Category Archives: Exotic herbs

Bones, Bites and Bali

As some of you know, I fell from my bike in November and was out of action for quite some time. In short, I broke my cheek bone in several places, took quite a hit on my bum and was rather shaken up. Illness is one of the greatest teachers so naturally lessons were learned. I wrote a few of them down as the weeks went by and thought I’d emerge from hibernation today, to share some of the ways I used herbs and other things to aid recovery. I have tried to relate the story to the Wise Woman system of healing, just as I ask my apprentices to relate a health incident they have been through to the system.

Step Zero – Serenity medicine
Bali lily and water cabbage

For the first week I did nothing but allow my body to quietly sort itself out. The cut over my eye was quickly glued together in hospital as this was clearly necessary but the rest was left to calm down, in readiness for a facial reconstruction operation. No herbal ointments, no supplements, no infusions, nothing. The body’s powers of repair and regeneration are amazing. Stores of nutrients from deep within the body are called upon to fight the cause. There was clearly nothing to do except rest and sup on water, chicken soup, pumpkin soup and all manner of smoothies. The nutrients which are taken from the storehouses of the tissues must be replaced. Adding anything extra to my diet felt wrong at this point, even dangerous so I stayed away from everything other than plain food. My mental taste-buds were my guide.

Step One – Collect information
I wanted to know several things:
1. How the accident had happened. It was a mystery and this was not helping me. It took three weeks to find out that a stone or similar must have wedged between the front wheel and mudguard, stopping the bike very suddenly. Knowing helped in some ways. Knowing that I am not able to prevent this happening again didn’t help. So I researched bike helmets. That helped. More people should wear one.
2. I wanted to know about the imminent operation. Without it my sight could be lost, with it I should look normal again. Risks of anesthetic, risks of not operating. Knowing helped.
3. I believe nothing happens by chance. Why did this happen at that moment? I searched, through dreamwork and visioning. I found answers. The answers are for me. That helped. I act on my findings.
4. Shaking, why did my body persist in shaking? Shaking is a natural response to trauma and I needed to welcome it. Whole schools of therapy revolve around it. This is an interesting field!

Step Two – Energy medicine
The energetic body is an incredible part of us. It is us. When it disappears we disappear. To feel the flow of Nwyfre / prana / chi (whatever you want to name it) through a major chakra almost disappear and not return for weeks is a terrifying thing, speaking personally anyway! I was unable to correct this easily so a dear friend helped. Being aware that the energy body is out of balance is important. Knowing how to track it’s state and assist it’s return to balance is important.

Nourishing Comfrey – Boneknit

Step Three – Nourishment
Let food be thy medicine. After the operation I incorporated Oatstraw infusion into my daily diet. One liter a day. This helped to soothe my nerves (they were rather frazzled). Motherwort tincture helped in this way also. Ten drops as and when needed to bring things into perspective again. I keep a green ointment in stock here at home for all manner of skin ailments. This was very helpful after the operation. I kept it away from the broken skin and used it with intention to seep into the skin and speed the bone and flesh healing. Comfrey within the ointment came into its own as I have never felt before. So soothing, healing, scar reducing and welcome. I trusted my thoughts on when to begin using it – not before the bone setting operation, not before the skin had stopped it’s healing fluid oozing. All had calmed before I used it. I did not wash my face for three weeks and then moved onto a regime of plain tepid water, then a little ointment here and there above the breaks plus the SJW oil mentioned below. My face was cut and grazed from my eyebrow to my collarbone. All marks went quickly, except for the super glued cut (which is not surprising). What money we waste on skin care preparations!

Another thing that nourished me was friends. They helped nourish me with food, books, cards and they nourished me by making contact in whatever way felt best. Nourishment on all levels! I must nourish my friends.

Step Four – Stimulate / Sedate
When the cheekbone breaks the supplying nerve tends to be constricted and stops working so that side of the face becomes numb. This can remain permanently in some people, due to the way the bones heal, degree of nerve damage during the trauma etc. I was keen to avoid permanent nerve damage so as the bones began to feel more fixed I turned to St John’s Wort oil. This herb has an affinity to nerves and it was all I wanted on my skin other than the green ointment. Soon after I began working with the oil the nerve began to return to action. It was completely back to normal after 6 weeks.

