Posts Tagged ‘plant medicine’

On Making Space for Nature with Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title ‘Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers’ as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.

She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:

“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”

She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

College farm apiary

Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

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A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

BCLG 13.7.2014

Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

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The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.

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There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

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In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

hoary-willowherb-bury-wall-14-june-2014

Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

Just How Much Epazote in the Beans? And When?

I’ve been looking at some Mexican cooking forums to find out exactly when to add epazote to black beans (see previous post) and just how much.

P1020067 1024x768Una ramita, a sprig, seems to be a common guide on how much epazote you put in the olla (pot) when you cook frijoles (beans). Traditionally (but by no means exclusively) it’s used with black beans. And how much you put in also depends on when you put it in. More at the beginning and less right at the end.

It’s a very strong smelling plant when fresh, and (to me anyway) utterly compelling. The word like, or even dislike, doesn’t really come into it (which is great given how like is so overused these days). There’s really nothing else like it no matter how we might talk about similarities to tarragon… or varnish!

20140729_092708The intensity does break down in the cooking. Last week I cooked a pot of black beans and then put a ramita in before going on to the refried stage, which took another hour or so. Next time I might try it a little nearer the end of the cooking time.

I’ve found epazote a very easy herb to grow here near the Suffolk coast in the east of England. I don’t know if it has to do with the soil, which is light and sandy, but some of them are well over five feet tall. It’s mostly described as an annual but most of the plants I have are in their third year – including this mammoth one.

Images: Two sprigs of epazote; epazote growing tall, Suffolk, England July 2014 (both by Mark Watson)

The Spirit of Lemon Balm

P1000185 detail 768x1024P1000185 enh 2 1024x768Lemon balm is a plant that always has a place in our garden and it appears in almost every herbal drink I prepare, in particular for groups of people.

In the mint family, lemon balm is probably at its most attractive in late spring to early summer, before it flowers and the whole plant is bushy with deep green leaves. Attractive to us, that is. When in flower it is beloved of bees – its Latin name of Melissa officinalis refers to both honey and its age-old status as a medicine.

But it’s also a plant that is easy to overlook and its gentle nature belies some quite powerful properties. One of these is its ability to cheer the heart and lift the spirits. Just smelling the lightly squeezed leaves has a noticeably uplifting effect.

Among other actions lemon balm can help improve a poor appetite (plants that do this are called aperients) and assist in cases of nervous exhaustion. The fresh leaves make a lovely tea on their own and you can combine them with different types of mint, rose leaves and other favourite herbs. I also put them in my herbal refreshers in the summer, see here for one I made a few years back.

Lemon balm is also a great presence just as itself, both for people and bees. The ones here at home are particularly vibrant this year.

Text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons license with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives.

One Plant Person’s Duty and Three Essential Books for all Plant People

Southern Arizona 2001
AZSunflowers & Ruin“I’m with two plant people from Britain and we’d love to come take a look at the plants growing round your place in the mountains.”

When I heard my herbalist friend Mimi Kamp arrange this meeting on the phone with another plant colleague I’d wanted to meet for ages, I felt like I’d arrived. Mimi had spent thirty years working with the desert plants of Arizona and knew the territory like the lines on her hand. And she just called me a plant person!

The desert reveals its medicine and secrets in a spiky and often difficult way. It makes you wait. There are thorns and thunderstorms and border patrol and testy inhabitants, not all of them human. I’d been visiting that high desert for seven years before that phone call was made. Several of those years were spent getting to know the terrain with its extraordinary plant life, from agave and ocotillo to amaranth and graythorn. It was an amazing period.

Suffolk 2013
Arizona seems a long time ago now. I returned to England and settled in Suffolk. I continued my practice of getting to know the plants growing in the area, native, wild and even cultivated. I even got used to thinking of myself as a plant person.

In recent years, against a planetary (and sometimes personal!) background of multiple ecological, environmental, energy and financial crises and constraints, I’ve felt it almost a duty to inspire people to reconnect with the earth’s living systems by paying attention to the plants growing around them: through everything from well-being and medicine walks to herbal tea demonstrations to raising awareness of the relationship between plants and bees.

