Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Herbal ally: living life backwards

Almost three months ago now, on January 7th, Kristine Brown posted the first of her herbal ally challenges - to decorate the cover of the notebook being used to record events over the year.

I have a confession to make here. When someone tells me to do something, I will think of one hundred and one reasons why the instruction/suggestion does not apply to me, even if I have agreed to take part in a course of action. There was no need. Everything I planned to do would be done on the computer. I already keep a herbal journey for all my activities – why waste time and paper writing in another one. I don’t do arty things!

So, I watched other people’s blogs as they produced beautiful covers for their notebooks – glorious colours, intricate drawings, stunning collaged photos. I knew I couldn’t do that so I carried quietly on doing the things I was prepared to do.

This is a review of all my ally activities so far:-
- I have observed and photographed violets plants in five different locations
- I have made several dried violet leaf teas but not consistently nor with any pleasure
- I have eaten two harvests of leaves and flowers in spring salads with great enjoyment.
- I have put up two jars of violet vinegar and one of violet tincture and made a violet syrup.
- From the research I carried out I have written three articles and delivered a short talk to the Mercian Herb Group which has inspired one of the group to look for and find her own violets.
- I have begun the violet meditations but will be surprised if I can do them regularly over a two week period.

I shan’t be growing any sweet violets from seed or cuttings, but I may plant a packet of heartsease (viola tricola) later in the year.

I have been quite active with my herbal ally, but not in the order of the set tasks. It doesn’t really matter because the whole process is about developing and maintaining a relationship with your ally and learning more about them.

Yesterday, after making sketches in my general notebook, I realised that a specific notebook for my ally would be a useful thing to have. I love notebooks. I collect them. They sit in a pile in the cupboard under the stairs quietly waiting for me to fill up my current notebooks. They wait years!

The one I chose came from The Works three or four years ago and has a cloth cover. I knew I couldn’t draw or make a paper collage on the fabric, so I thought about embroidering some other material. A piece of old sheet from the airing cupboard was quickly found and my initial sketch of a violet from the garden was copied onto the material.

This was then inserted into my smaller embroidery circle frame and I spent the evening with a needle and silks. I also used up the last scrap of pink ink in the printer printing off all my recent pictures and a title to make a collage for the first page.

This morning Chris was going out to get a new tax disc for the car and came back with some super pritt glue for the material and some basic glue for the pictures. He’s incredibly good at details, so I let him iron and glue on the embroidery and I did the collage. We make a good team.

So here is the first ally challenge completed. It makes me smile and I’m looking forward to filling up the pages of my newly designated journal.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Violet meditation

Sitting quietly beside a plant or flower and asking it, humbly, to share its wisdom is not an easy task. It could be thought the plant may not wish to share anything with a creature who has just picked a significant proportion of itself and has already eaten both a leaf and a flower.

These acts were done mindfully. I would never have dreamed in a million years that these vibrant spring plants with their delicate scent would now be a significant part of my foraged spring salads, nor that I could be considering the garden violet patch as a cherished food source. Such is the power of making a plant your ally!

Sketching the violet flower from different angles forced me to notice many new aspects of colour and proportion. Eating both flower and leaf made me very aware this was a powerful plant which left a lasting impression on my taste buds, mouth and me. Eating joined me with the plant.

I was sitting on the bench underneath the kitchen window looking out onto the garden. On my left, two large hawthorn trees were now in leaf. On my right, forsythia twined a yellow love spray around the flowering cherry. Golden daffodils swayed gently in the afternoon breeze. Sun shone. The only sounds were robins answering boundary calls occasionally interrupted by the harsh caws of pristine rooks from the tallest branches of a neighbouring fir.

I held the vision of the violet flower in my mind and closed my eyes.

As a healer, it is relatively easy to slip into a grounded state which allows energy to flow where it is needed. I could feel energetic spirals on my hands, knowing there were friends who would benefit from this healing force, but what of the violet?

Although I could see the violet flower, it seemed to be the white centre which was important. As if to emphasise the point, a white space became a fluttering butterfly flapping its wings. Then I saw a bunch of violet flowers growing together, upright. This was on the right hand side of my field of inner vision. The bunch then moved to the centre of my view, fanning out into a circle like a hollow vase.