Nadis Herb Shop, Ubud
Nadis Herb Shop, Ubud

Step Five – Supplements and Drugs
Paracetamol seemed inescapable for me in the first weeks after the accident. I took paracetamol and codeine erratically. I don’t touch them usually but I wanted help. They certainly helped with pain but it was quickly clear that they could not remove the cause of the pain. This may sound obvious and of no consequence but for me it was something of an issue.  When I took the pills I could sleep but it was not very restful sleep. It made me feel out of control, detached from myself and although it stopped my shaking, it didn’t stop the cause so when they wore off, the shaking and fear returned with a vengeance. I found other ways to deal with the worry and shaking eventually (Motherwort and Oatstraw) but if I had not realized that these would help, I imagine I would still have been taking the drugs. That’s not a comforting thought as most people don’t know about those simple herbs. It was also a learning experience in that by simply removing the worry, I could remove the pain. 

We went on holiday  three weeks after the accident, to Bali, not exactly a hardship and certainly an opportunity for herbal learning. I learned all I could about Jamu – traditional Indonesian medicine. During my quest I met Lilir, a generous herbalist at Nadi Herbal in Ubud. A bug bite on my calf had grown to the size of a tennisball overnight and I needed local herb advice. Lilir calmly applied a hot herb tea compress, applied some herbal antiseptic spray, advised me that Patchouli essential oil is a useful first aid antiseptic in the tropics, and then taught me about Sambiloto. I began a course there and then. What an amazing herb! Sambiloto or King of Bitters (Andrographis paniculata) is a herb competing (and combining) with Sweet Annie from the Artemisia family in the fight against Malaria and Dengue Fever. Get to know it. It could really help you out. I used it to make me less appetizing to the bugs. It is really incredibly bitter so Lilir recommends it in pill form and not at a high dose. I began with one pill a day for 14 days and then down to two pills a week.

Kunjit asam Jamu

Another Jamu which I fell in love with is Kunyit Asam. I have learned how to make this at home and am trying to make a litre bottle of the orange wonder each week. It is a potent concoction of Turmeric, Tamarind, Galangal (or Ginger) and sweetened water. It has many useful properties and I treat it as a supplement to reduce inflammation and stimulate digestion. It is to be respected and should not be used by certain groups of people.  Interestingly, powdered versions are available in Balinese supermarkets and chemist shops. I bought a few packets but find them super sweet and poor immitations of the freshly made potion. But it is good to see that there is demand for such a mass produced Jamu product. An interesting read if you want to know more about Jamu was written quite recently by Susan-Jane Beers.

Since returning to Amsterdam I have found a great source of fresh Turmeric rhizome and have been experimenting with homemade Mead, infused with Turmeric, Ginger and Lemon. So far so good!

Jamu powder for sale in Bali

Whilst I was researching various nasties which can be transmitted via tropical insect bites, I learned about natural ways to treat Dengue Fever. Fresh Papaya leaf appears to be a very promising remedy. Here is some interesting reading about it. In learning about that, I found out about how fresh Papaya fruit can help keep various intestinal bugs at bay. So Papaya also became part of my daily regime.

Step Six – Break and Enter
VUAmsterdam
An operation was necessary in my case. It went very well and was less intrusive than it could have been but all operations are a shock to the system. Returning from the anesthetic was an unexpectedly “interesting” experience. Chanting a deeply ingrained Sanskrit  mantra from the Upanishads on and on and on, whilst drinking in delicious oxygen did the trick – after a while. Mantras are very powerful, whatever they are and wherever they are from. Choose a powerful one and a positive one and one for which you know the words well. It helped me to focus and to shut out worrying thoughts. It brought me back down to Earth and made me breathe slowly and steadily. Thank you Ranju for teaching it to me all those years ago!

