What a special time of year! This, although it may not feel like it with frost on the ground, is the very beginning of spring. As you wander through city parks and green edges, at the start of February, notice just how many signs of spring there are about us. Wild garlic / Daslook is now up, standing young and proud. Cleavers has started to spread, seeking taller plants and fences to scramble up, and stinging nettles (which never really seemed to go away this winter) are looking delicious!
I enjoyed sharing some of my favourite winter urban foraging plants with you over the past few months. Those still hold true as we gently move into the spring which we will all recognise, full of flowers and fresh leaves. I will start sharing ideas for spring cleansers over the coming weeks. A lovely and helpful herbal pastime, is to eat a little herbal foraged cleanser, every day between Imbolc (start of February) and Alban Eilir (Spring Equinox). So today, I’ll be looking to add a little bit of one of those mentioned herbs, to my food or drink. And will aim to do so until the 20th March.
Celebrating the turning year I enjoy celebrating the changing seasons alone and I also greatly enjoy marking them with like-minded friends. Yesterday, a group of us shared an online celebration of Imbolc, following the basic format of druidic seasonal ceremonies – interesting via Zoom but it somehow works. I am setting up a group to keep this going, under the very helpful umbrella of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). The group is called the Meadowseet Seed Group. The intention is for people in Amsterdam who are members of OBOD, to have the possibility to meet in person, within the city, to celebrate each of the eight seasonal festivals together.
The intention is for the seasonal celebrations will be outside in Amsterdam and for full moon meditations to be mostly at the same time each lunar cycle but conducted physically apart. At some of the celebrations, as yesterday, other folks who are not members of OBOD but are interested in the spiritual path will be welcome to take part also. If you are an OBOD member in the area and are interested in joining the group, or would like to attend some of the seasonal celebrations, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday 31st January – 17:00 – 18:30 ❤ We will greet (seeing how everyone is, saying hello!), then I will lead a short Ceremony (which will start at 17:15 – sundown) which everyone can participate in from the comfort of their homes. Then we will have a simple Eisteddfod ❤ An Eisteddfod is a traditional Welsh gathering and is often quite competitive – where individuals take turns to present something that they have created or simply want to share with the others. Ours will not be competitive but it should be fun! Classically these sharings are read pieces of literature, poems, playing tunes, singing etc. They are lovely events which celebrate creative expression. Do not feel that to join in the Imbolc celebration, you must also have something to share, but feel free to do so, if it so moves you! ❤ For the ceremony, please have a candle at the ready Bring a little food and water Wear whatever you feel comfortable in ❤ Those following my courses, may like to read through the course unit about Imbolc before attending. I will update it again, in the days leading up to Imbolc. ❤ Link for the Imbolc Celebration
Grant, O God, O Goddess, O Great Spirit, thy protection; And in protection, strength; And in strength, understanding; And in understanding, knowledge; And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice; And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it; And in that love, the love of all existences; And in the love of all existences, the love of God, Goddess, Great Spirit, and of all goodness.
We swear by peace and love to stand; Heart to heart and hand in hand. Mark O Spirit and hear us now. Confirming this, our sacred vow.
It’s week 10 of the Urban Herbology Winter Foraging Challenge! This week I have laid more paths at my volkstuin garden, edged some with wood and am ordering plant labels. Have been listing the edibles and medicinal plants which are already growing there and making a crazy-long list of plants that I intend to add there this year. At present there are over 40 distinct types of herbs growing in my volkstuin garden, some as single specimens and others as abundantly as weeds! Am looking forward to welcoming more of my students there this year for walks, 1:1s and workshops. I think that some good labelling will help this along – and help prevent me from trampling on sleeping herbs during the soggy winter!
Here’s an update ..
This week’s herb grows prolifically in my volkstuin garden. Many gardeners pull it out as they find it can smother an area with some speed, but I welcome it and try to guide it to provide me with wildlife friendly fence and frame covering. It is evergreen and a very overlooked historic herb. This week’s herb is Ivy (Hedera helix).