As I studied this brilliant white central core, I could see the curled petals of a chrysanthemum, or was it a tightly furled water lily? No matter, it was the colour which was important. White, the colour from which all other colours come, symbolising purity, innocence, peace, or deep spirituality. A colour to wash away and cleanse whatever was needful.

Violet flooded my vision and I felt my third eye open, pulsing in the middle of my forehead. The brow chakra - a place of intuition, of deep understanding, of being true to yourself.

I could feel the sun warm on my face. Red came, then white again followed by green. Within the green I could see detailed drawings of violet plants, complex, tall and high in the centre of my inner sight. The green transformed to blue and then to turquoise, such a gentle colour. Purple returned followed again by white. I felt the spirals of energy disappear from both my palms and knew the meditation was over.

What had I learned? It was a simple sentence which came to me during the meditation.

“It is violet which takes us to all that we are.”

Thank you.

Drawing Violets – another medium

Part of Kristine’s herbal ally art challenge was to try different mediums. Yesterday I sketched plants and coloured them using crayons. Today I gathered a bunch of violet flowers and leaves for another jar of infused vinegar, along with nettle tops, sorrel, jack-in-the-hedge, marjoram and a little rosemary for nettle and stilton soup.

The hour I was in the garden coincided with the sun emerging through the deep cloud cover, so I sat and sketched a violet flower, both full facing and a side view. It was remarkable how much detail could be seen in the delicate flower. The pale green sepals could only be seen from the side view and if you only viewed the flower from this angle (which is the most common view when looking at the plant) you could easily miss, what to me is the most amazing part of the whole flower.

The flower consists of five petals, leading down to the orange stigma in the centre. Each petal is similar but different. They are have a deep, violet pigment for two third of the length which then becomes white as it nears the stigma. It is only when you turn the flower upside down that you notice the largest petal has purple streaks of colour leading down to the stigma in the middle of the flower.

Recent technological advances in infra-red photography have shown how most flowers have “landing lights/lines” to show the bees where to reach the pollen, but it looks as if the violet flower has its own flight path painted onto this one petal!

Once back indoors, I took the plunge to try painting my sketches with watercolours. The crayons I’d been using said they could be used for water colours, but I didn’t understand how until discussing it with my friend last night. He explained what I should do, so today I experimented.

It was surprisingly easy to paint over the shading with a damp brush and gave the sketches a softer, more even look.

I am incredibly grateful to the kind words of praise and encouragement given me by commentators here on my blog and on Facebook. It is so exciting to be dabbling in a world I never thought I could enter.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Violets: capturing images

All my life I have known my artistic skills are very limited. I cannot draw or cut straight lines and colouring inside lines was not achievable. I can’t remember what age I was when I knew I could not draw. I remember illustrating my written work in the junior class without any qualms (my primary school only had two classes – infants taught by my mother and juniors taught by Miss Bryan, the headmistress) and I took great delight in designing dresses for the princess of my dreams, even though they all looked the same shape.

I suspect my mother mentioned that my sister’s drawings were more accomplished at some stage, but the real embarrassment came on the transfer to secondary school. Art lessons were not a subject I excelled at. Yet I loved the lino-cut pottery and fabric screen painting we did in the second year. I was even quite pleased with my shading effects when drawing twigs in the third year, but everyone knew art wasn’t a valued subject.

Only people who couldn’t learn Latin and therefore would not be able to go on to learn German or Greek would continue with art lessons to ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels. Those of us destined for academically successful careers were not really supposed to touch art or music with a barge pole. I mean, how could you earn a living from such subjects, and as for sewing or cookery (home economics), those really were for people who couldn’t manage anything else!

So, forty years later, Kristine sets a challenge to draw our herbal ally. Kristine is incredibly skilled in art and design. How on earth am I supposed to do something like that? I quietly forgot about the task, but it remained in the back of my mind.
I know the violets will soon be over. I know I need to do as much with the flowers as I possibly can. Over the past week of glorious weather I have intended, each day, to make more vinegar or a honey or maybe even a flower essence, but work, exhaustion, having little voice and a recurring tooth ache meant I achieved nothing. (You can see I am really good at finding excuses for inactivity!)

