Aromatherapy Week // Top 5 essential oils to have at home

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Aromatherapy is the name used to describe the use of essential oils for remedial and therapeutic purposes, of which there are many! Like herbs, one of the amazing benefits of aromatherapy is the holistic effect it has on both the mind and body - as the healing qualities of the oils impact the physical body, the scent interacts with us mentally.

All essential oils come from all different plant sources - spices, herbs, flowers, trees or vegetables. They are completely natural, organic compounds aptly named ‘essential’ due to the fact they contain both the scent of their source and its unique healing properties, in a highly concentrated form. Aromatherapy and the use of essential oils can be incorporated into daily life in a variety of ways, much like the versatility of herbs!

Inhalation: either in an oil burner, electric diffuser or even directly from a tissue. A steam inhalation is also a great way to relieve colds and coughs and clear any sinus congestion.

In the bath or shower:  You can add up to 20 drops of your chosen essential oils to a warm bath for the desired effect; to promote restful sleep, soothe aching muscles, invigorate and energise, help period pain and stomach ache or even ease a hangover. If you don’t have a bath, you could mix essential oils with a base vegetable oil (like coconut oil) and apply it to your body before getting in the shower.

As a body treatment: Similarly, you can dilute essential oils in a carrier oil and use as a daily hydration treatment or skin moisturiser. For a 50ml face oil, use 12-15 drops and for a 50ml body oil, 25-30 drops.

Massage: While an aromatherapy massage from a professional therapist is a wonderful indulgence, self-massage is an incredible way to feel the benefits of essential oils at home for free. You can personalise the oils you use to enhance your mood or relieve areas of tension. Taking just 5 minutes (or more whenever you can!) to mindfully massage your feet, hands, face or area requiring attention will allow you to unwind both mentally and physically.

Top 5 essential oils to have at home and their key uses:

Lavender. Certainly the oil that almost everyone is familiar with, Lavender has extensive uses for health, wellbeing and first aid. It can be applied direct to the skin and can be used topically to treat minor burns, acute sunburn, cuts, insect bites and blemishes. A must have for every household, it is one powerful oil. Renowned for its relaxing, soothing properties, it can help you get to sleep, relax aching muscles, relieve period pain, headaches and migraines, and can be used to soothe stress, anxiety and depression. Like the plant, there are many types of lavender oil and it can be produced in many countries as it grows pretty much everywhere, although France is generally considered the best source for quality lavender essential oil.

Tea Tree. Another valuable oil with a multitude of uses, tea tree has been used for centuries and you’ll often spy it as an ingredient in everything from bathroom cleaner to  face cream to throat medicine. Commonly grown in Australia, it is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic and can fight pretty much any kind of bacteria, virus or fungi. Tea tree can also be applied directly to heal cuts and wounds and treat skin infections, and it is brilliant for acne and spots. You can diffuse it around the home or office to ward off illness or inhale to treat a cold or cough. Tea tree is also a useful oil in homemade shampoo or hair products.

Peppermint. The essential oil has many of the same properties as the herb itself. Generally it is best to avoid consumption of any essential oils and stick to the herb form for tea and culinary recipes but the oil has plenty of beneficial use. The stimulating oil has a cooling effect - apply to the forehead and temples to prevent or aid travel sickness, and massage in circular motions to the stomach to treat bloating, PMS or nausea. For tired feet and legs, it’s great in a homemade foot bath with some epsom salt. It can also be used alone or in combination with lavender to alleviate headaches - particularly tension headaches or those brought on from stress. It has fantastic antispasmodic properties, so works wonders on muscle and joint pain - great post exercise. Inhaling it can also clear the sinuses and even help with hayfever or seasonal allergies.

Lemon. Probably the most commonly used out of the citrus oils, this is another ingredient you’ll often see used frequently in household products. Lemon is perhaps best known for its cleansing abilities - from clearing out toxins in the body to naturally cleaning a kitchen! It is also naturally energising, and great as a mood booster when you’re feeling drained, mentally or physically. It’s a highly effective oil for concealing bad smells such as smoke or animals in the home or car. Use alone or with tea tree in an oil burner or diffuser, as an antibacterial room freshener or you could make your own cleaning spray. Like herbs, there are a variety of lemon oils out there. ‘Melissa’ AKA lemon balm, is one of the most powerful oils in treating depression, due to its simultaneously hypnotic and sedative properties.

Rosemary. Again with similar properties to the herb, rosemary oil is praised for its ability to improve memory, soothe digestion and relax muscle aches and pains. It’s also a great oil for hair as it promotes growth and imparts shine. Applied directly to the scalp, it stimulates growth and can also soothe dandruff and dry scalp. For shiny hair, you can make your own rosemary water to spray the hair daily or rinse it with rosemary oil after washing. You could even make your own shampoo and conditioner. Rosemary is one of the best oils for treating a hangover! Add 5-10 drops to a warm bath the morning after the night before for a little pick-me-up.  

Herbs in June

June is a pretty magical time of the year, the days are really long, plants grow at an astounding rate and there's an explosion of colour as flowers of the most diverse shapes and shades come into season.

 Top row l-r, Mallow, Lavender, Lime flower, Lady's Mantle. Centre, Rose. Bottom row l-r, Chamomile, Pot Marigold,  Mint, St. John's Wort

Top row l-r, Mallow, Lavender, Lime flower, Lady's Mantle. Centre, Rose. Bottom row l-r, Chamomile, Pot Marigold,  Mint, St. John's Wort

HARVEST

Plants in the mint family like lemon balm, oregano, and all types of mint can be harvested pretty hard and will quickly grow back, so don't be afraid to do it regularly. Lavender has started flowering and the first blossoms should be ready to harvest soon, so keep an eye out. The best time to harvest lavender is when about 75% of the flowers on the blooms are open.