Ivy is a cunning shapeshifter! It has various leaf shapes, depending upon it’s life cycle stage and location. It readily creeps around damp soil, covering the ground and taking full advantage of any sunlight but perfectly tolerating shade. It is found often in woodland settings and my volkstuin provides it with the dampness and shade – hence, it grows abundantly and very healthily there. Notice the smooth, barely lobed leaf shape, on leaves attached to a flowering stem of ivy:
Many people who come on my walks, ask me about Poison Ivy, as found in the USA and Canada. That plant (Toxicodenron radicans) causes contact dermatitis, which is a cause of great irritation to gardeners and foragers. Sometimes, reactions to the plant can be serious. The Ivy which I am familiar with (Hedera helix), is an unrelated plant. It can cause contact dermatitis in some people but this is far less common than for Poison Ivy. I am interested to hear from anyone who has had a reaction to Hedera helix, as I have not had direct contact with any such people over the years. Whereas I know many who have had uncomforatable times due to Poison ivy!
Here are a few photos of Hedera helix at different life cycle stages. Notice the classic five lobed leaves, as the plant spreads and climbs just a little.
Ivy seems to like climbing high, to produce flowers which have the best chance of being fertilised by bees and then to give the seeds the best chance for dispersal far and wide. The flowers are quietly beautiful and the developing seed heads looks space age. People often ask me about them. Ivy grows up to about 30m high but to do that, it must have support.
This summer, I witnessed a mass of wasps, boring into the unopened flowers of ivy, at the end of summer, and I guess, drinking the nectar, before the flowers had a chance to open. Come autumn/winter, Ivy flowers are often in abundance (although we rarely notice them due to their yellow/green colour) and they provide an essential source of food for bees and other insects, before they bed down for winter.
Ivy is often given a hard time because it grows up buildings and trees. It has suckering roots growing along the stems and these embed it very effectively into cement, stonework and onto tree bark. When it is pulled off – which is quite easy to do – the suckering roots will pull off cement, small pieces of stone or brick and some tree bark. One fear for them growing up trees, is that the ivy becomes so heavy, it destabilises the tree or it causes too much shade or it strangles it. I disagree with all these thoughts. Mostly ivy, growing up trees is a wonderful thing; providing incredible wildlife habitats and actually protecting trees from harsh climatic conditions. Some green space contractors rotate which trees they de-ivy each year. I think it a pity and unnecessary work.
Ivy can help to stabilise old piles of racks and ruins but it will of course cover then and hide them from view. Note the old painting of Tintern Abbey – what a lovely place that is, not far from my parents home. I remember it being ivy clad as a child. Now it is clean of ivy and the ruin is somewhat renovated. Removing the ivy will have caused some damage and certainly makes it look less romantic but now the abbey structure can be more effectively maintained in a safe structural state.
So how can we use ivy as food or medicine? The leaves and berries can be used both externally and internally. They contain saponins, sterols, polyacetylenes, flavonoids and volatile oils.
Externally, ivy can be used as a poultice or compress and has an age old reputation for calming inflamed and painful rheumatic joints. It is also used as an infused oil as an anti-cellulite preparation. I mentioned above that some people will develop contact dermatitis from Hedera helix. So always be wary when trying this herb for the first time.
Make infused oil from fresh leaves, if you would like to try it as a gentle skin stimulant. Macerate for about 6 weeks, strain and use as a salve base or as a massage oil for congested skin areas. Ivy is a constituent in many expensive anti-cellulite preparations.
There is some much lore associated with ivy. Like Holly, Ivy has been used to decorate homes since ancient Pagan times. Poets’ wreaths are made from ivy leaves, as is the wreath of Bacchus. It was thought that gently boiling bruised ivy leaves in wine would remove the wines powers of intoxication. Perhaps the alcohol simply boiled away? Perhaps not. Ivy has long been a sign of fidelity and was given to newly weds in ancient Greece.
Another traditional use for Ivy is as relief for sunburn. Soft ivy twigs, when boiled in butter were thought to produce a useful remedy. Clearly, not for experimenting on severe burns but worth investigation.
Internally, it is a renowned expectorant and decongestant of the ear, nose and throat. Ivy has with an affinity for the upper respiratory system. It has a good reputation for easing bronchitis symptoms. It can be taken as a medicinal tea. You should not have too much of it and avoid it during pregnancy and breastfeeding but this is actually a more widely used herb than you may realise. Extracts of Ivy are found in a very popular over the counter mucus relieving product called Bisolvon. In some countries, Bisolvon packaging shows ivy leaves. Interesting to see how a commercial product contains some of the constituents of this common plant.
A pleasant tasting tea, which can help to ease congestion in the nasal and upper chest could be made from 1/2tsp of dried and then crushed ivy leaves. Infuse for 5 minutes then strain and sip. It combines well with Elderflower and Thyme (you may like to try 1/3 teaspoon each, dried, in a large cup). You can easily dry Ivy leaves in a paper bag. Make sure they are not tightly packed in the bag, label and leave in a room temperature, dry environment. Fresh leaves can also be used. Dried ones are convenient for use.
