Today we have the honour of introducing you to the queen of herbalism herself Lucy of The Myrobalan clinic in Castle Cary. I met Lucy when I first moved to Dorset about 10 years ago and she has been supporting my health ever since.
What I love most is Lucy’s close relationships and intimate knowledge of the plants themselves which she has nurtured through foraging and growing them herself. Unlike a lot of herbalists, she creates her own powerful tinctures.
I was often told that the herbs that grow around us are the ones we most need and those grown in hotter countries are the most powerful just as plant dyes grown in hotter countries provide brighter colours. Is there any truth in this?
In general, I love the idea that our local environment offers us everything we need to be healthy. It’s true that the plants which grow around us are very often the ones that are best suited to our constitution but then there’s also the situation where a herb suddenly appears when we need it. Let me give you a few examples:
One of my patients was establishing a new garden and found that a huge amount of Shepherd’s Purse sprung up where the soil had been cultivated. A few months later she realised that she needed fresh Shepherd’s Purse to help resolve heavy menstrual bleeding. Shepherds Purse is amazing at treating excessive bleeding, whether that’s post partum or heavy menstrual bleeding but to be most effective it must be prepared with fresh plant. This person was able to gather fresh Shepherd’s Purse for teas and it really helped her.
An elderly patient found Eyebright in her field after many years of it not growing there. That same season she developed quite irritated sore eyes and was able to make an Eyebright eye wash which she described as a ‘life saver’.
One last example, a patient of mine was a very keen gardener who liked to grow vegetables, herbs and fruit. He never used chemicals but always kept everything weed free and tidy. One evening, I was just packing up to go home from my clinic and he rang me complaining of a sudden painful urinary tract infection. He wanted to avoid antibiotics so I suggested that the best thing to help him was Couch grass, however I realised it was unlikely that he would have any growing in his garden. He said: “On the contrary, I do actually have a patch of Couch which has sprung up this year and I decided to leave it”. He harvested some rhizomes and made a tea straight away. Within two days he was absolutely fine.
There are lots of stories like this. I love that they illustrate the value of noticing and having a relationship with the plants around us.
Having said all of this, I also feel that having some herbal influences from further afield can be very helpful when needed. As someone who’s also trained in Tibetan Medicine, I like to prescribe spicy medicines such as Cardamom, Cloves, Chilli and Ginger alongside locally grown medicines.
It's very interesting that you say plant dyes grown in hotter countries are brighter. I hadn’t really thought about that before but yes of course that really makes sense. There’s a stronger element of ‘fire’ in plants grown in hot climates and one of the qualities of the fire element is having or resulting in a stronger colour.
There are lots of herbalists out there and thankfully it is growing in interest.
What makes your herbalism unique?
Goodness, that’s quite a question! I think that in general, herbal medicine is very much about the relationship between practitioner, patient and the herbs. There’s a very special alchemy that happens when these three things come together. For that reason, you can say that all herbal practitioners offer a unique approach. We all share the objective of treating people with herbal medicine but within that there’s a lovely range of therapeutic approaches. This is wonderful because it means that patients can choose a practitioner that really resonates with them and helps them to feel comfortable in their health journey.
Re my herbalism being unique, I suppose you could say that my own way of working is unusual because the majority of the herbs that I prescribe have been grown or gathered by me, and all of the herbs I prescribe have been processed by hand into medicines. There’s a lot of care and mindfulness which goes into the process from seed to medicine and it’s an absolute joy to work in this way.
Another unique point is that, although I’m a western herbal practitioner based in the west, my approach is also very strongly influenced by Tibetan medicine. Tibetan medicine is a beautiful and sophisticated system based on a deep appreciation of interconnectedness and respect for the Earth and the medicines which come from it. In Tibetan Medicine it’s actually considered unethical to prescribe medicines to patients if lifestyle and dietary factors haven’t been addressed first. I think that this is very wise since it helps patients to truly understand how to stay well. In my clinic, herbal treatment is most often a temporary support whilst a patient makes the required lifestyle changes. This approach means that patients don’t become dependent on a herbalist or their medicines. It also means that the herbs are at less risk of being over exploited. When I say ‘over exploited’, I’m thinking about when people take a scarce herb daily to prop up an unsustainable lifestyle. If someone is taking a scarce herb like Slippery Elm or Goldenseal every day because it allows them to continue to live a lifestyle which basically makes them ill, this exploits their body as well as the ecology of our planet. A small change in lifestyle or diet could make all the difference to their health and it could reduce their need to contribute to over harvesting of scarce or protected species.
Your second book: ‘A Working Herbal Dispensary – Respecting Herbs as Individuals’ is due out in May. It’s about the virtues of herbs themselves and you talk about getting people to know herbs as individuals rather than lists of 'what they do'.
Clearly you have a strong relationship with each of the herbs you gather and prescribe. How do you build and deepen the relationship you have with the plants you work with?
I think it’s inevitable that, when we grow, gather and process our own herbal medicines, we can’t help but to build a deep connection with them. It’s not even a conscious thing, it just happens as though the herb has seeped into our very being. For example, if you’ve spent many hours picking Calendula flowers in the right weather conditions, carefully laying them onto drying trays, tending them to make sure that they’re dried properly and then storing them in a way that ensures their medicinal constituents are preserved, you inevitably really care about them making a difference and not being wasted.
Also, when we work with herbs regularly, we’re constantly blown away by how amazingly positive their influence can be. These plant beings really change people’s lives. Once we start to see that, we have to respect them as beings in their own right, as opposed to objects which can be ‘used’ to treat certain health conditions.