Today, it is very cold, cloudy with a light, damp wind. I woke early with my mind determined to think about seed planting instead of sleep. I dug one third of the vegetable bed and planted some peas. We used prunings from the apple tree as pea sticks. I hung the washing out on the line and felt it grow wetter. We sat outside and drank coffee complaining about the cold while the radio cricket commentator complained about heat in Sri Lanka.

Chris disappeared indoors to watch the last of the cricket. I followed. In the middle of removing my jacket, I decided I really would go and sit by the violet bed with my notebook and a pencil and see what happened.

I’d drawn one leaf when Chris called me up to take a phone call. I didn’t use the excuse to go inside, but returned to my chair, pencil and paper. I drew two plants, each with the delicate violet flower hiding amongst vibrant green leaves.

What did I learn? The leaves have a serrated instead of a smooth edge. The leaf has two lobes where it joins the stem. The stem is a circular tube, three or four times as thick as the flower stalk. In the centre of each plant new leaves appear as green tufts. The markings on each leaf are delicate lines, almost like the lines on a hand. They stand out and yet are ethereal.

The violet flower is such a beautiful colour. She hangs her head modestly, reaching only half the height of the leaves. They stand tall all around her, protecting her. The plants felt like family groupings; each one growing one or two flowers, but several leaves with many more to come.

I didn’t hold out much hope for my sketches, but I was quite pleased with the two results. With my increasing long sightedness, they looked better to my naked eye than to the close up camera picture.

I still can’t colour in without crossing the line. I could blame it on a failure to keep a steady hand, but my hand has never been careful or meticulous. The colours are not exactly true, but they are what I had available.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with the results. They will never be great art. I think you can tell they are violets. I hope you can. Maybe I will be courageous with other plants and draw again because the only person I need to please is myself.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Inspired by herbs

This post is part of the UK Herbarium blog party entitled "Herbal creativity" hosted by Lucinda at Whispering Earth

Creativity” is one of those words you think you know, but when confronted, as in this month’s blog party, you’re not exactly sure what it means. I looked it up. The dictionary said to be creative is to “make something new which is of value”.

The latter part of the definition is the one I struggle with most. How can you tell if something is valuable or not? To whom do you listen? Individual tastes are so different, what is fashionable and valuable can change almost as quickly as the moon and the tides.

To be creative usually means working with your hands, mind or senses, visualising a concept and then bringing it to life. It can be anything you choose. When you consider herbal creativity, some people might think only of items made from herbs themselves. This could be food, drink, medicines, dyes, clothing, implements or weapons. I’m going to talk about crafts inspired by herbs, where I have used my skills to share something about the herbs I love.

I write stories. All my stories contain herbs in one form or other. Here is an excerpt from “The Bear and the Ivy Lady” published by Loveyoudivine in 2009.

Poetry has always been part of my life. I began writing my own when I was fourteen as a way of making sense of issues which troubled me. I didn’t really start sharing them until I was in my late twenties. Indeed, my mother in law, after reading poems describing two exceptionally difficult events at work, told me I should never show my poems to anyone because they wouldn’t like them!

Luckily, I had the confidence not to take her advice and my first book of poetry was published in 2008, with the audiobook coming out last year. This was a review I received which warmed the cockles of my heart!

From Cherokee for Coffee Time Romance Reviews
Sarah J. Head does an incredible job of painting a picture with every poem she sketches inside At Home and Away. The descriptions are so clear-cut that I could picture and imagine not only the sights and sounds, but the smell and taste, even to the cherries. I found it like walking into a magical garden that opens up for the reader to enjoy all the sights and sounds, allowing a tranquil peace of mind. The assortment blankets the reader in warm thoughts while leaving a joyful sensation inside the heart.

The poems are split between by my gardens and Cornwall. Here is a spring poem

Spring Colours
I came searching for yellow
You showed me daffodils wafting in soft spring breeze
Primroses dancing by the well
A single celandine nestling in grass
It’s star of sunlight pulsing gold amidst green.
Catkins blowing from treetop height over the pond
Their pollen shed, no longer yellow but brown.

I came searching for white
You showed me dazzling bells of snowdrops edged in green
Furred backs of small burdock leaves
Twin plants hiding at the willow’s foot.