I find that working in the garden, or wandering around ivy rich woodland and streets, has a really opening and refreshing action on my respiratory system. It also seems to clear my mind. I like to crush a leaf (which is not so easy – Ivy leaves are built to last!) and deeply inhale the released volatile constituents.
Other uses There are many other ways to weave ivy into your life. I love to grow it as a cover plant, over piles of sticks, over dull looking fences and especially over arches. As a semi-glossy evergreen, it can provide amazingly effective form to a garden in the wintertime.
I also like to make simple crowns from long ivy stems. I did this in the autumn at one of the Witching season gatherings. I find that ivy crowns provide comfort, clarity and protection. Ivy can be grown inside of the house and I find it a quiet, refreshing presence to have around the place. Be wary though, ivy needs some moisture but not too much. It appreciated a gentle rinse occasionally and not to be dried out. When I make an alter with ivy wound around, I find it helps to splash or spray the ivy each day, to keep it fresh and vibrant.
Next Zoom meeting for my course students is this Friday evening. We will be focusing on Ivy, learning more about its active constituents, actions and uses and we will meditate on it to see how we can weave it’s magic and medicine into our lives. If you are joining the Zoom, you may like to bring a candle and some fresh Ivy leaves to the online meeting. If you have enough ivy growing near you and you feel the urge for full urban herbology immersion – why not make yourself a simple crown from a long stem of ivy? I look forward to seeing you there!
It’s week 9 of the Urban Herbology Winter Foraging Challenge! This week we’ve had proper frost and I have been laying a woodchip path at my volkstuin garden and am getting really excited as I continue to plan the new layout and detail of that garden. Here’s a little walk around the new path:
This week’s herb is actually too young to harvest ethically at present. In the photos, you can see it’s only just above the fallen leaves, right now. If you harvest them now, you’ll deprive the plants from the chance to self-seed, you’ll deceive wildlife of food and you’ll deprive yourself from more of these delicious plants next year.
Here in Amsterdam, this plant is only a few centimetres tall right now and is found as seedlings. Now, the annual plant in question will eventually grow quite tall and the best time to forage it is during spring and summer. At that time the pretty whorl-leaved seedlings seem to grow a mile-a-minute. They make a fabulous spring cleanser and they smell and taste like lush, fresh cut grass.
However, several of my students have been noticing these little beauties recently so I felt it useful to post about them so that we can identify where they grow now, and return during the coming months, to harvest.
Cleavers (Gallium aparine), is this week’s foraging plant. I use it in general cooking, steamed as an interesting side vegetable, to stuff whole fish and I make remedies from it. This herb can provide gentle and effective nourishment for the lymphatic system.
Let me know if you find any of these beautiful seedlings. They grow in many varied locations but did best when growing amongst task stinging nettles, in neglected undergrowth and nearby chain fences, all of which can offer them support as they grow. And here’s a frosty Stinging nettle photo for you..
It’s week 8 of the Urban Herbology Winter Foraging Challenge! This week I have been foraging Jelly ear fungi from local Elder trees and making orange-jelly-choc’s from them. Delicious! My daughter will show us how to make them on this Friday evening’s zoom, for my course students. Details of the courses are here. Start and stop whenever you like!
This week’s features winter foraging herb is the humble yet beautiful Daisy (Bellis perennis). You can easily tell from the classic ray and disk flowerhead arrangement, that this is a member of the huge Asteraceae family.
Now, that plant family is one of the most common sources of plant allergen in humans, so go careful with it. It tends to cause contact dermatitis in those who are sensitive and the most notable allergens in the Asteraceae family are a group of chemicals called sesquiterpene lactones. Those secondary plant metabolites are present in the leaf, stem, flower and possibly also in the pollen. Individuals who know they are sensitive to those chemicals, or the Asteraceae family, should steer clear of handling and eating Daisy. People diagnosed with the issue some years ago, may know the Asteraceae family as the Compositae family.
Bellis perennis is often known as common daisy, lawn daisy or English daisy. The Dutch name is Madeliefje. It is a small perennial herb that is native to almost the whole of Europe. It has a long history of use in folk medicine in the treatment of various diseases, such as rheumatism and as an expectorant. There is evidence that during the ancient Roman times, army field surgeons used to gather up daisies, from along the roadsides, extract the plant juice, and use it to soak bandages which could be used to dress battle wounds. There are many other references to Daisy in old herbal texts.