Arnica gel was also a useful remedy at this stage. I rubbed a little on my temples to lessen the shock to the body. Here in Amsterdam I buy a homeopathic Arnica gel called Eerste Hulp Gel. It is a combination, containing also Calendula and I find it very useful for shock.

Moving on
So that’s my Wise Woman style summary of my recent healing experience. Now my biggest issue is recounting the events each time I meet friends for the the first time in a while. They want to know and I want to tell but looking back is not always beneficial. My new response is simply to be – I am healing well.

Now that’s a nice mantra!

More herbs from Tenerife

I thought this was Kudzu, Mile a minute plant, solver of addictions, remedy for many ailments, causer of headaches for gardeners who try to eradicate it… But thank you to Fran from Serendipity Farm in Tasmania who politely put me straight. It is more likely to be Morning Glory. Here’s a link showing the flowers of Kudzu

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Ginger, not from my bathroom windowsill this time…

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Taro

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365 Frankendael day 210

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Inside all day today, my little foraging buddy is poorly and my throat is pounding, so a balcony photo for a change and lots of herbal honey for us both!

This is the Camellia sinensis (Tea) plant which I bought in the summer from Intratuin. It’s still doing well, in the bonsai form and pot.  As you can see here, it is developing pretty little flower buds. I look forward to seeing them open in the very early spring.

I’ve not tried it yet but it is perfectly possible to make all types of conventional tea from the leaves if this lovely plant. White tea being leaves almost straight from the plant. Soon, I’ll give it a try.

Workshop: Growing Exotic Herbs

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I’m running a workshop with Suzanne of City Plot (an urban farming collective), this October. Well show you how to cheaply spice up your house plant collection with unusual, tasty and useful exotic herbs such as Ginger, Papaya and Tamarind. What better way to increase your homegrown herb supplies, create a talking point and cut down on food miles!

Suzanne will teach you how to grow the plants from scratch and how to maintain them whilst I’ll show you how to use the exotics to make home remedies and tasty food items.

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Join us:
Sunday October 14th,
11.00am-1.00pm
Proef restaurant
(garden/inside depending on weather),
Westerpark, Amsterdam.
Cost (including all materials) €25
Max 10 places

Currently 4 places left.

You are welcome to book with me directly, with
Cityplot directly or via the Meetup group.

We’ve chosen this venue because the organic restaurant garden is planted and maintained by Cityplot. It’s a very interesting and inspiring place for city gardeners!

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Booking requires pre payment which is totally refundable if you cancel up to 24 hours before the event. If you cancel later than that and we find a replacement, you’ll also receive a full refund.

We very much hope to see you there!

Magnolia Petals: Pickles, Honey and more

Magnolia is a tree which I fall in love with again, every year. Everything about it enthralls me. From the graceful angles of the branches, the bark, exotic blooms to the glossy evergreen leaves. A huge magnolia in bloom is a show stopper. One such tree arches quietly over the terrace behind Huize Frankendael, in Amsterdam east. Hundreds of visitors must walk beneath it without giving the tree much thought, until in March or April it explodes into bloom. There is no other tree that I would rather sit beneath and gaze up through than that magnificent magnolia in spring!

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Edible and Medicinal Magnolia Petals
The flowers of Magnolia trees are edible and medicinal. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Magnolia flowers are known as Xin yi hua and are associated with the lung and stomach meridians. I enjoy eating them fresh plucked each year and happily report that they taste fragrant and spicy. I can also report that when I eat Magnolia petal, my sinuses become clear, quite like magic.

Imagine a slightly rubbery super sized rose petal which clears the sinuses a little, when you bite into it and you are getting close to the mouth feel and flavour of a magnolia petal. I like them very much and because a little goes a long way with these large petals, I can certainly recommend them to other urban herb lovers. As you may know, via my Apprenticeship and walks, I teach how to harvest interesting herbs in towns and cities, in a safe and ethical way. This entails taking only a little, leaving no trace and really make the most of the harvest. Do contact me if you would like to know more – This is my passion!

