Hannah Genders meets an expert on healing plants.
I’ve known Rowan McOnegal for about 11 years now – we met when I first did an article on her garden and I was so impressed with her knowledge of plants. Rowan is a herbalist and has been practising for more than 30 years. She came and spoke at my Eco, Green and Growing feature at the Malvern Spring Festival this year and she was excellent.
The talk was entitled “Healing yourself from the hedgerow” and it really sums up her work: using native plants and herbs to create medicines and tonics and using them in a very holistic way.
One thing I had been intending to do and never got around to was to go on one of Rowan’s two-day herbalism courses; I managed to do it this summer and it was great.
Rowan lives in Herefordshire, not far from Ledbury and the Malvern Hills. Her home is an eco-house that she and her husband Pete helped to build. It is built of wood, and they found the right-shaped oak beams growing, felled them and transported them to the site.
The land they bought (one-and-three-quarter acres) was just grass and an asbestos barn, but now has an extensive herb garden, an orchard and a studio which is where she runs the course.
As well as using plants from her own garden, Rowan is into foraging and that morning before we arrived, she had been out to forage meadow-sweet (Filipendula ulmaria). This is a common wild herb and it grows in damp places; it has a white frothy flower and a distinct smell.
The plan that morning was to make it into a balm, which is good as an aromatic hand moisturiser and medicinally is good for aching muscles and joints. It contains salicylic acid.
To make the meadowsweet balm:
* Pick the flowers and buds from the meadowsweet.
* Discard any flowers that have turned brown, and the leaves and stalks. I would estimate we had about a colander full of flowers by the end of this.
* Put half the flowers into a bain-marie. This is essentially a saucepan with water underneath. The contents of the pan are just heated through over the water. It is important not to let the water boil – the heat needs to be very gentle.
* Cover the flowers with organic sunflower oil and gently heat for approximately two hours.
* Strain the flowers out of the oil through a fine sieve or muslin.
* Return the oil to the heat and add the second half of the fresh flowers and heat again for a further two hours.
* Strain again after two hours and add one part beeswax to 10 parts of infused oil. So for 100ml of oil, you would use 10g of wax.
* Pour immediately into small glass jars. They need to have plastic or metal lids, but do not put these on until the balm has set and cooled. This avoids condensation. (If using metal lids, make sure you put a greaseproof layer under the lid.)
During the course, while the balm was heating up, Rowan took us on a tour of her garden and introduced us to many more plants and their uses. The vast knowledge and skill in herbalism is so valuable, and it’s part of our heritage – during the Middle Ages the monasteries would have been the centre of medical learning and you would have gone there for treatment.
It seems to me such an important knowledge, but one that is undervalued. Plants are a vital part of our modern pharmaceutical industry but using plants in their raw state is often gentler and a more holistic way of treating people.
Most of the “herbs” used (and I use this as a very broad term as it covers what many of us would refer to as weeds or wildflowers) are the native form of the plant. Echinacea, for example, is a plant that has been bred as a perennial for our gardens, but it is the simple, distinct flower of Echinacea pallida which is used for medical purposes. Rowan uses Echinacea angustifolia and purpurea too.
As well as the balm, we also made and tried lots of herbal teas. Meadowsweet tea is not sweet but very bitter and most of us found it too bitter to drink, an indication of how much our Western diet has become so sweet.
A bitter drink like meadowsweet or dandelion root tea would often be drunk as an aperitif half an hour before food to prepare the stomach for food. The French do this, of course, but with Pernod!
The fresh tea I did really like was peppermint and lemon balm. Take a handful of each herb, wash it and put it in a teapot, pour on boiling water and leave to stand. Herbal teas taste much better fresh from the garden and I will be making this one regularly.
It is best to use herbs at their seasonal freshest. Bees are often a good indication; if they are all over a plant it is at its peak.
As well as echinacea, I also want to make space in my garden for clary sage (Salvia sclarea). Not only is it a beautiful plant and good for bees, it is an essential oil that I use a lot of. I love the smell and it is a good relaxant.
The humble dandelion made into a tea has many uses; it is good for the liver, for immune problems and constipation, and increases urine production (do you remember the saying about picking a dandelion making you wet the bed?)
I also want to grow some elecampane (Inula helenium), again excellent for bees and beneficial insects. Inulin in the plant is a prebiotic that nourishes beneficial microbes in the intestines, something we are becoming much more aware of now and how important gut flora are to our overall health.
You may be able to tell from my enthusiasm; I loved this taster of herbalism and would like to learn more.
If you are interested in course with Rowan do visit her website for dates (the autumn ones are filling up fast).
Ring 01531 670075, visit https://www.hedgerowmedicine.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org