In homeopathy, Bellis perennis remedy is used for deep wound healing, including post surgical healing. If you would like to make a flower essence, you will certainly catch people’s attention as the flowers of Daisy look so pretty, floating atop a bowl of spring water.
All of the daisies in my muddy, wintery photos today, lack any tinge of pink on the under sides of the petals but that is a common feature for foragers to look out for, when identifying the plant. One old story explains how that pink tinge came about:
“Rose, the queen of the flowers, had a party and all the flowers were invited. One little flower was left out, however – it was shy of its modest appearance and was happy to whisper its congratulations from afar. But the wind carried the flower’s words to the queen, who assured her that there was no need to be ashamed: Its dress was spotlessly white and it had a heart of gold. This made the little flower blush, and ever since then the tips of its ray-florets have been pink.” Extract from Aegean Edibles website – it’s an interesting website to investigate.
Daisy grows only to a small height of 2 – 3 centimetres, when in bloom and is very tolerant of trampling footsteps, so we often find it growing in lawns, paths and well trodden edges. At this time of year, it stands out to me because it is surviving in quite bare ground and also in ground where only Plantain and Ribwort (Plantago spp.) are usually to flourish. Interestingly, those plants also share some of the therapeutic properties of Daisy. At this time of year though, if we get a cold winter, the plantains dive undergound.
Crush a smooth fleshy leaf of daisy, or its flowers or even the underground roots and a pleasant green aroma is released as the sap inside is freed up. Bellis perennis has been found to contain many active constituents, including at least ten different saponins. The active constituents in this plant grace it with many healing properties. Daisy is known to be anti-inflammatory, astringent, digestive, antispasmodic, healing, laxative, purgative, antitussive, demulcent, and expectorant. I consider it a humble, ever giving, herbal medicine chest. There is increasing anti-cancer evidence, for Daisy but this plant shouldn’t be used as an anti-cancer treatment. Chewing leaves for mouth ulcers or making a salve from the flowers and leaves, is more the level of self-treatment that I think about, with daisy.
To eat daisy – eat only a little. This is a potent medicinal herb. You will need to forage in a clean patch of land. And you need to be non-allergic to it (see above note about the Asteraceae family). All this mention of allergies, makes it seem that many foragers will be allergic to Asteraceae plants. The reality is less dramatic than it may sound but we should be aware that it could happen.
There is not much chance of foraging for daisy above dog-pee height, as it grows on the ground but it can be grown in pots and it will grow as easily in clean soil as in trampled doggy spots. It does best in areas where the surrounding plants are not so tall and heavy that they completely shade the daisy out. So low cut grass – lawns – are perfect territory for this humble, edible and medicinal weed.
The flowers can be added to soups. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Make sure they are clean, whatever you do with them. I find that the leaves taste pretty good as a salad ingredient, surprisingly good actually. Try the flowers or leaves as a tea. Dry them for later use.
If you don’t fancy your chances with eating daisy, you may like to try making a poultice of Daisy leaves, to use as an astringent, anti-inflammatory wound healer. Daisy is also renowned as an effective agent to calm bruises and to prevent them from forming. You could make an oil infusion and then thicken up the oil with some form of natural wax (beeswax, soya wax etc). Or infuse straight into a butter (literally butter or something more fancy such as shea butter).
Do let me know how you get on with your winter foraging. It is great to feel others are doing similar things!
So we’re now between Christmas and New Year and on week 7 of the Urban Herbology Winter Foraging Challenge! Are you managing to find a little something for the plate each week? I hope so. This week’s urban edible is a really easy to identify member of the Lamiaceae family – Yellow deadnettle or Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon). I would love to know if you find it and make something with it.
This plant is native to the Netherlands, UK and a great many countries. In Amsterdam, it is found all over town, spreading ground cover in council plantings, parks, woodland, gardens and in random in between places. Yellow deadnettle is easy to identify. It can grow in very shady environments, but also thrives in full sun. Notice the silver white pattern on the upper leaf surface. That pattern does vary between species varieties but the common characterisic is the silver/white.
The stem and leaf arrangement is characteristic of the Lamiaceae family – square stems and leaves in opposite, alternating pairs. Crush a leaf and a pleasant green aroma is released. It has fine (but not stinging) hairs on the leaves and stems so feels a little bit rough, to touch. Later in spring / summer, knee high flower spies develop, displaying whorls of yellow classic mint family shaped flowers. But we are now focusing on plants for winter foraging, so you the plant will need to be identified without it’s blooms.
