous St John’s Wort Red Oil. Partially fill a large glass jar (an old confectioner’s sweet jar is ideal) with organic olive oil, or sunflower oil if you prefer. Pick fresh St John’s Wort tops in full flower, complete with a few distal leaves, and drop them in – don’t pack too tight, let them find their own space, and do make sure the herb is fully covered by the oil. Shake or tap the jar to remove any trapped air bubbles. If you don’t have much of a supply of the herb, there’s no reason why it can’t be topped up until full over a period of a few days. Screw on the lid and leave the jar on a sunny windowsill (or just out in the garden – why not!) for at least two weeks until your green olive oil and yellow flowers have produced an amazing blood-red oil. Strain, filter and bottle. For a more concentrate result, you can simply strain the oil and return it to the jar, adding a second batch of fresh flowering tops to steep in the sun again, before proceeding to the filtration stage.

The sun infusion method is only used for fresh herbs, and is then only suitable for very light material with a low water content – it’s commonly also used for Mullein flowers, Lemon Balm leaves, and Pot Marigold petals (whole Marigold flower heads must be wilted first to avoid problems).

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Making & using external preparations is all part of what attracts us to herbal medicine in the first place: you can make them yourself from simple ingredients; there are almost limitless creative combinations to be discovered & made; they visibly work; the process is alchemical. Making things like ointments and creams at home is one of the most satisfying ways to spend an afternoon. All you really need to get started is a heatproof bowl, a pot of hot water, some basic ingredients & some jars. You can always add to your materials and equipment later.

But first, a few definitions: –

  • Aqueous: describes water itself and also all constituents that can be mixed with or dissolved in water, e.g. herbal infusions & decoctions, floral waters (such as rose water), tinctures & fluid extracts, vinegars, syrups, glycerine & glycerites, vinegar and honey.
  • Oleaginous: describes oils and all constituents that are soluble in oil, e.g. Fixed oils, infused oils, essential oils, paraffins (soft or liquid), fats, greases, waxes & resins.
  • Ointment: (or salve): a semi-solid non-aqueous preparation; in other words, contains only oleaginous (‘oily’) constituents.
  • Paste: an ointment (or sometimes a cream) that incorporates finely powdered herb(s).
  • Emulsion: a mixture of oleaginous & aqueous (oil-based & water-based) ingredients.
  • Emulsifier (or emulgent – what a brilliant word): an agent that makes it possible to form a stable mixture of oils and water, e.g. borax, beeswax, soap, lanolin, some gums, and egg. Proprietary emulsifying agents such as Lanette Wax & Emulsifying Wax BP are also available – less natural but more efficient.
  • Phase: when making emulsions, one refers to the oleaginous phase (all the oily constituents mixed together) and the aqueous phase (all the water-soluble constituents mixed together). When they have been combined (in the presence of an emulsifier), you will either have caused the aqueous phase to be suspended in tiny droplets surrounded by oil, or the oleaginous phase to be suspended in tiny globules surrounded by water.
  • Cream: the most popular form of emulsion, usually containing oil globules suspended in water (o/w) but sometimes water droplets suspended in oil (w/o).
  • Vegetable oil: (sometimes called a ‘fixed’ oil).  Extracted from a nut, seed or other plant source. Popular examples are Sunflower, Olive and Sweet Almond oils. The best quality is cold pressed, cheaper forms are extracted with solvents (often after an initial cold pressing). Fixed oils are not to be confused with essential oils!
  • Infused oil (or macerated oil): a vegetable oil in which fresh or dried herbs have been infused. This may be a hot or cold process.
  • Essential oil: volatile oils from aromatic plants, usually extracted by distillation but occasionally by pressing (e.g. citrus fruit peel) or by dissolving into fats & then separating (‘absolutes’). Not to be confused with vegetable oils!

We will in due course be detailing liniments, plasters, compresses, poultices, pessaries, suppositories, ears drops, herbal baths, washes and more – but will give appropriate definitions as we go.

