Medical herbalist Nicola Parker writes about finding herbs in the garden
During the summer, I’m always more inspired to get out of the clinic and take my work into the great outdoors.
I like to dust off my foraging books and reconnect with the plants in their natural environment.
Many herbal medicines come as tablets or medicine bottles, so it’s easy to forget that those same herbs we’re using to care for ourselves may be the same plants that we walk past every day when we leave our front door.
Weeds make up some of my most potent collections of herbs.
Weeds are hardy, resistant and they’ll grow almost anywhere.
This is often due, in part, to the same chemical compounds that we value them for in medicine.
It’s not by chance that certain herbs have antimicrobial and wound healing properties.
They have evolved this way over billions of years to help protect themselves from disease.
As medicine evolved, herbalists began to explore and harness these properties to protect and support our own biological systems, paving the way for modern medicine and pharmaceutical drugs to be created.
Modern herbalists still use this traditional approach of using the whole plant (or weed), believing that all parts of the plant have value, rather than just the isolated constituents.
If you want to indulge your inner herbalist this summer, you’ll find some of the most traditional medicine cabinets in the most unlikely of places.
Take a peek in your back ally, down the abandoned dirt paths, in parts of your garden that haven’t been weeded.
These abandoned areas are the ones that hold the most medicinal value, but it’s important to check with an expert before picking and ingesting any plants that you might consider using.
One herb that should be easily recognisable is cleavers.
Cleavers is a fun herb and often popular with children because it grows in abundance and sticks to fabrics and animal fur.
It’s also known as galium, clivers, goosegrass and sticky weed.
If you didn’t spend part of your childhood covering yourself and your friends with cleavers, then you must have lived in some very well weeded landscapes.
In the past, herbalists believed that what a plant looked like, gave us clues as to what a herb could do.
The long, branching stem of cleavers interweaves itself among other plants, covered in small, sticky balls, much like how our lymph vessels and nodes spread throughout the body.
This could be why herbalists of old began using it as a lymph tonic.
Little research has been done on this particular herb, but it still features prominently in most books on herbal medicine and it certainly makes a regular appearance in my own herbal medicine clinic as a potent lymphatic.
Our lymphatic system transports fluid around the body, along with infection fighting white blood cells.
I like to think of it as the water herb, the one that stops swellings, lumps, spots and cysts by redirecting water to where it is supposed to be.
When people talk about swollen glands during a cold or sore throat, it’s their lymph glands that they are referring to.
I’ve recently been subjected to a throat infection that has left me feeling like I’ve swallowed a golf ball, so I’ve been thinking a lot about immune boosting cleavers and that patch in my garden that I still haven’t gotten around to tidying up.
Cleavers can be juiced, cooked as you would any green veg, mashed into a paste or infused in a tea.
You can use it as a gargle for sore throats or just ingest it (my own preferred method) but it can be quite fibrous so make sure you chop it up fine.
Think of cleavers as the herb that can reduce swelling when your fingers and ankles are looking puffy or if you break out in swellings on the skin, such as with spots, redness (which is usually inflammation), eczema and psoriasis.
Obviously, these things should be checked by your GP first, but if you suffer with swellings and skin problems, it could be worth reviewing your weeds. You could be throwing an abundance of medicine into your compost heap.
Nicola works at Health and Herbs Herbal Medicine Clinic in Morecambe and can be reached on 01524 413733