The fact is anyone can connect with plants. We’ve been co-existing with them for ever on the planet. It’s a question of paying attention. Of making an effort. The lives and deaths of plants are so inextricably bound with our own that this reconnection is one of the most beneficial activities we can engage in now as the planet struggles ecologically and (most) humans socially, environmentally and financially. It makes us more earth-friendly and less desirous of resource-intensive activities; it encourages community by bringing seemingly disparate people together over a common theme; it requires little carbon use and it’s cheap! You can start right where you live.

Those Three Books
Whenever I do a talk, walk or workshop on plants, I always mention the three books I refer to over and over in my own practice of paying attention to the living plant world. The word ‘indispensable’ is one I use rarely. But I do use it for these three books. Here’s why and here they are:

52Flowers52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth by Charlotte Du Cann
Based on a practice lasting over a decade, the author engages with the world of plants and our relationship to them on every level: individual and socio-historical, medicinal and mythological. Could a modern citydweller “recover their aboriginal ability to communicate with the earth [and] write of the mysteries of nature intelligently, pragmatically..?” This book both inspires connection with the living world and shows us ways to do it ourselves.

Hedgerow Medicine bookHedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
This is the book I wish I’d had to hand when I started paying attention to British wild and native plants and their medicine in the nineties. Immediate, accessible and filled with clearly written recipes for making everything from tinctures, herbal wines and fruit leathers, to ointments and oymels, Hedgerow Medicine is for herbal experts and novices alike.

P7195897 - 2Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe by Richard Fitter, Alastair Fitter and Marjorie Blamey
My 1996 copy of this plant identification book is now very well worn. And I still take it out with me on all of my plant walks. A good compact size with clear illustrations and descriptions and the plants ordered by family, Wild Flowers will end up accompanying you on many outings to field, forest and wasteground.

For details on purchasing these books click on the image links.

Images: Including Sunflowers, Fennels, Agaves and ruins, Southern Arizona, Summer 2001; 3 books (all by Mark Watson except image of 52 Flowers That Shook My World)

Rolling Ribwort Plantain Balls for Bites and Stings

Ribwort plantain in flower

I’m working on a more extensive post about Plantain (Plantago ssp) at the moment and hope to publish it over the coming week. Meanwhile I’ve received so many requests from people asking which plants will help with insect bites and stings, I just wanted to say: Ribwort Plantain is your friend. Bites and stings of bees, wasps, ants, nettles, mosquitoes, horseflies and fleas are alleviated by rolling a ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) leaf in your hand into a juicy ball, and applying it to the bite/sting.

Ribwort plantain, leaves

I’ve been using the leaves of this friendly, common, handsome plant all summer and recommending it to everyone.

It really works, often immediately, and is utterly safe. And usually not too far away.

I was stung on the neck by a wasp in a local shop and after making a very unmasculine shriek, I went home, rolled a plantain leaf and applied it to my neck. The pain disappeared immediately and there was no swelling.

So get those balls rolling! And love those plantains!

Juicy rolled ribwort ball

Mr Burdock Is Happy to See You Now – Postcard from a Medicine Bed – Update

I can hardly believe that almost six weeks have gone by since I wrote this postcard for the Transition Network Social Reporting project at the beginning of the summer holidays.

Well, the burdock grew bigger and I grew bolder about keeping the medicine bed in shape with a bit of prudent clipping and pruning and help from my gardening friends. Of course we left the burdock and the equally huge fennel (and actually all the other plants) to grow into their full potential and ‘weeding’ remained gentle.

Every week people have stopped by to talk about plants and medicine, help tend the beds or bring a drink and a snack. It’s been really good fun with some great conversations. I’ll be writing a review on the Sustainable Bungay website in September. The weekly ‘surgeries’ will finish next Friday and after that I’ll still make visits, just less regularly.

Meanwhile here is the original postcard:

Thursday 19th July 2012
Bungay Library
Suffolk

Dear all,

Every Friday afternoon throughout the summer I’ve been visiting the Medicine Plant Bed at Bungay library community garden (north-east Suffolk) to see how the plants are doing and holding a ‘surgery’ where anyone can come along and ask questions or share knowledge about plants as medicine.

