Here and Now Hedgerow Herbalism
As we float into spring, health magazines are awash with natural detoxes and reboots featuring such wonders as ginger, lemon and ashwagandha. While this is exciting and inspiring, these recommendations for herbal medicines and traditional remedies are often not regionally specific to merry old England. We thought it could be interesting to have a look at what’s emerging in our hedgerows here and now for a spot of accessible local herbalism.
Cleavers – also known as sticky weed, sticky willy, goose grass. It’s magical velcro foliage secures its status as a childhood favourite for some rural high jinks. Said to emerge just as our immune systems need a gentle boost after the sluggish winter months, cleavers were historically used in a reliable medieval spring tonic. It holds anti-inflammatory properties and makes wonderful natural lymphatic stimulating medicines, working to boost your system alongside the shift in seasons. Cleavers have a fresh herbal taste and can be cooked like any other leafy greens, lending themselves to sauces, soups, and pesto. It is best to forage younger shoots and tips before they get too hairy, although thorough cooking should eliminate any prickliness. For a traditional cold infusion – cover a cup of fresh cleavers with cold water and leave to steep overnight before draining and drinking. Interestingly, the little burs that appear in autumn can be harvested, roasted, and used as a substitute for coffee beans as cleavers are in the same family as coffee!
Nettles – commonly viewed as a weed to many, fresh young stinging nettles are in abundance in spring granting high-risk high-reward foraging for the herbalist. One of the most nutrient dense native plant medicines, nettles lose their stinging properties completely once cooked or dried. While care must be taken harvesting and handling, nettles give generously in their gifts of nourishment and offer us a valuable lesson in the balance of setting strong boundaries while simultaneously sharing openly to those who approach auspiciously. For such foragers nettles would have been a welcome springtime taste of fresh greens, supplying diverse minerals and vitamins after a long winter. Holding powerful antihistamine properties, nettles are great for reducing allergy symptoms just as the season starts. They have a deep umami taste when cooked fresh or can be dried and finely ground to make a powder for adding colour and flavour to soups, stews, and baking. A quick nettle tea can be made by steeping a handful of fresh leaves in hot water for 5 minutes or the leaves can be dried and stored for future use.
Hawthorn – spot this unassuming member of the rose family displaying sweet scented white clusters of blossoms in the hedgerows now. Traditionally a multipurpose plant, hawthorn’s thorny branches were relied on for keeping livestock in and predators out in the days before barbed wire fencing (another of nature’s teachers in the subtle art of boundary setting). Considered by many to bring bad luck when brought into the house, hawthorn gives wonderful succour for rural spring pollinators and is a safe haven for nesting birds. Also known as “may”, it is widely interpreted as the crux of the old saying “ne’er cast a clout ‘til may is out” – loosely translated to “don’t go outside without a coat until the hawthorn is in bloom”. These flowers and the tender leaves around them can be used raw in salads and garnishes or infused in herbal teas. An ancient protector of the cardiovascular system, hawthorn tinctures are used in herbal medicine for treating heart conditions like angina and Reynaud’s disorder.
Hopefully this gives a small insight into what’s going on all around us at this wonderful transformative time of year. Although these traditional herbal remedies are seen by many as ‘alternative therapies’, they are intuitive healers that are gentler on our systems than pharmaceutical drugs. Whether making your own or investing in quality organic products from companies like Neal’s Yard, the healing tools of our ancestors are waiting patiently in the hedgerows.