Blog written by Christina Stapley

The role of herbs has always been to enhance the quality of life. This may be experienced through the joy of walking through sunny wildflower meadows watching the bees and butterflies on the plants, or breathing in the calming scents of woodland trees. Simply while working in your garden or as a volunteer in the countryside the perfumes and beauty of herbs can lift your mood.

Some have particular talents offering harvests for use as flavourings and vitamin and mineral packed seasonings, cosmetics, fragrances for the home, and/or medicines to prevent and treat illness. In the countryside many treasures can be overlooked by walkers, even trodden down in the case of broad-leaved plantain which loves to grow in paths. Both this plantain and the ribwort, more likely to be found in a field or verge are great as first aid plants for bites and stings, sprains, blisters and bruising. For immediate use they can be washed, chewed or pounded and applied. Taken home first they might be made into a poultice with boiling water or added to a cold compress, depending on the problem.

A photo of ribwort plantainImage description: A photo of ribwort plantain by Christina Stapley

Ribwort plantain is restorative to mucous membrane tissues in both the digestive and respiratory systems and so being also anti-catarrhal and antibacterial, it is often given in tea blends for hay fever. When the eyes are affected then the tiny eyebright found growing amongst grasses will be mixed with the ribwort and the third herb in the blend will be elderflower. The season for harvesting elderflowers in May and early June is a time when they actually cause hay fever in sensitive people. However taken in a tea [one large umbel to a cup, thicker stems removed], the flowers can also reduce symptoms as they are anti-catarrhal and antiviral. I have seen people in real distress through hay fever very quickly relieved of symptoms after a cup of elderflower tea. The beauty of the tiny florets never fails to delight me every year as I gather them both for tea and to make a soothing ointment for eczema and skin irritations.

Photo of elderflowerImage description: A photo of elderflower by Christina Stapley.

Wetland areas, especially near the coast may be graced with the beautiful marshmallow and fennel plants. Both are herbs suitable for gardens and are suitable for home remedies as well as professional herbalist use. Marshmallow has beautiful pink flowers and leaves soft as velvet, often a sign of a herb rich in mucilage. Even the stems remind me of antlers as they too are covered in downy hairs. Just touching the plant is comforting and gives an accurate impression of the soothing effect of the mucilage inside the body. Whether it is a tickly cough or irritation in the digestive system marshmallow tea may be helpful. The herb is used by medical herbalists to treat gastritis, reflux, irritated bowel syndrome, cystitis and externally for skin problems and sunburn. Both the flowers and the seeds which are referred to as cheeses are edible.

Photo of marshmallowImage description: A photo of marshmallow by Christina Stapley

Fennel is well known as a digestive herb in teas or cooked with fish and the cold tea can be applied as an eyewash to soothe irritation, remembering that anything touching the eyes should be sterile. Handsome plants in the garden, when seen in the wild, care should be taken to check the aniseed scent from leaves and seed before making a tea. Some members of the Umbelliferae family are definitely not for safe consumption. Fennel seeds can be chewed to reduce hunger or indigestion and your dog will love a rub with pounded seeds to keep fleas away. 

Photo of fennelImage description: A photo of wild fennel

Dried herbal teas are readily available to buy, but It is good to grow a small selection of herbs for fresh teas from your garden, even if it can only be in pots or a window-box. Some to enjoy are the mints, often at their best at this time of year, just before flowering. Applemint is a favourite of mine for adding to salads or with cream cheese in sandwiches, while peppermint tea is digestive and helpful against nausea. Thyme tea should always be made with the flowering sprigs for best flavour and helps to prevent catching infections. The lemon herbs, lemon balm and lemon verbena are refreshing. Lemon balm to calm is beautiful served iced with a slice of lemon on a hot day while lemon verbena lifts mood and energy. For help with tired feet in summer, or arthritic hands after gardening, tea made with the pot marigold flowers [Calendula officinalis] is anti-inflammatory and can be used also in hand or footbaths, for hot feet add a little cooling peppermint.

A photo of a tortoiseshell butterfly on peppermintImage description: A photo of a tortoiseshell butterfly on peppermint by Christina Stapley

For herbal teas a general instruction is 1-2 teaspoons of herb to a cup of boiling water. Leave covered to steep for 5-10 minutes, depending on the strength of flavour required and strain. Do not add milk or sugar but you can add honey if liked.

Photo of ChristinaWritten by Christina Stapley

Author of The Tree Dispensary. Aeon Books 2021.

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