I came searching for red
You showed me thin slivers of marshmallow overshadowed by aquilegia
Bright spears of Echinacea pushing upwards towards the sun
Each new shoot the colour of blood, of life.

I came searching for green
You showed me grass, long and damp
Vibrant woad shining proudly above brown soil
Curled cuckoo pint thrusting their way through every surface
Their heart-shaped leaves unfolding with new promise.
Tiny elder leaves bursting from each twig,
Narrow edges thrusting their way into the light
Young nettles, their velvet crimps so enticing
Stinging unwary fingers
Yielding their green to a boiling brew
A toast to freshness, Springtime, new strength!

Poems can be visual, thoughtful or descriptive. Their rhythm can also be used for incantation. Here’s one I wrote several years ago which accompanied tinctures sent to a friend to support them during an especially difficult time.

Distant healing
By the power of the sun I send thee strength
By the power of earth I ground thee
By the power of the moon I send thee peace
By the power of air I send thee love

By the power of oak I send the fortitude
By the power of rowan I protect thee
By the power of elder to watch over thee
By the power of hawthorn I give thee heart

With my hands I picked the herbs
With my hands I steeped them
With my hands I strained the marc
With my hands I poured it

Through my hands flow healing
Through my heart flows love
Through my head I send thee wisdom
Through my mouth I speak the words
To make it so!
Be well, be safe, be at peace!
So mote it be.

The rhythm of words flows naturally into music. All my family are musicians, from my maternal grandmother and her sisters who played their local church organs across three counties, my great-grandfather who took his piano on a wheelbarrow through the streets of Willenhall in the Black Country to earn a few extra pennies during the Great Depression and my Great Aunt who sang professionally in Birmingham and Stratford on Avon at the turn of the 20th century. My sister and I both teach piano. All my children learned instruments, two are singer/songwriters and my daughter is now starting out on a professional music career.

Where do herbs come into all this? I thought you might like to share two herbal songs created in 2010 which were sung at the herb festival held at Springfield Sanctuary last September. The first is a tongue in cheek blues number put together by Stephen and Kathryn in half an hour called “The Summerhouse Blues” and the second is mine, “An Acre of Land”.

If you think of herb songs, everyone’s favourite would probably be “Scarborough Faire” because of the line, “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”. This ancient song was originally taken from Child’s “The Elfin Lord”, collected in the sixteenth century when an Elf Lord wanted to marry a young woman, who wasn’t keen, so she set him a series of impossible tasks.

One of those tasks was to “Find me an acre of land between the sea and the shore.” This sentence spawned another folk song called “An Acre of Land”, which I first heard sung at the Cheltenham Folk Festival several years ago. It is another “magical song” which talks about sowing with a thimble, harrowing with a bramble bush and reaping with a penknife.

As my father has indeed given me an acre of land, I wanted to write a song of my own and this was the result. There are lots of herbal references and the tune was inspired by “A frog he would a wooing go” – a nursery rhyme I sang as a child. It is nowhere near as professionally crafted as my children’s, but it was fun and everyone joined in the singing.

What other crafts do herbs inspire? Embroidery is one. I have a herbal tarot set made by Michael Tierra and Candis Cantin. I love them and two years ago I made a bag to keep both the cards and book together while we were on holiday in Cornwall.. One side is a wheat corn dolly and the other, a set of fir trees we could see from the caravan window.

I have another embroidery project inspired by herbs. When Anne McIntyre asked me to speak at this year’s Herbfest in July, I wanted to wear something which would signify a kitchen herbwife. My original thought was a cloak, but I have settled on a summer cotton stole decorated with herbs. It will probably take me several years to make and wont’ be ready for my talk, but this article pushed me to buy material and get at least one herb stencil drawn. Which herb? My ally, viola odorata.

Everyone has skills of some description and herbs have inspired cooks, artists, poets and musicians since time began. No matter how large or small, every act of creativity is valuable because of the delight brought by their creation.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

March blog party - Herbal creativity

I'm late again, but this month's UK Herbarium blog party is hosted by Lucinda at Whispering Earth. Lucinda says,

This is a very broad topic covering anything that inspires us or encourages our creative side. You might want to share some herbal crafts that you particularly enjoy, a short story or poem inspired by herbs, a herbal drawing or photographs or a recipe that you are particularly proud of, be it culinary, cosmetic or medicinal. This blog party is about ideas you have enjoyed playing with and also about sharing with each other some of the ways in which herbs inspire us in all the many facets of our lives.