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This is the place in the Herbarium where we offer personal reflections, observations and snippets of information that don’t warrant a full article. Everybody can join in, (use the ‘Comments’ box at the bottom of the ‘Blogservations’ file) but please keep faith with the core values of the Herbarium. We won’t, for instance, accept personal political rants or questions about herbal treatments – there are enough herbal chatrooms for such purposes already.


Carol & I celebrated the Herbarium’s 50,000 hits with a bottle or two of Elderflower Champagne, made to Nathalie’s excellent recipe. It was delicious, with a slight hint of Lychees in the flavour, wickedly alcoholic… and no hangover!

It occurred to us in our cups how fitting it all was – something learnt from our own close herbal friends that we can enjoy and in turn share with others. There’s a point to be made that it doesn’t matter if you’re a practitioner or not, whether you’re teaching or learning or just mildly interested, everybody can take it into their own homes and live the Life Herbal. You can make your own beverages (alcoholic or not), seasonings, salad dressings & preserves, you can fill yourself with superfoods from gardening and foraging, your can make your own cosmetics, toiletries, furniture polish, insect repellant, you can treat your own animals, you can make your own Christmas presents of candied Angelica or Rose chocolates, and so on and so on.

This is a homely approach to using herbs that has always been there, (if less popular than in better times) – it’s enormous fun, deeply fulfilling, economically good sense, helps us tread lightly on the earth, and keeps us in intimate contact with the plant world as we follow it through the seasons. If anybody’s getting too bogged down with all the hard, mechanistic stuff being thrown at herbal practitioners at the moment, go out and gather some Marigold, Lavender, Borage, Cherries, Blackcurrants (to mention but a few that are in season in this earlier-than-usual summer) and make something wickedly self-indulgent with them. It’ll make you feel so much better.

Stephen & Carol


The History of Medicine

2000 BC: 
Here, eat this root.

1000 AD:
That root is heathen.
Here, say this prayer.

1800 AD:
That prayer is superstition.
Here, drink this potion.

1940 AD:
That potion is snake oil.
Here, take this pill.

1985 AD:
That pill is ineffective.
Here, take this antibiotic.

2011 AD:
That antibiotic doesn’t work any more.
Here, eat this root.

by Gail Faith Edwards

Paul Bergner of the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism recently posted an interesting paper entitled How to Become a Master Herbalist in Thirty Years or More. Bergner begins Part I of his paper with the declaration that Western Herbalism is dying in North America and Britain. He argues that 90% of our herbal knowledge has “gone down the drain.” While I am not sure I agree with him, I do think his ideas are worth considering.

Bergner sites an example of the rigorous and diligent study required of herbal students in earlier times and states that without this level of rigor in study and practice, leading to mastery of our subject, our profession is doomed. He goes on to discuss the deepening process that takes place over many years of study and practice and how important this is for current and succeeding generations of herbalists.

In Part II of Bergner’s paper he asks – What are some of the routines, practices, disciplines that can lead to progressive development of an herbal career and lead to mastery in the field?

Like Bergner, I too am an elder herbalist “focused on training a younger generation in the routines, practices and attitudes that will lead to mastery.” As such, I would like to address his timely and thought provoking question here.

1 – Sense of Place. The cultivation of a deep sense of place is invaluable for an herbalist. We all emerge out of an eco system, a bioregion, we are all connected elementally, as well as ethereally, to our surroundings, to our place. Understanding this sense of place and how it relates to plants and people is an important part of the herbalist’s path. It is often overlooked, as when a woman in north-eastern America is offered an herb that grew in South Africa as a remedy for her ills. Cultivate a sense of place, its critical to understanding the actions as well as possible effects of combining individual plants and people.

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At the end of this article we copy a Ministerial Statement from Andrew Lansley, Secretary of State for Health, published on Wednesday 16th February, and also a statement from the MHRA published on their website on the same day.

The main substance of these announcements are: –

·      In order to comply with European Directive 2004/24/EC, (aka THMPD), herbal practitioners (of all traditions) will be statutorily regulated by the Health Professions Council (HPC).

·      Section 12(1) of the 1968 Medicines Act would be reformed so that unlicensed medicines can only be used in the practices of HPC registered herbalists.

