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We’ve started making our own yoghurt again.  I’d forgotten how EASY it is to make, although previously it used to share the airing cupboard with the cats until they worked out how to get the cover off the pot.  This time around we are avoiding such problems.  Lakeland on George Street in Edinburgh have furnished us with a basic yoghurt heating machine, and all you do is scoop a couple of dessert spoons of good natural live yoghurt into the container, boil up full fat milk and let it cool to just under 50C, then add that to the yoghurt mixing very gently (do not whisk or beat!) and switch on the machine for 8 hours or so.  Really very good.  Use the last of that batch to make the new batch.

I’ve been seduced by the wonderful herbology courses run by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh – since January I have spent Thursday evenings studying ‘Medicine from Trees’ or ‘Herbs of the Highlands’, and making remarkably potent (and sometimes bizarre) remedies, lotions and potions after picking the herbs themselves from the Botanic Gardens here in Edinburgh.

This September I have signed up for ‘Herbs for Healing’, in which we make MORE herbal remedies and – this is very, very exciting – ‘compile an individual herbarium of medicinal plant specimens’.  Oh my word.  Who would have thought that this could provide so much fun!  Then I’ve shifted my clinic times – must be serious! – to allow me to attend an afternoon course at the RGBE ‘The Art of Herbs’, exploring connections between art forms and medicinal herbs, physic gardens and herbaria.  We shall be making our own artefacts and getting to know plants and herbs in yet another non-academic way.  Even though I love deepening my knowledge about herbs, I’m looking forward to something entirely non-academic.

I have set myself up for all this by becoming entranced by Stephen Harrod Buhner’s erudite yet practical books on our relationship with the plant world, and David Abram’s philosophical works on healing our disconnection from the natural world.  Both seek to shift our perception of the world from that of regarding nature – or anything non-human – as there to be exploited, to seeing ourselves as part of a symbiotic whole with the rest of the natural world.  Ecology for individuals.  Stephen Harrod Buhner is also an excellent herbalist and writes on such subjects as making healing herbal beers and herbal antibiotics to take the place of  Western medical antibiotics where they  so obviously fail - for example in cases of MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.

Some of my favourite Stephen Harrod Buhner books:

The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in Direct Perception of Nature

The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth

Herbal Antibiotics

David Abram’s two spellbinding works:

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage)

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Vintage)

A few weeks ago I blogged about making chickweed ointment – Stellaria media – and using the remainder for a tincture.  Well, the tincture has had its daily shaking and shuggling for three weeks and I have combined it with a Cleavers - Galium aparine – tincture and a Dandylion – Taraxacum officinale – tincture I started at the same time.  The mixture contains equal parts of each for a fresh, zingy Spring Tonic.

Chickweed, apart from being amazing in ointments and creams for itchy skin, is anti-inflammatory, demulcent (soothing, smoothing and softening) and has a reputation for being an excellent tonic, cleanser  and decongestant.  It’s also extremely nutritious.  I made a 1:1 mixture (one part chopped fresh herbs to one part 40% vodka).  Cleavers is a lymphatic cleanser, mainly soluble in water and therefore should have had a 25% alcohol menstruum, but I only had the 40% vodka – was deeply darkly green and smelled amazing though, so I hope it’s worked.  Dandylion is a fine kidney and liver cleanser largely by virtue of its diuretic properties, flushing through kidneys and therefore also liver.  I chopped leaves and root and made a folk mixture with 40%, filling the jar with herb and then filling it again with vodka.  The resulting mixture of three is deep, dark green and smells of fresh green leaves.

Our garden has been giving us a bumper crop of (inadvertant) Comfrey – Symphytum officinale – so I gathered it all in and set about drying the leaves.  First wash everything as it seems to be mud-splattered, then strip the leaves from the stalks, or the other way round.  I found that folding the leaves along their stalks inwards, so underside out, allowed me to grasp the stalk and tear it out from the stalk all the way up, almost to the tip where it becomes very thin.  Then the drying…

On greaseproof paper on the floor in the library?  Not even wilting.  In the laundry with the airing cupboard door open?  Becoming if anything slightly less dry.  Hung in bunches from the light fittings (candelabra type thingies, so lots of branches to hang things from)?  Nothing.  Last resort, oven on at a very low temperature.  Hours, hours, hours and hours later… nothing.  Huh?  I took my problem with me (the problem, not the symphytum) to Catherine at the RBGE, who recommended a dehydrator – from Lakeland for about £50.  So…

Ta daaaahhhh!

I have a new toy :)

Very pleased with it, and the symphytum dried in about 3 hours.  The second batch is now in.

We’ve been using our chickweed ointment as lip balm, so new supplies were in order.  St. Mary’s Cathedral around the corner from us has yielded a wonderful harvest of luscious deep green chickweed, Stellaria media, untouched by dogs, chemicals or pesticides and traffic fumes –  so much so that I have been able to make plenty of ointment, with some infused oil left over for cream, and I have made a tincture from the rest.

To make ointment you need infused oil and beeswax.  For the infused oil take a good handful of chopped chickweed (sort through carefully for foreign bits – mine included loads of Cleavers) and spread out in a small baking tray.  Mine made a layer about a centimetre high.  Cover this completely with olive oil and mix in well.  Place the tray on the hob and heat until sizzling – about 1 minute in my case – then transfer to an oven at 140 C degrees – no fan.  Let this ‘simmer’ until the herb has crisped.  This way you know the aqueous (water) content of the herb has evaporated.  I left this to cool overnight and lengthen the infusion time.