Medicinal Bark
Fairly recent research suggests that Magnolia bark extract can help with oral health, stress reduction and several other disorders. In traditional medicine it is reportedly used as an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anticancer agent, in the treatment of Alzheimer disease, depression, diabetes, and menopause. All Magnolia species varieties are considered to possess the same medicinal qualities and there are apparently no known side effects – although we know that someone somewhere, could be allergic to the plant, so please be cautious. Magnolia Bark Extract is widely available for sale and Magnolia bark is an ingredient in many traditional Chinese medicines including Hsiao-cheng-chi-tang, Wuu-Ji-San, Heii-san, Shimpi-to, Hangekouboku-to, Masinin-gan, Sai-boku-to, Syosaiko-to, Irei-to and Goshaku-san.

Japanese traditional medicine also prizes both the bark and flowers of Magnolia. Bark harvesting is not something suggested for the urban forager because it certainly leaves a trace and it is certainly not ethical.

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Magnolias in Westerpark

Stealthy Petal Plucking
When harvesting from perhaps the most beautiful of city trees, one would perhaps look both foolish and anti-social to pluck entire flowers. So I suggest that you don’t. Instead, I recommend that when stumbling upon a prime Magnolia specimen in bloom, and feeling the urge to eat it, you do the following:

1. After checking for unwanted observers, wander nonchalantly up to the tree. Are the blossoms within your reach? If not move on to another.
2. If so, reach up as if to smell the fragrance of a prime bloom, pull it gently to your nose with one hand, whilst deftly plucking a single petal from its base, with the other hand whilst simultaneously inhaling the spicy aroma.
3. Tuck the plucked petal in your pocket as you gently release the bloom with your other hand.
4. Move along to another flower, as if to compare its scent with the previous bloom. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you have harvested three or four petals.

A magnolia flower can miss one petal without much issue. If two or more petals are plucked from one bloom, evidence of foraging shows and that is not the plan. So one petal from a flower, move to another, one more petal and so on. When you have three or four petals, you are done. That is enough to make something very tasty and useful and you will have increased your stealth foraging skills..

Magnolia flower
Untouched – Delicious

Favourite Trees
I tend to forage a handful of petals each year, from 6 favourite Magnolias which are dotted around east Amsterdam. They are all growing in public spaces so stealth foraging is required. I don’t harvest from them if other people are around because apart from it just looks silly. I also limit myself to plucking a petal from two flowers per tree. I first wrote about my love of Magnolia petals on 2012. Since then urban foraging has increased in popularity so I also am careful to only pluck from Magnolias which seem not to have been visited by other foragers.


Magnolia Petal Recipes
Things that I like to do with a precious handful of magnolia petals. I hope that you have a go and let me know how you get on in the comments.

Magnolia Petal Pickle
They can be pickled, old English style by simply filling a small jar with fresh petals and then completely filling the jar again with rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a little salt and sugar to balance the flavours. I don’t add sugar or salt so I guess my version is simply Magnolia petal vinegar – I don’t mind because it tastes good 🙂

Fermented Magnolia Petals
You may like to ferment them using a little salt and water, in the style of Sandor Katz.
I prefer to lay them in my handy small Japanese vegetable press. I then sprinkle with a pinch of salt and apply the gentle but consistent pressure of the Japanese press for about 3 hours. This produces a very light ferment and it draws out some of the water from the petals (which tastes good too). You can leave the pressure for a lot longer if you prefer, winding the contraption every few hours to ensure the petals are in fact under a little pressure and to encourage the process.

Magnolia Petal Honey
When I first tasted a Magnolia petal and felt its clearing effect on my sinuses, I decided to transfer the petals’ properties to honey. This is soooo simple to make. It creates something which my family and friends find delicious and I hope you will too. If the honey turns you off, try Agave syrup. It works very well but in my experience is less spreadable (being rather runny).

