One of the most positive and interactive ways we can rekindle our relationship with the Earth is through all the edible and medicinal plants that grow around us. Gardeners often look upon these plants as weeds, but in our not too distant past our common native plants were held in high regard and valued for their many uses. The women would collect, dry and store them in many different ways, and would know of their extensive uses whether for food or medicine. People had a direct relationship with the plants that grew around them. Families would pass down this knowledge, especially mother to daughter, although we are not bound by these gender restrictions nowadays, and I have taught both my sons as well as my daughter. Children love to learn plant names and especially what plants are edible. It encourages their observational skills and ensures that they recognise and learn which plants are safe to eat, and which plants can be used directly in first aid situations. This is knowledge worth knowing!
Through the native plants of our land, we hold a direct link to our past, and our development from hunter-gatherer, to living in villages and learning how to grow our own food. The plant knowledge a tribe or village held would have been of prime importance and would have been directly linked to their ability to survive.
Generally, we have lost touch with the many uses of the native plants, which they called herbs in the past. Fear, mistrust, superstition, the Industrial Age and the pharmaceutical giants have all played their part. I don't really want to go into all that here. I'm much more interested in how we can reclaim this knowledge for ourselves, and through this build up our trust and relationship with the natural world once again.
Much of the herbal knowledge, so discredited during the last 50 - 100 years has now been verified by modern scientific methods to have effective and deep acting properties, releasing us from the fears and superstitions that have steadily built up since Victorian times. Many excellent books have been written on the subject and with their help we are able to discover for ourselves what plants we can safely eat and those we can use as effective medicines. Mrs M Grieves published her 'Modern Herbal' in 1931, bringing together all the medicinal, culinary, cultivation, cosmetic, folklore and economic properties of our herbs, grasses, fungi, shrubs and trees, with their modern scientific uses. In my eyes it is still the most comprehensive guide to plant use you can buy today.
Working with our native plants, we are able to actively take part in our own healing process when we are ill, instead of relying on costly, harsh, chemically produced drugs, which often have harmful side effects.
The same plants that our distant ancestors would have used and eaten, still continue to grow all around us. Despite the harsh chemicals that the farmers have been using these last 50 years, seeds continue to grow wherever there is soil to grow in. If you wish to reclaim your connection with our native plants, begin first by identifying the plants that are growing nearest to you. These may be the native plants that grow wild in your garden (you may be calling them weeds!), growing out of cracks in walls or pavements, plants growing on wasteland or along the canal, or wherever you walk. If you haven't got a garden see if you can find places to put a few pots. Fill them with earth or compost and watch what arrives on the wind and begins to grow! Alternatively go to the garden centre and buy your favourite wild flowers or wild flower seeds and grow them in pots or your garden. This is a great way to begin to recognise the plants that you will later be able to identify in the wild.
It is always easiest to identify a plant when it's in flower and I highly recommend Roger Philips book 'Wild Flowers of Britain' as an excellent identification guide. He uses photographs that are logged season by season, so you can look at an example of a plant as it looks in flower in a given month. Another effective method of identifying plants is to ask other people! This not only opens up many an interesting topic of conversation, you also find out who knows about plants, and effectively opens up our connection to the age-old instinct for sharing knowledge by word of mouth.
Once you have begun to name and identify the native plants, and to see them, not as weeds to be removed, but potentially plants to be used and learnt about, you have begun a great and wonderful journey of discovery and delight!
I have actively encouraged and even introduced many of our edible natives into my garden. This means I can find green leaves for salad, lunchtime sandwiches, stir-fries etc, almost all year round. I can make fresh (organically grown of course!) herb teas instead of buying expensive packet teas and best of all I have all the pleasure and delight of watching them grow, both in the garden, and in pots outside my door and on the window ledges. It is so much nicer to use a fresh herb, and bursting with the vibrancy of life!
I know that some people worry about picking the wrong thing, and all I say to that is begin first by using the most familiar native plants, the ones we all know, the ones that cannot be confused with other things, such as Nettle, Dandelion, the Hawthorn tree, the Elder tree. All of these familiar plants have extensive medicinal properties and edible uses. People worry too about getting the dosage wrong. This too is very simple. Imagine a heaped teaspoonful of the dried herb to make a cup of herb tea. When using fresh herbs, you need three times this amount. I like to make a pot of herb tea, drink some hot and then put the rest in the fridge to drink cold. Some taste better than others of course! They can be sweetened with honey. Freshly squeezed Lemon orange juice can be added too. Generally it is recommended not to use a herb for more than 12 weeks at a time, (that's 3 times a day as a medicine) because of the dangers of certain chemicals building up in the body. Always consult a herbal, so that you are aware of what plants to avoid when pregnant, if you are epileptic, diabetic etc.
Another good route into this subject is to grow and work with the culinary herbs we are so familiar with, such as Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Garlic, Lemon Balm, Lavender, Fennel. Again these have many medicinal properties and make fine herb teas. (Avoid Sage and Fennel when pregnant). Using familiar herbs builds up your confidence and helps you trust yourself and the effectiveness of the herbs.
The key is to actually USE the plants and then the knowledge builds up and is not forgotten. Just reading about them is not enough. Also, take your time! It's a process of slowing down, linking you in to Nature and her seasons. When I learn to identify a new plant, sometimes once spotted I keep on seeing it everywhere and it immediately becomes integrated into my life. Often it takes longer, and over a period of several seasons, several years sometimes, I gradually build up a relationship with a plant until I am sure enough of my identification and my knowledge to use it.
Herbs can be used fresh and also can be collected and stored for future use. If you know that you want to use a plant for a herb tea for example, you may want to gather enough to keep you going until the plant can be found growing again the following year. Also those that are effective as treatment for simple conditions such as indigestion, colds, sore throats etc, or those that you know will help any of your reoccurring weaknesses. If you have a garden, encourage them to grow here and then harvest your weeds! Herbs are best picked just before they come into flower.
If you gather from the countryside, be sure the area has not been sprayed with chemicals and only take when there is an abundance of a plant. It should not look any different after you have picked, assuring the propagation of the plant for the future. Pick leaves on a dry day and put then in a warm place to dry. They can be hung up or I prefer to put the leaves into brown paper bags and shake them every few days to encourage drying. When they are dry, they can be left in the brown paper bags, or store them in brown jars, or jam jars painted with dark coloured glass paint (a nice activity to do with children). Sunlight will destroy their properties so it is important to keep them out of the light. All leaves will need to be replaced every year. Fruit, bark and roots last two years. If you can't pick or grow them yourself, all the herbs can be bought dried from health food shops.
Before picking I always give thanks to the plant. It simply feels the right thing to do. The plants and the trees link us to our sensitive sides, our intuition, our unexplainable feelings and our sympathetic magical relationship with Nature.
The actions of herbs are slower than that of pharmaceutical medicines. This encourage us to take some time out for ourselves, to slow down, to listen to our intuition, to change our emotional patterns, and to look for ways we can improve our lifestyles to include Nature. Many of our most common conditions can be improved or prevented through the use of herbs, by drinking herb teas, by including them in our food through a diet that is rich in fresh greens and herbs, and by slowing down and reflecting on changes we could make to embrace a more simple and wholesome life for our families and ourselves.
Being out in Nature, sitting or walking in the woods, by rivers, and breathing clean mountain air, is a great gift of simplicity that is available to us all. Once out in Nature, there is huge pleasure to be found in identifying our native plants and finding out what we can use them for.