Thursday, December 2, 2010

Brewing: My Continuing Adventures in Herbalism

Mugwort, plantain which has opened from the east, lamb's cress, attorlothe [possibly black nightshade], chamomile, nettle, wood sour apple, chervil and fennel, old soap; work the herbs into powder, mix with the soap and the apple's juice. Make a paste of water and of ash; take the fennel, boil in the paste and warm it with the mixture when he puts on the salve, and before and after. Sing that charm on each of the herbs thrice before he prepares them, and on the apple also, and sing into the mouth of the man and both the ears and on the wound that same charm before he puts on the salve.
Believe it or not, this is an ancient recipe for an herbal healing salve, including the prescribed method of treatment. It appears at the very end of a long poem in Old English, known as the Nine Herbs Charm. In this poetic incantation, both Woden and Christ are mentioned, linking the pagan world to the Christianized. The incantations are supposed to be made three times respectively over each of the nine herbs, as they are added into the recipe, in order to maximize the potency of the medicine.

I mention this by way of introduction to my topic for today.  I have become something of an amateur herbalist in recent years, and I find herb lore very interesting—although, I have to say that the lore is not more interesting than what herbs can actually do when you use them.

The reason I got deeper into this whole herb thing is because I love to cook. At some point,  I received the handsome gift of a bread machine. I loved that machine. I wore it out, and had to get a second one. I now bake nearly all the bread my family eats. The kids particularly love the rosemary French bread that I make. One week, I decided to make that and also make a loaf of pumpernickel. If it had not been for this double loaf adventure, I would never have noticed something interesting about rosemary.

The loaves had been made in the same day, but the pumpernickel was made after the rosemary French bread. The loaves are stored in zip-locked plastic bags. A few days later, the remaining pumpernickel started to develop mold. The rosemary French bread did not develop mold. And I have never experienced this particular loaf to do so, but I just supposed that was because we were consuming the bread so fast.

I don’t think that is the reason, however; I think I discovered by experience that rosemary acts as a natural preservative in this situation. When I looked in my various books on herbs, I didn’t find this specific information, although rosemary is listed in some volumes as being an antioxidant and, in others, as having antibacterial properties.

This led me to try brewing the dried herb as an infusion, just to satisfy a curiosity I had. The taste was unexpectedly lovely!

I then added a few more ingredients to the rosemary and re-brewed: anise seed, elder flowers, rosehips, mullein, hyssop and peppermint. I created this seemingly peculiar mixture because my son has a yucky cough. I had an intuition, based on previous experience with these other herbs, that this mixture would be helpful. Several days later, he was still coughing, but without as much of the yuck part; he is not coughing up nearly as much phlegm. And, the infusion has a delicate flavor, is not at all horrid—so a child will drink it willingly, particularly if a bit of honey is added.

I pass this story on to you because it is a good personal account. Please note that I do not set myself up to advise you on what herbs are best for you to use—this is something you must discover on your own. Herbal usage is, I continue to discover, very personal and very subtle. Some herbs that are indicated for certain conditions just simply do not work for everyone. I discovered years ago that Echinacea does not work for me, though I can derive similar benefits from Holy Basil.

Experimentation with common herbs is wholeheartedly advised, as long as good sense is also exercised; herbs that you know to be dangerous probably should not enter your home, much less your body. A general safety rule is this: if it is something you would cook with and eat in food, then by all means, make use of it in other ways than in cookery. 

The only caution I would offer is that there is a lot of misinformation and conflicting information available on the internet; in the rush for content to populate every single page hawking some sort of product or service, the so-called noosphere is filled with shameless duplications of the same articles all over the place (authored originally by whom, one wonders?), and they do not necessarily inform you in a useful way or accurate way.

If you want to get into herbs, you need to do three things: (1) get into your garden; (2) consult books on herbs (whatever you have on hand, or references at the library); and (3) brew. I keep a handy notebook and make notations of the various herbs I have used, and if they have been combined with other herbs, what circumstance that combination was used for, and what the results were.

I am sitting here with a warm cup of something good. How about you?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the reminder about wild/fresh herbs! I know (or knew) a lot about the kind of herbs that come in capsules, but I wouldn't recognize most of them in their natural state. I think I'll start exploring!