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Magnolia petals infusing in honey

How to Make Magnolia Petal Honey (or use Agave syrup)
1. Gather your petals.
2. I rarely wash magnolia petals because I only harvest clean looking ones, which are from way above the ground but unsoiled by birds. You may like to wash yours. If so, then dry them off.
3. Tear the clean, surface dry petals into a sterile small glass jar. I use dishwasher cleaned pesto jars for this sort of thing.
4. Covered completely with runny honey. Use a chop stick or knitting needle to loosen trapped air bubbles. You may need to release the air and top up with honey several times. The jar should be filled to the brim with honey. The air bubbles won’t all leave the honey but prodding with chopsticks, helps them to escape and thus reduces the risk of contamination.
5. When no more air bubbles are escaping and no more honey needs to be added, close the jar tightly with its lid.
6. The constituents of the petals will infuse into the honey over the following days and weeks but the honey will take on a delicious Magnolia aroma and taste within a few hours.
7. Eat in any honey way (smear on bread, add to smoothies, mix with a little vinegar for an elixir, etc) you choose or take a teaspoon now and them to help soothe anxiety, sore throats or respiratory congestion. I don’t bother to strain this honey as I like the petal crunch. You could strain after 6 weeks if you preferred. It seems a waste of those petals though.

Please note that the herbal honey may start to ferment after a while, due to the high water content in the petals. Keep an eye on the jar, if it starts to bubble, the lid must be loosened to avoid pressure building up and the glass jar exploding. Storing it in a cool dark location will help to preserve its shelf life. Eating it all up will also avoid the problem 🙂


I hope that you get a taste for Magnolia petals this year and have a try at infusing them in honey, agave syrup, vinegar, vodka or olive oil. This herb is so beautiful, so giving and so tasty – it would be a pity to miss the fun completely wouldn’t it? I was looking at my favourite Magnolia at twilight this evening. It will open its blooms very soon and I will be waiting and thanking it for every petal.


Do you like it?
Please do add a comment about your magnolia experiences at the foot of the page or fill in the contact form. I would love to hear how you get on with magnolia and what else you are keen to learn about!


Urban Herbology Online Apprenticeship
If you want to learn more about foraging and using herbs in towns and cities, take a look at my Apprenticeship Course. I have helped hundreds of wonderful people learn about Urban Herbology over the years and I would love to help you on your journey!

Kombucha – fermented tea drink

Kombucha is something I’m being asked a lot about at the moment.  Here are some of my thoughts and experiences of it and also some links which you may find useful.  Please do let me know what you think of the drink, good or bad.  I’m including it in the Urban Herbology blog because tea (Camelia sinensis) is indeed a herb and Kombucha is another way to process and consume it…

My Kombucha
I make Kombucha in my airing cupboard.  I drink a small amount of Kombucha from a cute Marrocan tea glass most mornings, as I prepare breakfast for my family.  I like my Kombucha on the acidic side and I let some batches ferment so long that a strong vinegar is produced.  I then use the vinegar in cooking or to infuse fresh herbs, in place of apple cider vinegar.  I let my two year old drink a little diluted Kombucha now and then.  I feel it kick starts my system, particularly my digestive system, much as a glass of water with an ample squeeze of lemon juice does.  I don’t drink it close to eating starches as starch digestion occurs optimally in an alkaline environment. I give my Kombucha babies (or mothers or SCOBYs or what ever you like to call them) away periodically so that others can start their own brew. SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.

I don’t think that Kombucha is a panacea for all ills, an elixir of life that will prevent all manner of disorders.  I also don’t think one should drink too much of the stuff, an absence of scientific research doesn’t mean there is anything amiss with Kombucha but I don’t feel that a single food stuff should be consumed copiously.  But I do like it and will continue to brew it, to use it and to share the babies as and when there is interest.

So what is Kombucha?
It’s the drink made when a jelly like bacteria/yeast symbiosis ferments sweet tea.
If you like, you can read more about the specific microbes which have been isolated from kombucha cultures via the links below.