·      The arrangements should be put in place by 2012.

·      Acupuncturists, (hitherto considered to be a necessary part of the regulatory package) will not be regulated as they are not affected by the directive.

Like everybody else, we are in shock. Every indication was that the whole SR enterprise had foundered – it was an ill-conceived and unworkable plan, and assumed to be unattractive to a government beset by much greater problems and determined to cut costs. You can review the Herbarium’s commentaries on this in the ‘Law and Herbal Medicine’ files, which we will retain for the time being to help give insight into why we feel that this is all such a self-destructive nightmare.

Some insight into how this extraordinary eleventh-hour success for the EHTPA could have been possible comes from the PR company, Cogitamus, engaged during the final months of the campaign, who quote EHTPA Chair Michael Mcintyre thus: “On behalf of our thousands of members, I cannot thank or praise you enough for the vital support and advice you gave to us when it really mattered. Your intimate knowledge and experience of the health sector, combined with your understanding of both the formal decision-making processes and informal political dynamics in Whitehall, Westminster and the devolved administrations was exactly what we needed. It is no exaggeration to say that I truly believe you made a significant difference between ultimate success and failure in the final decision. I would have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending your services to any organisation in the health world needing calm, professional and deeply experienced advice or advocacy.”

So, this was less about our patients’ needs, the balance of arguments and good sense, and more about money (probably quite a lot of it) spent on lobbying. You may draw your own conclusions.

Whatever bringing SR to fruition might mean to other larger herbal modalities in the UK, it’s not good news for traditional western herbal medicine. Without the weight of numbers from the acupuncturists, with a government keen to spend as little as possible of taxpayer’s money, with the HPC under pressure to regulate way outside their comfort zone – this will cost regulated herbalists very dear – so much so that, given the humble incomes of most of us, it is unlikely to be affordable by all but a very, very, few – maybe too few to be sustainable. For the rest of us, having lost the right to make our own medicines, or indeed to buy them, and no doubt with other disincentives in place, we would be forced underground to work outside of the law. This is not an obvious recipe for growth either.

How do we respond to this? No fear! The joy of a good pun is to be able to convey two things at once – we won’t be cowed into submitting to regulation, nor will we allow it to lure us back into the trap of fear that we’ve be doing so much good work to escape.

The statements of government ministers seldom prove to be infallible – as is so often the case, the devil’s in the detail. The schedule of a 2012 completion seems particularly unrealistic. There are at least two further public consultations to compile, publish, call in and analyse, parliamentary time has to be found to debate and vote on two streams of legislation, the HPC has to develop its new bureaucracy, the PAs and their members have to go through a multitude of adaptations. It may nonetheless be rushed through and be so full of holes as to prove unworkable. If it’s delayed for long, it may be delayed forever. It may anyway simply prove to be beyond the purse of any of the interested parties.

The Herbarium, as we often remind ourselves, was launched to try and give herbal medicine a future. This is not the future the whole SR rigmarole would assume – that the western world is recovering from a little recession and we can soon all get back to escalating our material consumption. It’s the future of climate chaos, energy descent, and the decline of global bureaucracies and power structures. (This is at the core of the Transition Herbal Medicine ethos). If it turns out that we’re a little premature, at least we’ve left a message in a bottle for our grandchildren. But if we’re right, and there are all the signs that we are, then our work – every sensible herbalist’s work – has to be in preparation for a very different working environment, and one in which we are again relevant and valued. So the message to everybody in the midst of our hurt is chin up, hold steady, and keep the faith. Herbalists are hard to kill – if history will out, impossible to kill. Remember that the worst-case scenario has happened before in living memory – herbal medicine was illegal from 1941 to 1968. It proved paradoxically to be a golden era for our forebears, and nobody was prosecuted. It was a consequence of sheer bloody-mindedness, weak legislation, and the reticence of successive governments to prosecute citizens for doing no harm. Those who battled to bring the thoroughly civilized and effective Section 12(1) into the new Medicines Act, however much they also dreamt of official recognition, must surely be turning in their graves at the horrors that foolish herbalists and jaded politicians have managed to cook up 50 years later. We will have no part in it.

