As many who forage for wild food will know, the hedgerows and verges are laden with an abundant harvest of fruit and edible produce at this time of year; literally bent over double with the weight of fruit and berries. But there is another, equally rewarding harvest ripe for the picking over the next month or two – wild medicines that you can gather and use yourself to give you and your family a little extra ‘boost’ through the coming winter.
If you haven’t already done so, now is a very good time to start paying attention to the side of the road or footpath when you are out and about walking. If you stick to the same route and keep looking, you will be amazed by the variety of interesting and useful plants that you notice. This gives an extra dimension to the morning walk to school with the kids, or the evening walk with the dog!
Those interested in foraging and wild food will almost certainly start to be on the lookout for autumn berries such as blackberries and elderberries in the hedgerows, but there is more to see and gather, and process before winter once more cloaks the landscape with its blanket of snow (or rain and mud!).
Let’s start by looking at interesting hedgerow medicine that is ready to harvest now!
From early-autumn onwards, Yarrow (Achillea milefolium) grows abundantly amongst the grass in undisturbed areas such as grass verges, at the foot of hedgerows, and in meadows and grassland. This herb is valuable as part of the traditional ‘winter ills’ infusion of equal parts of yarrow, peppermint, and elderflowers/berries. This blend of herbs can be used to dry up phlegm, break a fever, and give a sensation of coolness, and every family should keep it in, ready for winter colds and ‘flu.
Yarrow, with its characteristic white flowers, and frond-like leaves
While we are on the topic of winter illnesses, now is also a great time to harvest Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), which is easier to gather as the grass dies down after seeding. Plantain can be infused into a very drying tea for helping to clear up catarrh, or can be dried and infused in oil for application to bruises, cuts, and scratches. A most useful herb, despite being one of our most common weeds!
The distinctive berries of Guelder Rose – check if you are unsure you have identified it correctly
As the last days of summer draw to a close, and autumn properly takes hold, the emphasis moves more towards foraging berries and bark. Many of the familiar autumn berries will be familiar, but some of their uses may not.
Take for instance blackberries (Rubus spp.). When desiccated in a cool oven (below 100oC), or dehydrator, they can be brewed in winter as a warming drink that is soothing to the digestion and full of vitamin C. Or they can be made into cordials which can be served warm – these are always a firm favourite with children.
The leaves of the bramble are also toning and drying to the lower digestion – it is well worth drying some for upset bowels. Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are strongly anti-viral immune
stimulants (see www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/medicinal-benefits-elder for more). They are perfect for making syrups or cordials to drink throughout the winter as a prophylaxis against colds: they also taste really nice! They can be dried and used like currants in cooking, or frozen and used as a cooking/desert fruit. Every household should have elderberries in its medicine chest and its kitchen!
The inviting-looking red berries of the hawthorne (Crataegus spp.) are mainly of interest as a medicine, although some do make a jelly from the fruit. Hawthorn berries improve the efficiency of
the circulation and the activity of the heart muscle. This allows blood to get to where it is required more efficiently. It is a nice choice to use alongside spices like ginger as a tea to ease the symptoms of coldness in the extremities, and conditions such as Raynaud’s syndrome. Gather the berries when they are fully and deeply red, and dry them for later use.
As autumn draws to a close, the barks of hedgerow shrubs and trees are one of the last things to be collected. Cut small branches, no thicker than your thumb, and strip the bark with a small, sharp knife. Dry the strips in an airing cupboard or warm place and keep in an airtight jar.
Oak (Quercus spp.) bark when brewed in boiling water makes a good remedy for sore, weak throats. It is full of astringent tannins which toughen up the week, damaged tissues. You can also use the infusion as a wash for bruises, cuts, and thin, weak skin.
Gnarled Willow Bark
Willow (Salix spp.) bark can be stripped and dried in much the same way, and is good as a pain-relieving medicine that is especially suited to muscular aches and pains and rheumatism. Much planted in municipal parks, and along roadside verges, guelder rose or cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) was historically used to ease menstrual cramps, and still finds much value in this use today. It also finds use in treating digestive cramping, muscle spasms, and migraines. When foraging for guelder rose bark, don’t forget it is the bark you need, not the berries, which are mildly toxic (laxative, actually). If you are in any doubt you have the wrong shrub, check with someone who knows, or refer to a book – plenty of things that grow in hedgerows with red berries may be poisonous!
Lastly, after the first frosts have fallen, gather rose hips. They are full of vitamin C and are a great immune system tonic. Rose hip syrup is lovely, and is usually well liked even by the pickiest of children! (See www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/medicinal-benefits-rose-hips for more).
Rose hips, ready for picking after the first frost has ripened them
If nothing else, I dearly hope that you at least look at the hedgerows and verges with new eyes: Not just as a habitat for wildlife, or even a source of lovely wild food, but also as a wondrous wild medicine chest, teaming with fascinating and valuable natural medicines! So get out there, and get gathering…
Summer refreshment, and winter warmers.
The following recipe is for Elderberry Cordial but the recipe can easily be adapted to use other herbs, fruits and berries.
5 oz fresh elderberies *
2 lb sugar
2 lemons: grated, squeezed, and cut into small pieces.
1 oz citric ccid *
3 pints of cold, boiled water.
Remove the berries from the stems, and place in a pan. Add the sugar, lemons and citric acid. Cover with water and bring to the boil; simmer for about 15 minutes. Strain through muslin, bottle in clean, sterilised, air tight bottles. Dilute to taste as needed.
* Alternatively, you can use 1 1/2 oz dried elderflower, elderberries or other dried herbs or fruits.
** This is often available at smaller chemists/pharmacists in rural areas and villages; however in towns it is often unavailable due to its use by injecting drug users. If it is problematic to find it in the shops, it is easily available online from Amazon and similar shopping sites.
Dafydd Monks holds a degree in Western Herbal Medicine, and is a practitioner and herbal medicine educator. He is a fervent advocate of empowering people to make simple medicines at home and use them to treat minor health complaints. Comments can be left below, alternatively, relevant comments or questions may be emailed to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information: www.sbm-cymru.co.uk
The standard dose of all the medicines mentioned in this article when dried is 5g or 1-2tsp. This may be taken up to three times a day as an infusion. Obviously the edible berries and the like will often be consumed in much greater numbers, this is fine! When gathering herbs, do not collect from areas that are likely to be polluted, such as besides busy roads. Gather when conditions are dry, ideally on a sunny day. The herbs mentioned in this article can all be preserved by drying in a warm, dry place until crisp. They may then be stored in airtight jars out of the reach of sunlight. Lastly, if you are in any doubt about using any of these wild medicines, consult your GP or a MMdical Herbalist as to whether they are appropriate for you and your health.
More on medicinal plants: www.permaculture.co.uk/search/node/medicinal