Filling up a medicine cabinet on your commute home from your office possibly sounds like one of the most mundane chores possible. Yet it has become one of my favourite parts of my life. My commute, far from being a frustrating crawl in traffic or a stand-up ride on a packed train, is a wander up a hill and through 45 acres of wild woodland.
The wild woodland owes its continued existence to hundreds of Victorians who use(d) it as their last resting place and to the charitable organisation that continues to fund it. The trees are rich and varied, some endemic, spread by the wind and woodland creatures others were planted a century ago. It is a rare gem of a place within a thriving and ever-changing city. A city that is growing very quickly, the land is being snatched up for housing all over the place and the roads are at breaking point.
Yet in this calm urban oasis, I can escape the world for half an hour and stay within the sanctuary of trees almost from door to door. At this point, if you are reading this stuck in traffic or on a packed train on your commute home I shall allow you to shout “smug ****” out loud and I promise I will not to take offence – unless I’m sitting next to you!
“You showed me there is something in the forest to cure most anything that bothers you.”
— Donald Smith
(The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America)
My medicine is seasonal and as such, I gather much of it as and when seasonal ailments hit. In the winter I can collect rosehips to make a deliciously warming and highly nutritious soup to help keep coughs and colds at bay or, if I’m feeling adventurous, I can dig up some horseradish root and turn it into horseradish vodka to do the same job. When the days start to lengthen and the sun starts to rise in the sky I head off to the entrance of the graveyard where two huge and ancient Elder trees – Sambuca nigra L – grow and I gather enough blossom to dry and make tea with for the summer. With a spoonful of local honey in each cup, I ensure that when my eyes start to each and my throat starts to tickle I don’t have to resort to tablets.
Come midsummer and I head to the middle of the woodland and start picking blossom from a large lime tree Tillia L. A tree that I know so well I could describe at what stage of its growth cycle it is in at any time, a tree I know better than I know my own brother. With just an hour spent picking from one branch, this one tree furnishes me with enough lime blossom to dry for tea throughout the year. Tea that helps my digestion after a meal whilst slowing down my racing and sometimes obsessive brain to ensure a restful night’s sleep.
Throughout the year I know where to find plantain Plantago L. not the banana-like fruit but the plant that grows freely through the world. A plant I used only yesterday, crushing the leaves and applying the juice to my sons recently stung thumb taking away the pain instantly. The autumn gives me enough hawthorn berries to turn into hawthorn leathers and tinctures to regulate my blood pressure. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, the forest gives to every time and season medicines of its own.
To top up this medicine cabinet I also grow a few herbs in my garden and leave many wild herbs, (plants that many call weeds), to seed and spread. Most of my ailments and, many of my family’s, are dealt with using something from either my woodland or garden medicine cabinet.
My accumulation of plant medicine knowledge has been gradual, happening over the course of around 15 years. It has been borne of careful research and conversations with my medical herbalist friends and other foragers. Yet what I am really doing is tapping into a knowledge base that has been with humans since the dawn of time and I believe one that will continue to the end of time too.
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