How to make Kombucha?
You will need…
1 large glass or plastic container (2 litre Italian, rubber seal pickling jar from Blokker is perfect)
Kombucha mother/baby/scoby/tea mushroom/ tea monster (or a part of one)
Some good quality loose tea*
Some sugar**
Water, filtered preferably
Rubber band (to fit top of jar)
Very clean teatowel or muslin

*Any tea can be used, black, green, oorlong etc but not what we would call “herb teas” (e.g. rooibos, mint or chamomile).  I use green tea flower bombs, provided periodically by freinds who live in China. I’ve never been a regular tea drinker so green tea gives me the least classic tea taste and I like the result.

**I use organic white or “halfwit” sugar.  I have not experimented with other types of sugar because the guidance I have read from many sources states overwhelmingly that brown/ golden/dark etc sugar gives very inconsistant results.  So I keep a bag of white in stock specifically for my Kombucha.

You’ll find different recipes around and there are whole books on the subject but here’s the way I make it…

1. Boil 1 to 1.5 litre filtered water
2. Fill a large tea pot with the water and add 2 (Numi brand style) tea flowers/bombs.
3. Leave to brew until the water is warm enough to dissolve sugar but cool enough to have a good strong tea inside, and be easy to handle.
4. Pour the tea through a strainer into the large glass jar.
5. Stir about 16 tablespoons of sugar into the strained tea.  It needs to dissolve.  If it doesn’t then heat the water a little or add some freshly boiled water.
6. Leave to cool to body temperature.  I close the lid properly for this part.
7. When cooled, so you don’t cook your live culture, slip in your mother/scoby/baby/tea mushroom/monster and the Kombucha vinegar that it arrived with. It doesn’t matter if the SCOBY floats or sinks, so long as it is in the sweet, tepid tea, it will have what it needs to grow.
8. Place a clean tea towel or similar over the top so the ferment can breathe and secure that with a clean rubber band.  Do not close the jar properly as Kombucha is made aerobically, not anaerobically.
9. Take to a clean, dark and moderately warm environment (my boiler room/airing cupboard works a treat) and leave it for 7 days to 3 weeks.
10.  Check your jar periodically for signs of unwelcome mould growth.
11. The longer you leave it to ferment, the more acidic the Kombucha will become.  So taste the liquid now and then, especially when you are getting familiar with the process.  Find out what you like and make a note of the time required to produce that (although things change).
12. When you are ready to harvest the ferment, get a couple of super clean glass jars ready. Reserve your scoby in about a cup of the ferment  – to start your next batch  – and pour the rest into your bottle for refrigeration and use.  I like to store in used tomato passata bottles – they take up less fridge door space.
13.  The reserved liquid and scoby can be refrigerated for quite some time, the more acidic the liquid, the longer it will keep.
14. After the first ferment or two you will probably see a baby scoby being formed beneath the mother.  It will in time peel off.  This is your symbiotic colonie multiplying so much that it is seeking out a new home.  You can store these babies in acidic/vinegar kombucha for yourself, compost them or give them to an interested friend – with 1/2 cup of Kombucha vinegar.

So that’s how I make it.  If you don’t feel good or confident about the taste then don’t drink it or offer it to others.

Now why do people want to drink it?

Claims about Kombucha
Please be aware that most claims about Kombucha are annecdotal. I’m not aware of any good scientific research about it’s effects or any side effects.  It seems that any problems have resulted from contamination at some stage in production.

The following list, summarises many of the claims to be found on the internet.  You will see many are very attractive and some far fetched.  The list is taken directly from a website called KombuchaKamp.com
*Probiotics – healthy bacteria
*Alkalize the body – balances internal pH
*Detoxify the liver – happy liver = happy mood
*Increase metabolism – rev your internal engine
*Improve digestion – keep your system moving
*Rebuild connective tissue – helps with arthritis, gout, asthma, rheumatism
*Cancer prevention
*Alleviate constipation
*Boost energy – helps with chronic fatigue
*Reduce blood pressure
*Relieve headaches & migraines
*Reduce kidney stones
*High in antioxidants – destroy free-radicals that cause cancer
*High in polyphenols
*Improve eyesight
*Heal excema – can be applied topically to soften the skin
*Prevent artheriosclerosis
*Speed healing of ulcers – kills h.pylori on contact
*Help clear up candida & yeast infections
*Aid healthy cell regeneration
*Reduce gray hair
*Lower glucose levels – prevents spiking from eating

Getting a Kombucha culture
One of the links below has a worldwide list of Kombucha brewers who are often happy to pass on their excess scobies. My kombucha builds up spare SCOBY very regularly – It is an amazing creature!

