Hedgerow Medicine – a review of this month’s Plants for Life event

The upper room at Bungay Library was packed with almost 40 people last Sunday for this month’s Plants for Life talk on Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal.  Julie is a practising medical herbalist and Matthew an editor and writer and their book, Hedgerow Medicine, is a treasure store of herbal remedies and recipes you can make at home from wild plants you gather yourself.

The talk took the form of a demonstration and discussion of the different ways of preparing wild plants for medicines, including syrups, ointments, teas, tinctures and floral waters. The first plant was Forget-Me-Not and we looked at the freshly-picked flowers under magnifying glasses so we could see closer to the beauty of these cheerful blue plants. I’d been wondering about forget-me-not’s medicinal qualities (it is not in common use nowadays), because of the profusion of them in the plant medicine bed in the library garden this year. And now here they were introducing the session. The forget-me-not syrup Julie and Matthew passed around to taste was specifically for dry coughs.

They moved gently and unhurriedly through a range of hedgerow herbs, talking about the styptic qualities of yarrow (some of the men present decided we would try it on shaving cuts), the historical uses of St. John’s Wort as a protective plant and  how ribwort plantain can assist with certain allergies.

We also learnt how dandelion can nourish the liver, help with old coughs and even cheer you up. And you can make tasty fritters from the flower heads. We got to taste a ten year old dandelion syrup, which was absolutely delicious. Vintage! And I learned a new word: amphoteric. Applied to herbs such as dandelion, this means that in the body it normalises the function of a system or an organ.

Julie and Matthew work with simples primarily, making tinctures and syrups and teas from one particular plant. For tea this afternoon, they had brought along some ground ivy or alehoof. This clears the sinuses as once it clarified beer. Charlotte found a pot to make the tea – which was astonishingly green.

After tea we looked at some live plants and were invited to guess what they were. One had leaves that recalled spinach, but not quite, and no one guessed it was mandrake, that oldest of medicine plants, steeped in folklore, and related to deadly nightshade and tomatoes. In the old days the story went that if you pulled it up by its roots (which resemble the human body), it screamed and someone would die. So when people wanted it for medicine they would tie their dog to it and the poor dog would have to bear the consequences.

The other plant was Epimedium, a member of the berberis family, also called Horny Goat Weed and used as an aphrodisiac. I thought that was great as long as it didn’t actually turn you into a goat!

Out of all that herbal wealth and floral richness the  piece de resistance must have been the elderflower water. I can’t begin to find an adequate description for the amazing scent of this home-distilled floral water. If anyone else can and they were there please write it in the comments. ‘Wow!’ will have to do for now.

The talk was so relaxed and absorbing it didn’t feel as if a lot was happening, or as if two hours had suddenly gone by. It was only when I was jotting down notes at home later that I realised just how much ground Julie and Matthew had covered in the afternoon and how much knowledge they had shared.

Afterwards I showed Julie and Matthew the library garden and the plant medicine bed and they loved it. It made me feel very proud of Sustainable Bungay and what we’ve brought into being here.

So warm thanks once again to Julie and Matthew for such an engaging Plants for Life session and for answering everyone’s questions.

To order Hedgerow Medicine or other books by Julie-Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal, or to find out more about Julie’s practice as a medical herbalist, visit their  website www.hedgerowmedicine.co.uk. They also run practical herbal classes and are based in Norfolk, about a 40 minute drive from Bungay.