I do sometimes sit with my herbs and I keep a contemplative herbal journal. I do feel that this deepens my relationship with them and it often brings new insights but honestly the majority of my herbal relationship building activities are just through working with herbs day in and day out. We’ve formed quite a team over the years.
What is your favourite plant or herbal combination and why?
I don’t have favourites as I love all of my herbs but I will tell you about one wonderful combination that I prescribe quite often. That is Rose and Hawthorn. These are both members of the Rose family and share a calming and uplifting quality which can be very helpful for patients who are in the process of working through a bereavement or digesting a past trauma. In these cases, the pressure to try and put on a brave face or to carry on with normal life responsibilities can lead to the grief or trauma being held in their bodies rather than being processed gradually. Sometimes this situation of holding grief can last for many years and people may be unaware of how much is still ‘stuck’.
Rose petals have a longstanding association with gladdening the heart as well as gently supporting the liver. Hawthorn is well known as a herb which helps to support the physical heart but in doing so it also helps the heart area to release emotional trauma and grief. When prescribing this combination, I choose Rose petals and Hawthorn blossom either as a tea or in capsule form. It’s quite extraordinary to see how they gently support people in navigating this difficult and challenging emotional terrain. The change is gradual and steady, it doesn’t suppress our feelings but it I holds our hands while we face them. I’ve lost count of the times that, after taking a course of this pair of herbs, patients have told me “I’d forgotten what it was like to feel spontaneously happy and now I sing to myself whilst I’m walking the dog or working in the garden.”
For the people out there who feel empowered to start their own herbal first aid cabinet at home what is your advice? Where can they start?
Ooooh this is a great question! There’s so much scope to make herbs a central part of a home first aid cabinet. I would suggest that the best thing to do is to be curious about the herbs which grow in your area and find out which virtues they have. There are plenty of resources online and lots of herbal books to choose from.
For example, if you have Plantain leaves (Plantago lanceolata or Plantago major) growing in your garden, you have a fabulous first aid plant right there. It’s perfect for insect bites and stings, blisters, burns and cuts. It can be applied as a poultice or you can make it into an ointment or salve. You can also drink it as a tea to help soothe inflammation in the gut, urinary tract or to help calm an irritated cough.
To start with the herbs that are growing in your area means that you can properly get to know them, see them growing and observe them at different growth stages. You can easily research their properties and see how they can fit into your home first aid cabinet. It’s about understanding their many virtues not just categorising them as ‘this herb is used for that situation’.
As well as being curious about the herbs growing in your locality, I would also suggest learning about the medicinal virtues of common kitchen spices. These are a great resource as they are readily available and a handy first aid option if you are away from your home apothecary. So, Caraway seed is a great option to calm diarrhoea and to relieve griping. Garlic is a powerful natural antibiotic and Nutmeg can be helpful to encourage better sleep.
I’m so passionate about encouraging people to build up their own home herbal apothecary that I’ve included lots of ‘recipes for the home apothecary’ in my new book.
What are your favourite books on herbalism?
I absolutely love Matthew Wood’s “The Book of Herbal Wisdom”. I think I’ve read it from cover to cover more than a dozen times and every time I read it, I learn something new. Writing this answer has made me want to pick it up again!
I also love the old herbals and I often refer to Culpeper for example. There are loads of wonderful more modern herbal books too. I have far too many of them. If you’re confused as to which book to choose I recommend having a look at the Aeon Books catalogue for inspiration as they have a great selection and good descriptions to help you decide.
You have a training in forestry and agriculture. How has this knowledge helped you as a herbalist?
It does seem an odd career move to go from large scale plant production to being a small scale herbal practitioner but looking back on it I can see how much my agricultural and forestry training has influenced me and helped me as a herbalist. I feel very fortunate in that I’ve been taught about soils and ecosystems so I find it easy to ‘read’ the landscape and predict where certain medicinal plants are likely to be found. I was also taught about hay making. The knowledge I gained from understanding how to dry and produce good quality hay, really influenced my understanding about how best to dry herbs. I realised early on that many of the commercially available dried herbs are not well dried and have lost much of their potency. I understood what had contributed to these problems and I was confident that I could produce vibrant well dried and potent herbs. I got my first dehydrator and started the process of learning how best to achieve that. Producing good quality vibrant herbs was one of the main drivers of me starting to be more self-sufficient in the herbs that I prescribed.
Before you go.
How important do you feel it is for us to reconnect to our herbal heritage on a global level?
I think that this is incredibly important. Three quarters of people in the world rely on herbal medicine for their primary health care. For herbs to support these people in perpetuity we need to safeguard both traditional herbal knowledge and the habitats that support plants being gathered for medicine. Even in so called ‘developed countries’ there’s a great need to be more sustainable in our health choices. A culture of preventive medicine and home herbal apothecaries will help to keep people healthier and will take some pressure off our healthcare systems. Imagine if more families were able to turn to herbal medicine for some of the common health conditions that crop up. This would reduce pressure on GP’s and lessen the cost and environmental impact associated with our over reliance on allopathic medicines.
I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that we should completely replace the allopathic healthcare model though. Not at all! I’m very glad to live in a country where we have access to amazing high tech healthcare when we need it. Wouldn’t it be lovely though if more people felt empowered and able to stay healthier through their daily lifestyle and dietary choices and by knowing which herbs to take when they need support? Connecting with our herbal heritage could help us to keep episodes of ill health as just temporary ‘blips’ rather than them evolving into more serious and debilitating chronic diseases.
Herbal medicine is natural medicine and traditional medicine. When we connect with it and take care of it we are taking care of our precious planet.
You can find Lucy at www.myrobalanclinic.com