I’m curating the bed this year as part of Sustainable Bungay’s Plants for Life project, which also includes monthly talks, walks and workshops around the theme of plants as medicine.

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I’ve been meeting up with Richard, who also keeps an eye on the plants and is a fellow lover of wildflowers, and each week we have a conversation that goes something like this:

Me: Gosh, the burdock’s looking amazing Richard. You know it’s an awesome blood purifier and helps restore health to the body’s systems when they’re out of whack. It’s called an alterative in herbal medicine. It kind of goes where the body needs it to go. Nick grows Japanese burdock (gobu) and makes a wicked dandelion and burdock beer from it. I reckon you could make the beer out of our native one, too.

Richard: You know, it will be full of bees when all those flowerbuds open. Oh, look at that honeybee on the herb Robert there. We should probably remove that lower burdock leaf though, it’s blocking out the light from the thyme.

Me: So it is. Could we reposition the leaf just a bit? It’s a shame to lose it. That doesn’t really work, does it?

Richard: Not really.

So we talk a bit more and at some point remove the one lower leaf and bring the thyme into the light. That is basically our ‘weeding’ session. You could call it gardening light.

One of the things that has really struck me with the Plants for Life is becoming aware of just how many different things one type of plant can do. Feed bees. Feed humans. Provide medicine. And probably a lot more that we don’t know about.

And all without moving from its home!

Well, if burdock is happy to stay at home for the summer then I am too. And if you’re passing through Bungay between 1 and 3 on a Friday afternoon between now and the end of August do come and say hello. You are also welcome to visit at any other time when the library is open.

Mr Burdock will be happy to see you.

with all best wishes for the summer, Mark

Sustainable Bungay, Suffolk, 19 July 2012

Me (l) and Richard Vinton (r) (The One Leaf Revolution) and Mr Burdock with the liberated thyme, July 2012

new sunflowers, greater plantains

Last July I wrote a post on  This Low Carbon Life called Plants, Bees and Fascism in the Garden, where I described my horror at finding that the sunflowers I’d been growing for years, from seeds I’d saved at the end of every season, had crossed with another one the year before and given me hybrids!

I soon recovered from the horror and quickly learned to love the new sunflowers with their dark centres, florets like golden lights and sepals flashed through with bronze – the originals had been a white-seeded form with bright yellow sepals and an emerald-gold centre. They lasted about two weeks before fading and were single-flowered. The new cross was vigorous and  put out endless blooms over about six weeks. And the seeds were deep purple. I was hooked.

The above picture is of sepals and seeds from one of this year’s sunflowers. I planted deep purple  seeds in very early spring and  watched in great anticipation as the plants grew – with lovely deep red colouring at the bottom of the stems.

As you can see the flowers were a lovely yellow with a hint of bronze. And the seeds are whiter than ANY I have ever seen EVER on any of the sunflowers I’ve planted.

I’m not the only one they’re of interest to either. Greenfinches love them and have helped themselves to half the seeds already. That’s fine by me, I love finches and there’s plenty for us both. And they taste really good.

A few days later… Didn’t save the seeds in time. But there are other sunflowers emerging.  After all the rain and lack of sun till now though, the sunflowers this year are less vigorous and smaller than last year’s.

On the wilder wayside, here are some greater plantains coming into flower outside the house. People will often tell you that this plant appears to like being trodden on, as all over the world it grows in our footsteps. But even though it is remarkably resilient, and puts up with all sorts of downtreadings, I’m not sure it actually enjoys this treatment.

I dug a few up earlier in the year from the road and put them in pots, and they are thriving, as are these ones in the lane. Now I understand how people have put the leaves in shoes for tired feet. When they are left to grow they are quite big and almost succulent. Someone I once knew had a wound in her heel that wouldn’t get better. This was in the South of France. She went to see a man in the mountains who rolled up greater plantain leaves and spiders’ webs together and placed them in the wound. It healed quickly and completely.

Wounds or no,  I really like this plant. Sometimes when the sun is shining and it’s in bloom, an extraordinary purple glows from its flowers.