To eat, Yellow deadnettle is easy. The best parts are the tender young shoots and leaves but winter foragers can’t be quite so fussy and can do really well with sautéed leaves, from the freshest looking specimens. Harvest sparingly from plentiful patches of the plant, in the cleanest places. Wash well, chop and cook. I find they are also an easy addition to stir fries, risotto and pot type dishes as well as smoothies. The leaves dry well and make a pleasant herb tea. All in all, I think that Yellow deadnettle is a real Urban foraging winner and I hope you like it too!
It’s now mid winter in the northern hemisphere and here in east Amsterdam I have been busy with 6 of the Urban Herbology Winter Foraging Challenge. Several people have been reaching out and asking for more suggestions, of what to forage at this time so I am making a video and will post it later this week. Let’s see if anyone can find this little beauty, this week.. Chickweed (Stellaria media):
This is one of my favourite winter foraging plants. It has tiny, fresh green heart-shaped leaves, tiny white star-shaped flowers, a line of single fine hairs down the stem midrib of the plant. Those can be seen only by sharp eyes or through a hand lens so Chickweed identification provides urban foragers a great chance to get their hand lens out and look scientific. Chickweed grows close to the ground, often in convenient clumps from which we can tear off a small handful, without making a visible impact. One key feature of Chickweed midwinter, is that it looks so fresh and verdant. Not much else here looks so bright and pumped full of chlorophyll at the moment. It looks (and often is) far fresher and more full of nutrients than lettuce in the shops and this is my winter salad of preference.
When you tear open the leaves, it smells fresh and does not ooze a white latex sap. If you should find a little plant, looking quite like Chickweed and yet it does ooze white sap, then you have probably stumbled upon Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus). Please don’t eat it at all and be sure to wash the sap from your skin as it is a classic garners skin irritant.
The photos this week are of a lovely clump of Chickweed which grows in one of my balcony plant pots – so nicely away from dogs, walkers and road spray. I didn’t plant it, it simply found the place and grows really well there. We get a few city birds which settle on the balcony railing to eat found seeds and bugs so perhaps one of them dropped the seed a while back. In any case, I welcome Chickweed and add a spring or two to my food, a few days a week. And in case you are wondering, yes Chickweed is a favourite of birds. They are sometimes found having a nibble. Always wash your foraged finds well, harvest ethically and very lightly and enjoy the bounties that urban nature provides!
It’s still looking tasty! Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a wonderfully nutritious herb and is easy to incorporate into the diet.
It is also easy to find and identify. Pick the freshest, youngest looking tips at this time of the year. This body building, protien rich herb doesn’t worry about lock downs. It grows happily in all sorts of conditions and is one of my favourites. Stinging nettle is my fifth Winter Foraging Challenge herb.
It’s getting chilly and dark here in Amsterdam and already we are on week 4 of my Winter Foraging Challenge. Thanks to Louise for the comment and photos about Rosemary last week 🙂 Let’s see if anyone can find this little beauty, this week.. Crane’s-bill geranium:
There’s a lot of variety within this lovely, fragrant group of plants and many are planted deliberately in towns and cities. Examples being Geranium lucidim, Geranium rotundifolium and Geranium pyrenaicum. The pretty flowers are seldom seen at this time of the year but they keep their foliage through winter (although it is less appealing than in spring / summer) and a leaf or two make a great addition to winter meals.
Look out for large clumps of palmately-lobed leaves, atop long almost woody leaf stalks. The leaves are fragrant when rubbed or bruised.
It is the roots which are traditionally used in herbal medicine but I tend to only harvest the leaves. Some of the constituents found in Crane’s-bill roots are: tannins, gallic acid, starch, pectin, and resin. If you are interested to learn more, here is a useful link.
I look forward to finding out who can locate this little winter wonder herb and if anyone is brave enough to have a nibble…
This week’s winter warming herb is a strongly scented evergreen shrub which many people grow in urban gardens. There are a few Rosemary shrubs growing along my street and I am not alone in enjoying a small amount every week or so, in my meals.
If you are able to find some Rosemary, growing near you, I’d love to see a photo and learn what you like to do with it.
Rosemary is in the aromatic Lamiaceae family. It is known for its ability to stimulate the mind and digestive system.