If you have your own blog then add your post before March 20th and email me the link at whisperingearth@gmail.com -I’ll post the links to all the entries here that evening. If you don’t have a blog but would like to join us anyway you can email your piece as a word document to Debs at the UK Herbarium on debs at herbal-haven dot co dot uk and she will add it to the UK Herbarium blog as a guest post."

So, I now have four days to put something together, take photos and write it up!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Violets – revisiting childhood memories

Violets have always been part of my life. The challenge of choosing a herbal ally has offered me the opportunity to get to know this plant in a very different way. Until this month, I felt the challenge was running away from me as I’d done nothing practical, but this past weekend at the farm has enabled me to notice new aspects and take a trip down memory lane.

Saturday was the first Springfield Sanctuary workshop. Five of my apprentices gathered together to plant oats, identify young herbs and begin the task of readying the main herb bed for the coming year. Violet flowers were blooming beneath the crabapple tree, so everyone was given a violet leaf to chew and reflect upon.

The expressions on their faces told a story all of their own. Everyone experienced the leaf in a different way. Comments included:-
This is different!
I could happily eat this in a salad
It really cleans your palate!
It tastes nutty
It tastes smoky

I used the remainder of my tiny harvest to put up a small jar of vinegar, using the amazing apple cider vinegar gifted by Nik at a previous Mercian Herb Group. There were so few violets and leaves; I hoped to increase the amount of herb the following day.

Sunday was again a gloriously sunny day with a cold wind. After spending the morning cooking cakes, puddings and a roast dinner with my mother, while Chris and my father battled with the sixty year old water pump, I escaped for an hour to walk to one of my childhood spring playgrounds about a third of a mile away.

On the ordinance survey map, it is called “Town Quarry” reflecting the original use as a stone quarry for the nearby villages and large estate, Copse Hill. Once the stone was removed, it became a place for the disposal of unwanted items – everything from glass bottles and rusty buckets to motorbikes, fridges, prams and once an old Bentley!

For several years, before I went away to school at the age of eleven, my younger sister and I would ride our bikes down to the tip to explore and generally see what we could find. It wasn’t the discarded items which intrigued us, but the spring flowers. We had no primroses or violets in our garden and these grew wild in the tip. I was an avid reader and The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books. I wanted to create my own secret garden, so we carefully dug and transplanted snowdrops, violets and primroses to two different locations at the base of trees.

In the 1980s, Ian Fleming’s nephew bought the Copse Hill estate, in a final attempt to save his marriage. The costs of all the renovations made him almost bankrupt and in trying to set light to both the stable block and the laundry, he was killed by the explosion caused by rising petrol fumes.

His legacy, as far as I was concerned, was to level part of the tip and plant trees. The aim was to stop people dumping rubbish and reclaim the land by sealing off the entrance. This has worked in parts. Where the ground has been levelled and trees planted, there is a quiet grove, with a wide expanse of snowdrops. Hay and straw bales are now stored on what used to be the deepest pit. The rest of the tip has not been touched and still has mature trees and deep gullies. Local people are still dumping unwanted fridges and other items.

It was a lovely surprise to find our first tiny garden still flourishing. The few snowdrop bulbs we planted were now a healthy clump. The violets were yet to flower, but one of the primroses had three pale flowers which shone in the sunlight.

My next search was for the bank of violets where my sister and I used to pick a violet bouquet for my mother each year. It was a real delight to find them growing en masse in the same spot where I used to harvest nearly fifty years ago! I was able to gather a useful amount, which I carried triumphantly home in a paper bag to show my parents.

When we reached Solihull that evening, I added more leaves and flowers to the vinegar and made up a tincture. As I opened the paper bag, my nose was assailed by a forgotten scent. It was light and delicate like the violet blooms themselves - a real joy to discover after so many years.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Violet's historical story

There is something deeply satisfying about continuing a well-known herbal practice. It is comforting to think of joining all the men and women down the centuries who have gone out into the highways and byways at this time of year in search of the delicate violet flower. It is not just her scent which delights us, she bears within her leaves and flowers the amazing ability to treat a score of different conditions and ailments.

