By Finn Murray.
I am in constant wonderment at the requests people make for herbs from faraway places to help with common ailments, when we have our own native plants which are just as effective and which have been tried and tested over the centuries. Every region of the world has its own ‘materia medica’. This collection of medicinal plants is specific to a region, and covers all known ailments. It is only in recent times that improved communication and transport has led to the crossing over of cultures and, in particular, to the exchange of knowledge in relation to the healing properties of plants grown in other parts of the globe. However, much of this information I suspect is commercial in origin, rather than reflecting any real gap in the range of native plants available to us.
Just recently a client of mine sent to South Africa for a particular herb to help with her helicobacter pylori (a bacterium occuring in the stomach). She had learnt of this tea on the web and it cost her a stunning amount of money. What’s more, the company marketing the tea would not reveal the herbal contents and wouldn’t reply to e-mails. When people are desperate, they will resort to anything, particularly when the supposed cure comes with convincing marketing. It was a lesson hard learnt.
Here in the West – and, more specifically, in Ireland – we have our own materia medica, which comprises herbs that grow best in these latitudes and others which have become naturalised over time. These native species provide us with a cure for every ill. Perhaps they don’t sound exotic (in fact, many are common weeds), but these plants form an important part of our heritage and, ultimately, these native herbs are the tools we can use to heal in a genuinely sustainable way. No carbon footprints, no over-harvesting. They are right outside our back door, if we care to look.
So we have dandelion, nettle (about which more shortly), dock, cleavers, yarrow, elder, coltsfoot, chickweed and hundreds more. Ever notice how some plants have the word ‘wort’ in their name? This means that they have a traditional medicinal use. While in Connemara recently, my 90-year-old mother identified Liverwort and Milkwort, which were growing in profusion. While I know nothing about these herbs (they have fallen from usage), their names indicate exactly what they must have been used for in times gone by. St. John’s wort is one ‘wort’ which everyone has heard of in this country, since it was banned as an open sale herb back in 2000 for what many people consider to be unjustified reasons. Only ‘health practitioners’ (including professionally qualified herbalists) can now prescribe it, although anyone can pick it and create their own tinctures, teas or whatever with it. It will be at its peak in about a month’s time.
I have been harvesting the leaves of the common nettle/stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) recently. While traditionally nettle was harvested in the Spring, it can be gathered at any time of the Spring or Summer. As it matures, the leaves turn to a darker green, reflecting an increase in its iron stocks.
Traditionally used as a Spring tonic, nettle has a remarkable ability to reverse acidity in the body. Acidity is a problem with the modern Western diet, with its heavy dependence on animal products and can cause, amongst other conditions, rheumatism and arthritis. Drinking a cup of nettle tea a day is a good habit to get into, or mix nettle with any other tea. It is an excellent tea to drink during pregnancy, as it contains chlorophyll, vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K and folic acid, as well as a wide range of minerals and trace elements. It nourishes the kidneys, adrenals, immune system, digestive system and endocrine system. It has a noted effect on restoring the health of the villi in coeliacs, thereby improving absorption of nutrients. It is also of help to those suffering from hayfever at this time of year.
To harvest: It goes without saying that you should wear a pair of thick gloves before harvesting, unless you are brave enough to ‘grasp the nettle’! Make sure you correctly identify the type of nettle (see pic at foot) Take about 18 inches and cut the stalk approximately one inch below a pair of leaves.
To dry: Either tie in small bunches with string and suspend upside down or lay on a cotton cloth in a big basket. Place in a warm press. Leave for about 3 days, depending on temperature. The leaves should be fairly crisp. If they aren’t dry enough, they may go mouldy. Once dried, strip the leaves from the stalks. Place in a paper bag and store in a cool dry place. These will keep for up to 6 months in the right conditions.
To make a regular tincture: Chop fresh nettles (including the stalk). Loosely fill a glass jar with the herb. Cover with vodka. Push the plant material down with a chopstick or equivalent in order to release air bubbles. Leave in a dark place for 4 weeks, shaking it on a daily basis if you think of it. Then strain the liquid off through muslin or calico and put in a dark bottle. Cap, label and store in a cool place. This will keep for more than one year and can be used either on its own or mixed with other tinctures, at the dosage of 5 ml three times a day before meals in a liquid water.
To make a tea tincture (ready in 12 hours!): Fill a glass jar with the chopped herb. Cover with boiling water. Release air bubbles with a chopstick or equivalent as above. Lay the lid on top (do not screw down). Next day, strain off the liquid through muslin or calico. Add an equal quanitity of vodka and put the mixture in a dark bottle. Label and store in a cool dark place. This will keep for about six months and can be used in the same way and at the same dosage as a regular tincture (see above).