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This has been added to the Herbarium as we wanted a place to offer personal reflections, observations and snippets of information that don’t warrant a full article. Everybody can join in, (use the ‘Comments’ box at the bottom of the ‘Blogservations’ file) but please keep faith with the core values of the Herbarium. We won’t, for instance, accept personal political rants or questions about herbal treatments – there are enough herbal chatrooms for such purposes already.


Last winter I found myself forced to harvest our Valerian root in freezing mid-February, and rather than the recommended preparation method had to content myself with merely picking out any adhering chunks of dirt (not to mention chunks of ice!) When I came to tincturing it, there was as one might expect a lot of earth in the bucket. No matter, it filtered out all right, and (this is the point) the resulting tincture was more aromatic (evocative of the flowers), much more potent & energetic and, (you’ve guessed it!), more earthing. The best ever, in fact.

On the strength of this, (and here I expect all those of you who still like your herbal medicines pasteurised, standardised and authorised to pass out), we’ve made all our root tinctures this way, simply picking them clean-ish and admiring the mud at the bottom of the bucket. By now we’ve done this with Angelica, Bistort, Echinacea, Elecampane, Liquorice, Lovage, Marshmallow, Poke Root, Solomon’s Seal, Teasel, Rose Root, and half a dozen others. All good. All very, very good. So that’s how we’ll go about it on future.

Are we being reckless? Actually, many gut problems, particularly diverticulosis, have by now (no doubt grudgingly) been strongly associated with the lack of dirt in out diet: we, like parrots, need a bit of grit at the bottom of our cages, and of course those ready-cleaned, double-wrapped vegetables from our supermarkets provide none. And all those bacteria that teem in the soil? Rather than pathogenic to humans, it turns out that they contain in their ranks some of the most useful probiotics – a term that sounds like somebody just invented something, when really it’s just another bit of evidence that we urgently need to restore the relationship that we and nature were once used to sharing, before we decided to take charge and ruin everything.

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Heather Ellemor-Collins lives in The Channon, near Lismore in New South Wales, Australia. By British standards this is pretty remote, and the climate is subtropical. Her journey in herbal medicine since graduating from Southern Cross University is fascinating – some problems (and triumphs) are familiar territory, others are unique to this very different geographical and social environment.

The Past

When my first child, Miriam, was an infant, I set about establishing an herb garden and making my own tinctures.  I tried to do everything with the best quality ingredients I could source.  I bought organic alcohol from the sugar cane industry in Australia.  I made fresh plant tinctures, as per Stephen & Carol Church’s protocol, with herbs I could grow or wildcraft in large enough quantities. I made other tinctures with premium quality dried herbs from Tasmania.

I did much alone, and much with my friend and colleague Terri Nicholson, which was a wonderful experience.  We’d get together and press a series of macerated tinctures while our kids played together, and we could share our excitement as we saw our plants thrive, and our sadness or confusion as others perished.  We sampled and compared our tinctures, as sometimes we used different alcohol percentages to each other.  We waded through her dam to harvest an as-yet-unidentified Nymphea sp.  We freely drank the excess licorice tincture that wouldn’t fit in the bottles, and enjoyed its delicious flavour and its relaxing effects.  I would be much poorer as an herbalist without this companionship. The journey of the witch and scientist within is strange and wonderful, and sharing it with another of your own kind only makes it more so!

In total, I have so far grown about 70 herbs and made 70 tinctures.  I’m happy with that number so far.  Sometimes there are herbs I don’t have and want to put in a mix, and I buy them from town.  But you can do a lot with 70 good herbs.  I think knowing a moderate selection of herbs really intimately and depending less on access to a growing number of herbs, many of which are imported, is one of the keys to sustainable herbal medicine.  I certainly have a completely different relationship with herbs I have grown and loved and then made into medicines than herbs I know exclusively from information on paper and an industrial tincture. Using my own herbs, I feel like an herbalist. I give plants I know and love to people I care about.  Using foreign herbs from bottles, I feel a bit like a thief and a phytopharmaceuticalist.  How would I even know if the tincture really tastes like the plant or not?

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