The time for harvest is relatively short. The sweet-scented Violet appears at the end of February and has finished blooming by the end of April. Although there are over one hundred different species of violets around the world, there are five native to Great Britain with viola odorata being grown both for her scent and her medicinal properties.

How far back do we need to go to discover how violets were used? They were mentioned frequently by Homer and Virgil. Mrs Grieve tell us they were used by Athenians 'to moderate anger,' to procure sleep and 'to comfort and strengthen the heart.' Pliny prescribed a liniment of Violet root and vinegar for gout and disorder of the spleen, and states that a garland or chaplet of Violets worn about the head would dispel the fumes of wine and prevent headache and dizziness. Who would have considered violet today as a cure for hangovers!

One of the difficulties when searching for the ancient British uses of plants is being able to identify them from the names given to them in Olde English Herbals. Stephen Pollington gives the example of the name Bonewort (bannwyrt) , a plant which was possibly violet or small knapweed. He says the Latin plant name, “viola” could be known in Old English as bannwyrt, cleafre or bofe.

The Olde English Herbarium states “This plant which one calls viola and by another name banwyrt is of three kinds, one then is dark purple and the second white and the third is yellow, the yellow [one] is however of greatest use to leeches” (Leeches is the name given to anyone offering medicinal help) This herbal also notes, “The scent of sweet violets was used by horsemen in their potions for calming troublesome horses.

Mrs Grieve says the ancient Britons used violet flowers as a cosmetic, and in a Celtic poem they are recommended to be employed steeped in goats' milk to increase female beauty. She quotes the Anglo-Saxon translation of the tenth century Herbarium of Apuleius where V. purpureum is recommended 'for new wounds and eke for old' and for 'hardness of the maw.' She also give a recipe from Askham's Herbal printed in 1550 for insomnia, “'For the that may not slepe for sickness seeth this herb in water and at even let him soke well hys feete in the water to the ancles, wha he goeth to bed, bind of this herbe to his temples.”

The use of sweet violets has been fairly consistent over the centuries. It is a plant rich in vitamins. Mary Beith tells of the Gaelic Regimen Sanitatis (Rule of Health ) compiled by John Beaton of Islay in 1563 “After blood-letting, convalescents were to have a light but vitamin –rich meal of kale, mallow, sage and parsley. In summer this was varied with the addition of borage, bugloss, violets, spinach, lettuce, the tops of fennel and other herbs.”

The sixteenth century herbalist, Gerard, used violets for inflammations, especially of the chest. He said “violets make a plate which is most pleasant and wholesome. Especially it comforteth the heart and other inward parts.”

In July 1634, the Stratford herbalist, John Hall, (who was also Shakespeare’s son in law), mentions using “the mild laxative violet syrup” when treating the Poet William Drayden for a tertiary fever six months before his death. Hall must have known his patient was very unwell and needed to be treated gently, because his normal prescriptions for fevers involved emetics administered in oxymels.

This use of violets as a pleasant laxative continued for centuries. Apothecaries during Charles II’s reign regularly sold a conserve called “Violet Plate” to the general public.

The 17th century herbalist, Culpepper used violets not only for inflammations but also for piles. In his treatment, violets were fried with egg yolks and applied to the offending haemorrhoids.

In 1740, Sir John Hill wrote “The flowers are the part used; boiled water is to be poured on them just enough to cover them and it is to stand all night; when it is strained clear off, the sugar is to be added to it at the rate of two pounds to each pint and it is to be melted over the fire. This makes syrup of violets, an excellent gentle purge for children. The leaves are dried also and are used in the decoctions for slyusters. An infusion of them works by urine.” Rogers tells us that the infusion was made from a cold maceration of the flowers and leaves for 8 hours followed by slow warming to preserve the delicate properties of the plant.

Salmon and Pechey, who practiced at the end of 17th century prescribed violets for catarrh, fever, headaches and pleurisy.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century herbalists were still using violets regularly. Kemsey’s British Herbal of 1838 states, “The leaves of the violet are gently laxative. The syrup is used as a purgative to infants.” This use was echoed by Dr Fernie in 1914 when he wrote, “Violet flower syrup mixed with almond oil is a ‘capital laxative for children’.”

