Friday 8 June 2012

Planting Medicine with Transition Belsize

On a hot Friday at the end of May I packed two cardboard boxes with ribwort plantain, vervain, peppermint, hoary willowherb, tobacco, japanese mugwort, valerian, dandelion and forget-me-not in pots along with a posy of cut wildflowers. strapped them onto a trolley and went to London on the bus and train. I was heading for Belsize Park in north London to teach a workshop the following day on Planting Medicine as part of Transition Belsize's new Royal Free Permaculture Garden project above the carpark of the hospital, part of the Heath Strange garden.

As well as creating an edible forest garden with heritage fruit trees and bushes, the group were keen to include plants used in medicine, especially as the site is in the grounds of the hospital.

This is where I came in. On a weekend visit to us in the spring, Alexis and Sarah of the permaculture garden's co-ordinating group, invited me down to kick start the medicinal part of the bed and teach a workshop introducing people to some of our wild and cultivated medicine herbs.

I was delighted. One of my favourite activities is inspiring people to connect with the plants and places where they live. Because everyone has access to plants. We’ve been co-habiting the earth with them since the beginning, so it’s kind of natural.

In fact the more you look at it, the more it becomes clear that our lives are inextricably linked with plants. No plants, no life.

How does this relate to Transition? Just connecting with the places we are in and the plants growing there can increase our well-being in really positive ways. And it can open up conversations with others which might not otherwise take place. Growing plants as food forms a fundamental part of Transition. And foraging for wild food is popular too. Less explored are plants as medicine, both wild and cultivated.

Food and medicine are directly linked to our well-being and many plants double up as both. Some of our favourite cooking herbs are also excellent medicines. Thyme tastes great in omelettes and with roast vegetables and thyme tea is an excellent anti-microbial with a salutory effect on the lungs.

Then there are some plants which just don’t serve as food. Digitalin from foxgloves is an unrivalled medicine in certain heart diseases, but foxglove leaves in salads WOULD NEVER be advised. Foxgloves also cheer the heart as one of our most stunning wildflowers.

In the beginning my main focus was on wild plants, in particular those termed as 'weeds'. The more I considered the real value of these dismissed, neglected and even abused plants, the more astonishing they became. You could spend a year or more just working with dandelions and still not get everything about them down.

In the past people would look at me uncomprehendingly or even in panic as I extolled the scouring virtues of horsetail or the lymph cleansing nature of cleavers and suggest they leave at least some to grow. "Oh no, no. NOT IN MY GARDEN!" seemed to etch itself across their faces. “Nettles? Nettles?!?”

Ah, but did you know nettles are a primary food source for some of the most beautiful butterflies in this country? And they make great soup. And fertiliser. They fortify and galvanise a sluggish system after the winter. They are used to make cloth. They help purify the liver. They sting of course. But then there's likely to be some ribwort plantain around, one of our most common wild plants. Squeeze a leaf and apply the juice to the stung area. Many people prefer plantain to the more traditional dock leaves for nettle stings.

And this brings me back to the Planting Medicine workshop at the Royal Free Permaculture Garden the Saturday before last.

On the train I was worried that the site would be too open and bare. It was hot. We couldn’t all walk around in the heat for hours, otherwise we’d end up inside the hospital with heatstroke or sunburn - and I had no infused oil of St. Johns wort with me!

“Well, there are some trees,” said Sarah. “On the green beside the bed.” We walked there the evening before and there they were. Birch trees. We would sit under the shade of the biggest one. That would be the focal point for the workshop.

“I don’t dare look in the plant boxes,” I said. “After all that travel and heat through the hottest part of the day. Plus the underground at rush hour.” When I did look though I found all the plants, from the plantain to the valerian and even the sprigs of white deadnettle, lemon balm and ground ivy, almost as spritely as when I’d packed them six hours previously.

About twenty people came to the workshop, including foragers, gardeners, aromatherapists, permaculturists, horticulturalists and people keen to get more connected with plants. Oh, and my dad.

We sat under the birch in a circle and I jettisoned all six of the possible templates I’d worked out for the workshop, put the ribwort plantain in front of me and we went from there. Beginning with the tree were we sitting under, and introducing ourselves.

Over the coming hours we looked at the plants I'd brought along for the medicinal herb part of the garden and discussed (sic)* their various uses as well as investigating the garden itself. I asked everyone to pay particular attention to any plant they felt drawn to in the bed and on or around the green. Then we visited each plant in turn all together to identify them and talk about their medicinal properties.

One woman chose groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). I had no idea whether this very humble and common composite had ever been used as a herb or if so what for. But later I discovered in Culpeper's herbal it was at one time used for epilpesy. It is still used nowadays but has contraindications. This is the entry for it in Plants for a Future database.

We were joined at one point by a woman called Joy, who knew a huge amount about medicine plants. About ribwort plantain she said that at the start of any cold sore, the simple poultice of a crushed leaf applied will deal with it.

What I loved about the day was not only being able to speak out some of what I've learned in these years of working with plants, but also to learn new things from other people. And also sitting under a birch tree on a warm sunny morning with a whole group of people who really engaged in the subject.

Tomorrow I'll be closer to home, writing about my recent visit to Jeremy Bartlett, who was responsible for the planting up of Grapes Hill Community Garden in Norwich and is now helping to revamp the garden at the Belvedere Centre. I bet you can't guess what we were talking about.

*discussive refers in herbal medicine to the action of making something dissolve

Pics: Plants on a trip, Reydon bus stop, May 2012, Suffolk; Planting Medicine workshop poster by Sarah Nicholl and Alexis Rowell of Transition Belsize in local newsagents; Plant Medicine bed in Bungay library community garden, June 2012; Picking Nettles for Soup after the Spring Tonic walk Reydon, April 2009**; Ribwort Plantain in flower outside the back door; Connecting with people, place and medicine plants under the Birch tree in the Heath Strange garden next to the Royal Free (hospital) Permaculture Garden, London, May 2012*** By Mark Watson, **Helen Simpson and ***Sarah Nicholl


  1. I got stung on the neck by a solitary wasp today in a shop (it must have flown onto my shirt outside).

    I came home, crushed and applied some ribwort plantain leaf to the sting. It stopped hurting immediately.

  2. Yesterday I stuck my head into a patch of wildflowers in the garden and didn't see the nettles, which promptly stung my forehead.

    Remedy: Crushed ribwort plantain leaf. Immediate relief!