By Juliette Bryant, nutritional consultant.
The other day, I received a distressed call from a friend in need of help. Her daughter had cut her lip open really badly on an obstacle course. Due to the location of the wound, the doctors were unable to do much except tell her to keep the child quiet and still so the injury could heal.
As a result, she called me for advice and I knew just the thing. For years, since my first child was small in fact, I have made healing balm, which I carry around with me at all times in case of emergencies. I cannot count the times this little pot of ointment has come to the rescue, helping to stop deep cuts from bleeding, healing minor grazes, easing dry lips, relieving insect bites, soothing headaches and treating sunburn to name but a few uses.
It is worth remembering in this context that we all have a veritable cornucopia of natural plant remedies on our doorsteps. Indeed, some common plants like calendula, the star of this article, have been used for thousands of years.
But a big breakthrough in understanding medicinal plants in this country came with the development of monastic herb gardens. Monks would grow a wide variety of medicinal plants, with some using up to 500 species for both food and medicine. In fact, in monastic or castle gardens, everything not recorded as a fruit tree was considered an herb as plants were believed to facilitate both good health and good taste.
Today, however, most of us have forgotten this ancient wisdom and limit our use of herbs to a sparse few. So why did this knowledge of herbal lore almost disappear?
A major cause was the persecution of anyone using herbs and branding them as a witch. What was done to the wise women of the seventeenth century by fanatical zealots, especially in East Anglia, is a shocking story.
Herbalists and healers
Because East Anglia was the playground of the notorious ‘Witchfinder General’ and was synonymous with witch hunts. At a time when Puritanism was at its peak and the 1603 Witchcraft Act was still in force, local parishes paid Matthew Hopkins to find and try witches, who were all too often single, older women working as healers, herbalists and midwives – or who simply ended up as scapegoats.
Although we live in more enlightened times now, knowledge of how to use plants medicinally is still restricted and censored to this day. But the word is starting to get out now helped by advocates such as James Wong with his wonderful book and TV show, ‘How To Grow Your Own Drugs’.
Herbs such as mint, coriander, tansy and marjoram are native to the UK. But their bounty was supplemented by the Romans who, on invading these shores, brought with them spices such as ginger, pepper and cinnamon, and herbs like borage, chervil, dill, fennel, lovage, sage and thyme, all of which are still part of the average British kitchen.
Calendula or pot marigold is also a very versatile plant and has a long history of use. Linked to the Virgin Mary, it was included in many 14th century recipes to help fight the plague. The ancient Egyptians likewise honoured it for its rejuvenating properties, while Hindus still use it to adorn their altars.
The plant, which has also traditionally been used for culinary purposes, was colloquially known as ‘poor man’s saffron’ and employed both to adorn salads and dye clothes. Its flowers were engaged for everything from reducing inflammation and calming nappy rash and angry skin such as eczema to soothing cuts and grazes and relieving bed sores, ulcers and varicose veins.
So if you would like to make a simple calendula-based healing balm of your own to act as an invaluable first aid tool, here is a great recipe:
300ml of olive oil or coconut oil (or a combination of both)
1 cup of calendula flowers
2 sprigs of lemon balm
½ cup of lavender flowers
1 head of rose petals
½ cup camomile flowers
3 tbsp of bees or candelilia wax (the vegan option)
10 drops of lavender oil
Place the oil and flowers into a saucepan and put on a very low heat to simmer slowly for 20 minutes, never allowing the mixture to boil. Alternatively, you can place the flowers and the oil into a glass jar and leave to steep for six weeks.
When done, strain the oil from the flowers and discard them. Put the oil back into the pan with your wax and allow it to melt gently on a low heat. When all of the wax is melted, add 10 drops of lavender oil and pour the mixture into glass jars to set. It will last up to a year.
Juliette Bryant is an author, nutritional consultant, superfood chef and presenter who runs courses, talks, workshops and retreats around the world. Her passion is helping people to thrive by showing them how to make delicious and healthy food. Juliette runs a busy practice providing nutritional consultations to individuals and businesses worldwide.