Today, although the general public has no idea that violets can be used medicinally, herbalists are still using the flowers and leaves for a wide range of conditions, from coughs, bronchitis and, constipation through eczema to breast cancer. We may have lost the fields of commercially grown violets around Stratford on Avon and other parts of the country, but if you look hard enough, this shy spring flower continues to offer us her bounty.

Beith, M Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands 1995 Polygon ISBN 0 7486 6199 9
Grieve, M A Modern Herbal 1973 (revised) Random House ISBN 1-904779018
Hadfield, G Hadfield’s Herbal : The Secret History of British Plants 2007 Penguin Books ISBN 978 0 140 51577 0
Hawes, Z Wild Drugs: A Forager's guide to healing plants 2010 Octopus Publishing Group ISBN 9781856753104
Lane, J John Hall and his Patients 1996 The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust ISBN 0-90420104X
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 9781856753180
Pollington, S Leechcraft 2000 Anglo-Saxon Books ISBN 1 989281 238
Weed, S Wise Woman Herbal Healing Wise 1989 Ash Tree Publishing ISBN 0 9614620 2 7
Wood, M The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants 2008 North Atlantic Books ISBN 9 781556 436925

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Violet Magic

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have periods in my herbal life when things seem very mundane and uninteresting and then something happens which is just so exciting it takes your breath away. That happened to me today, so I thought I would share.

Part of my apprentices' tasks, which I am sharing, is to find a herbal ally for the year and observe, grow and make things from them. My ally is sweet violet, viola odorata. I have a patch of violets at the bottom of my garden grown from a transplant from my parent's farm which was in turn transplanted from the local stone quarry/tip where my sister and I used to play as children nearly fifty years ago.

In the autumn, I gathered a bag full of leaves to dry and I've been trying them as a herbal tea. They are pleasant when drunk with food, but not especially exciting. Now the violet flowers are blooming, I promised myself I would make my first batch of violet syrup. I first came across this in Susun Weed's "Healing Wise" book and Zoe Hawes uses the same methodology in her recipe for violet syrup in "Wild drugs, a forager's guide to healing plants".

The basic recipe is to fill a clean glass jar with violet flowers, cover with boiling water and leave overnight with the lid screwed on. The next day, strain and measure the infused liquid. For every 7fl ozs of liquid add 5 ozs of sugar. Zoe Hawes also recommends adding a good squeeze of lemon juice. Put all the ingredients into a pan and bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour the resulting syrup into a sterilised bottle or jar, seal, label and date. Store in the fridge and discard if it starts going mouldy. The suggested dosage for a child’s cough or slight constipation is 1-2tsps given at bedtime. If you are making this for a child under two years old and usually make your syrups with honey, use sugar this time.

I gathered the plants yesterday morning after my planned trip to Sheffield had to be aborted at the last minute. There weren't very many flowers, but I covered them with a cupful of boiling water and sealed them in a glass jar for 24 hours. (The recipe says overnight, but I was busy this morning and couldn't get back to them until early afternoon.)

The strained liquid smelt green and uninviting and tasted of nothing much. I was expecting a subtle aroma of violet, but I think it was too cold for the flowers to produce any scent! For 5 fl ozs (1cup) of liquid I added 3ozs of sugar and put it in a pan to bring to the boil while sterilising a glass jar in the oven. Zoe's recipe suggested adding a good squeeze of lemon juice to the mixture, so I found a forgotten half lemon in the fridge, squeezed it and added the juice to the heating syrup.

This is where the magic occured - the syrup suddenly turned the most delightful shade of pink! I wanted to dance around the kitchen with excitement!. I realise it was probably just a litmus reaction to adding the acidic lemon juice, but it would be a fantastic demonstration to show children! (Not quite as good as watching St John's wort oil turn red, but similar and much quicker!)

When the syrup had been brought to the boil and simmered for a couple of minutes, I strained it out through muslin into the sterilised jar, labelled and dated it and left it to cool on the kitchen table. It's now safely in the fridge waiting for a child to emerge with either a cough or constipation. (Don't you love it when herbs can be used for such different things!)