Join my Kombucha list 
if you would like one and you live in Amsterdam. I’ll send you an email when I have one spare. I’ll swap SCOBY for a small organic herb plant, organic seeds or a little organic chocolate. Don’t worry, I won’t spam you! I just can’t manage the emails otherwise.

Kombucha Links
http://www.naturalpedia.com/Kombucha.html–  informative  and referenced quotes about Kombucha, by natural health / natural lifestyle authors.

www.kombu.de – exchange list, some charge a small fee, others not, some will post the scoby to you, some ask you to collect it in person.

www.wildfermentation.com – I love this website!  The man who runs it (Sandor Ellix Katz), has made learning and teaching about traditional fermentation his life’s work.  He has also published a really wonderful book called Wild Fermentation and has another coming out in the summer (Update: It’s called The Art of Fermentation and is fabulous!). Everything from kefir to fermented rice to kombucha to sour dough containg left over cooked oats… he’s a fermentation activist!

Aftenoon tea (Camellia sinensis)

Tomorrow I shall be joining a few fellow Urban Herbologists in de Hortus Botanicus for a spot of afternoon herb tea tasting.  Each week, two of my friends try a different tea using herbs they have freshly harvested from the Hortus – generally clippings.  As a guide, they use recipes from an old tea book.  Being a one-herb-at-a- time kind of person, I am intrigued to try some of their multi herb brews and wonder what other people prefer to taste in their herb teas.  It also makes me wonder about how far packaged tea has moved away from it’s simple origins.

It seems that the tea plant Camellia sinensis prefers to grow at high altitude in tropical conditions although it can  thrive at low altitudes and temperate conditions.  Many Camellia species are grown in such non-native conditions, for their showy flowers and glossy evergreen leaves. Several Camellias grew in my previous Somerset garden, which was quite sheltered and had acidic soil.  They looked amazing in winter. Camellia sinensis will apparently also do well as a balcony pot plant, provided it can be moved indoors during cold periods.  There is an informative  Wiki page outlining the different cultivars available.

I am now hunting for a small Camellia sinensis plant, or a packet of viable seeds, so that I can try to grow and drink my own Green Tea.  I remember seeing a tea plant in the schools section of de Hortus so hope to find one for sale tomorrow. This photo is of one for sale online, in the Netherlands on Speurders.nl, for €3.  I’m not too sure if it is the real thing however and wouldn’t like to find out that it’s just a decorative Camellia when I taste the tea…

How to prepare homegrown tea leaves for Green Tea
(This is taken from About.com as I haven’t tried this yet. The link contains some very useful information including how to make black tea from your own leaves)

  • Pluck the very youngest leaves and leaf buds (from a healthy plant which is at least three years old).
  • Blot the leaves dry, and let dry in the shade for a few hours.
  • Steam the leaves (like you would vegetables) on your stove for about a minute.
  • For a different flavour, try roasting them in a skillet for 2 minutes instead of steaming.
  • Spread the leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven at 250F for 20 minutes.
  • Store the dried tea leaves in an air-tight container

Herbal Vapours

In the winter I often enjoy burning herbs and recently the spicy scents of Frankincense and Myrrh have been wafting around our apartment.  All of the senses are emotive and can conjure up long forgotten memories but for me the sense of smell is most potent.  The scent of a particular time of year, the plants in bloom, humidity levels and so on, can combine and take me straight back to a unique event or emotion.  Frankincense and Myrrh resin, burned over a candle on a dark winter day, do just that and they make useful room fumigants.  I also enjoy the smell of good quality incense and of several dried herbs as they are directly warmed or gently burned.  I am not a smoker but enjoy the smoking blend mentioned below by adding a little to the top of an aromatherapy oil vapouriser.  In this case and when burning resins, I first cover the top of the vapouriser/burner with a little aluminium foil, it prevents cracking of the ceramic and makes cleaning much easier.