Once the oil has cooled strain it carefully through muslin and squeeze out the last drop of oil from the plant material left over (the marc).  My infused oil turned out a beautiful deep green.  You will need oil to beeswax (organic unbleached) in a ratio of 85g oil to 15g beeswax for a reasonably firm ointment.  I had several containers I wanted to fill so took the trouble to do the maths and use exactly (nearly exactly) enough oil.  I had 5 15g ointment pots and one 60g one, requiring 135g, or slightly less, of finished product.  This worked out at 108g of infused oil and 19g of beeswax, giving me 127g – I didn’t want to overfill the pots.

Oil and beeswax then go in a glass pyrex bowl in a saucepan with boiling water coming not more than half way up the glass bowl.  In other words, a bain marie.  Keep the saucepan on a low heat and wait for the beeswax to melt.  I tend to stir a lot, as I am usually quite excited by this stage.  When the mixture is clear, you can test how firm the ointment is going to be by cooling the mixture on the back of a spoon.  If it’s too runny add a few more grammes beeswax.  If it is setting too hard add a few grammes of infused oil.

Pour it carefully into squeaky clean (sterilized) pots and let cool before putting the lids on.  I labelled as follows:  Stellaria media Lips and Itches ointment, 85:15 oil to beeswax, 05.06.12.  The rest of the oil I bottled and labelled for later use.

For the tincture I followed The Herbarium’s advice again (except I only had 40% vodka and they recommend 30% alcohol) and tried a 1:1 40% tincture with the Stellaria chopped very fine in the Braun blitzer.  This means weighing out your herb and adding the same weight of 40% vodka.  Unless you have 30% something, in which case use that.  Hmmm.  We shall see whether the 40% is the right menstruum for persuading the goodies out of chickweed.  Some herbal constituents are extracted with water and some with alcohol, and sometimes the ratio has to be just right – hopefully with Stellaria it won’t be crucial.  If one is using fresh plant material there is a fair bit of water in any case, and as the alternative is to chop roughly and make a 1:3 mixture, i.e. 1 part herb to 3 parts alcohol, I suspect it will be ok.  Clueless, really, just enthusiastic.

Tempest is finished – photos to follow on ravelry when I can get a moment free.  Am very pleased with it :)

Everywhere I look our green spaces are sprouting a banquet of wonderful herbal spring tonics.  Just around the corner from us, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh has a thankfully haphazardly maintained area of grass and bushes and just passing by on the way into the city I see in one glorious clump nettles, dandylion, chickweed, ground ivy and plantain.  This is a wonderful time of year for dandylion tincture, made from the roots, leaves and flowers of dandylion.  this mixture helps with liver and kidney function, strengthening and increasing their function, thereby acting as a cleansing force.  The leaves are a potent diuretic but contain enormous amounts of potassium, something that over-the-counter diuretics strip the body of.  No need to supplement here.  The roots are a very gentle laxative.  Fortunately we have dandylions growing by the dozen in our garden :)

Our beautiful communal gardens are very tidily maintained, but every now and again there is a rebel outbreak of chickweed, and I head for the gates with bags and scissors to snip up a harvest before the gardeners arrive.  Chop this up very fine, pack it into a jar and cover with cider vinegar.  Then tip the whole thing out into a bowl and whizz it up with a hand held food processor to make finest quality chickweed vinegar.  Left for a few days it will turn from dark green to light, light moss green and is fabulous in baths for hot, itchy, drying skins, arthritis or general aches and pains.

Last year’s Plantain tincture is still going strong, but I am thinking of harvesting some more for this year’s supply.  Back up to Arthur’s Seat for the best windswept plants.

Lemon Balm calls from the garden pots – seems to be doing incredibly well at the moment – but last night I made Calendula and Lavender lotion from Calendula infused oil, Calendula infused water and a few drops of Lavender essential oil at the end.  This was supposed to be cream, but I underdid the beeswax component.  In fact I completely forgot the beeswax until it became clear that the mixture was not going to thicken any more… then I reheated the mixture and added beeswax at the same temperature and all was well :)  it is now the ideal consistency for a massage oil.  Happy conincidence as it’s Joolz’ Birthday tomorrow :)

Popping up in the garden now spring has sprung – beautiful dandylions!  I took James Green’s extremely good advice and carefully dug up six or seven small plants to make a tincture from root, leaves, flowers, buds, the lot.  Dandylion (or ‘pis en lit’) as the French so aptly put it, is a good diuretic, full of potassium, so no supplements needed as with other diuretics, and is excellent for the prevention of kidney stones.  Those who have ever had one, know how extremely ‘ouch’ they can be.  It is also excellent for the liver and the digestion.  More on that later.

How I did it:  I washed the plants very carefully, removing all the earth without losing any of the plant itself.  then I chopped it all very small, stuffed it into a small kilner jar – it came to the top – and added 40% vodka, to the top.  This was then tipped into a bowl and I ‘blitzed’ it with the braun shredder, and tipped it back into the kilner jar.  The top rim was carefully cleaned and then the jar sealed and labelled.  This will now be shaken twice a day for 14 days, when I shall strain the mixture through a square of cotton muslin.  The tincture will be ready to take then.  5ml twice a day, until it is gone.

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