Inhaling herbal vapours allows them to enter the bloodstream and reach the brain quickly.  Care should be taken to select herbs for this purpose wisely and it is best to begin with a very small amount, to see how you react.  Some herbal vapours can quickly lift your spirits, such as Fennel seed.  Others can be relaxing or overstimulating.  If you are feeling exhausted or stressed out, you are more likely to react strongly to inhaled herbs.  Be cautious and respectful of them.

There is a lot of folklore associated with burning herbs. Smudge sticks to cleanse spaces, moon lodges & sweat lodges where herbs are heated over hot stones, herbal fumigation in Chinese traditional medicine and herbal smokes to induce visions in spiritual aspirants are but a few uses for burning herbs.  Sage commonly features in recipes; it burns well and in many cultures is believed to ward off evil. It is often used to “smudge” or cleanse spaces. Some communities burn it in the presence of new born babies, to prevent evil spirits from entering the child’s body via the cut umbilical cord.  Other commonly used herbs are Frankincense, Myrrh, Artemisia spp., Fennel seed, Aniseed and Thuja (Cedar).  I find that gently inhaling the vapours of herbs, feels more healing and natural than using concentrated essential oils.  I am interested to know of your experiences.

If you are interested in making your own incense there is a lovely book by Scott Cunningham which details dozens of recipes. You can see an extract here: Scott Cunningham’s Incense Book
Several years ago I bought a few kilos of hand made incense sticks from Mysore market.  They were apparently rolled from a blend containing honey and sandalwood. They smell absolutely divine, very clean burning with no hint of chemicals (which many commercial versions seen to contain). I only have a few sticks left so will try to find a recipe in the Cunningham book to match it.

Honey cured herbal smoking blend
This is a simple recipe which works well. Just preparing the herbs makes me feel good, warming or burning them feels soothing and a sprinkling of the mix goes well with a few grains of Frankincense and Myrrh.

  1. Powder some fennel seeds (this is tricky without a spice grinder). I do this with a food processor but always end up with two grades of fennel – fine powder and bruised seeds (which is good for tea or bread).
  2. Add 2 teaspoons of fennel powder to 12g of chopped dried sage.  Mix together.
  3. Separately, mix one teaspoon of honey with 4 teaspoons of water.
  4. Gradually add the honey water solution to the herbs.  You will need to rub the solution into the herbs so that they really soak it up evenly.
  5. Stop adding the solution when you feel all of the herbs are damp.
  6. Spread out the damp herb mix in a bowl.
  7. Leave the bowl uncovered (or perhaps covered with a muslin or clean tea towel) for about 48 hours.  Turn the herbs now and then.
  8. When you feel the herbs are almost dry transfer to an airtight container and label.
  9. If you find the mix is too dry for your needs you could add a little more water and shake up in the container OR add a potato peeling or two a few hours before use.  The herbs will absorb the water from the peelings.

Indian Day Dreams

I was day dreaming about being in India this afternoon and rustled up a really tasty drink which helped to transport me back to Mysore. It cleaned the cobwebs from my mind and got me back on my Yoga mat.  You may like to try it…

Lynn’s Ginger Pineapple Cobweb Cleaning Lassi
1 cup Goat’s Yoghurt
4 Pineapple slices (fresh or canned in pure juice)
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon dried or 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

Adjust the quantities to suit your taste buds and mental cobwebs.

Simply blend all the ingredients together and drink!
I’m afraid the photo is not mine as my lassi tasted so good I drank it all before I could reach for my camera.

Lassi is a traditional yoghurt based drink from India, there are lots of variations.  If you request lassi in a restaurant you will be asked if you’d like it “sweet or salty”. My version is definitely sweet and the ginger gives it quite a kick.  Have a look at the Wiki Lassi page for more inspiration.