Keep on harvesting pot marigold and chamomile flowers regularly. The more flowers you remove, the more the plant will produce. Harvest the unripe seeds of sweet cicely. They are delicious in teas, cold infusions, or simply as a refreshing treat to chew on. st. john's wort is traditionally picked around St John's day on 24th June, so look out for those precious yellow flowers towards the end of the month.

Another medicinal flower that should be ready to harvest from mid June is linden, also known as limeflower. The linden tree is considered sacred and an important icon in the mythology and folklore of many cultures. The flowers have an array of health benefits and are widely used in herbalism.

Other lovely flowers to harvest in June are rose, lady’s mantle and honeysuckle. Feverfew is also in full bloom at the moment. Although the part used is actually the leaf, it is best harvested when the plants are flowering. Try to never take more than one third of the plant at a time, so it can recover and stay healthy.

And don't forget you can use your weeds! Now it is a good time to collect plantain leaves, blackberry leaves, horsetail, and mallow flowering tops. Nettles have started flowering, so it's no longer a good idea to consume the leaves, but we will soon be able to harvest the seeds.

MAKE

Use the abundance of wonderful plants growing at the moment in food, fresh teas, cold infusions, herb vinegars and other herb extracts, and dry some for use later in the year when there's less fresh stuff around.

Now that the weather has warmed up, it's a great time to make sun-infused oils. Why not try infusing pot marigold or st john's wort flowers in oil for use in balms and other skin products? Simply put the flowers in a jar, cover with your oil of choice, and leave it on a sunny windowsill for four weeks to infuse.

IN THE GARDEN

Now it is the perfect time to take softwood cuttings of perennial herbs, like mint, lemon balm, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and lemon verbena. It is also a great time to cut back chive plants. Once they have finished flowering, cut back to about an inch above the soil level, keep them watered and they’ll bounce back with tender new shoots.

Make sure your plants have enough water throughout the warm season, especially those growing in pots, where the soil dries out much quicker. The best time to water is early morning or late afternoon when the plants are not in direct sun. 

Put a bowl of fresh water out in your garden to serve as a birdbath and supply drinking water for birds and insects. This can help our little wild friends cope with the heat of the summer days.

If last year you grew plants that self-seed easily, some areas of your garden or pots might be a bit overcrowded at the moment. Transplant some of the plants to another location or pot them on to give to friends. And in the same way that the plants we want to harvest are putting on a lot of new growth, so are all sorts of other weeds. Keep on top of them to avoid overcrowding and competition for water and nutrients in your pots and herb beds.

SOW

Sow annual and/or fast growing herbs like basil, shiso, dill, summer savoury, parsley and coriander. Coriander tends to bolt quickly when grown this time of the year, but although you get a short harvest window for the leaves, the flowers and seeds that follow are also great! There's also still time to sow seeds for edible and medicinal flowers like borage, pot marigold, zinnia, viola, sunflowers and nasturtiums.

INNER GARDENING

The garden is also a wonderful reflection of what’s going on in our lives; herbs aren’t the only things that grow and blossom, we do too! Here are some questions to consider around how June can be used to support your body, heart and mind alongside your pots, plots and gardens this month:

Lots of new, colourful, abundant growth is coming through this month, what can be celebrated in your life? What joys do you have? Bigger ones and smaller everyday ones? Could there be something new to take joy in? Noticing the smell of fresh blossom on your way to work? Spotting the elderflower in bloom from the train?

We have sown seeds for the last few months and now know what has germinated and what didn’t do so well. Are there any areas of your life, work or relationships that have healthy shoots of new growth and areas that aren’t growing in the way you’d hoped? Just naming and knowing what these are can be really supportive to shifting them later in the season if change is needed.

Some herbs, like calendula and chamomile, have better harvests the more attention you give them. Are there any small acts of self care you can do to support your growth? Think tiny and do-able. Drink more water as the weather heats up? Reach for your toes regularly to stretch out your legs and back? Turn your phone off for an afternoon? Tell yourself ‘I’m doing a wonderful job at this...’ each day for a week?

June is a month of fast growth but also the time plants are settling, finding their roots and getting established. What would it be like to stop, feel your feet on the earth and take a deep breath at some point this month?

Taking a moment to stop and be in our bodies and nature makes a huge difference to our mental, emotional and physical health, which in turn will support the growth and harvest in your garden. If just one of these suggestions speaks to you try it out and, to finish with a final gardening metaphor, see what blossoms...

Words - Camila B & Amy B // Pictures - Camila B

The beauty of Elderflower // How to make elderflower cordial

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Written by Hackney Herbal trainee Amy.

The blossoming of the Elder tree (Sambucus nigra) marks the beginning of summer. Elder's sweet white flowers come into bloom from late May and bring with them the promise of sunshine, long, warm evenings, abundance and harvest. Having been used for centuries, elderflower has a rich history in folklore and is still used by herbalists, foragers and plant lovers today. For us, making Elderflower cordial from this sacred tree is a celebration of all that has been in the dark of winter and all the warmth and light summer promises.

Native to the British Isles, Elderflower was once called The Queen of Herbs and The Elder Mother. It was said to be polite to ask her permission before cutting the tree down and was often hung above doors and planted around homes for protection. Traditionally all parts of the tree were used, from making furniture and dying clothes to treating inflammation, sickness, arthritis, insect bites and grief. It is said the famous physician Boerhaave didn't pass an Elder tree without tipping his hat to its many healing properties! Modern herbalists use its flowers in summer for hay fever and the berries in autumn and winter as protection against colds and flu and to support immunity (recipes to come!). The elder is a wonderful example of a plant that supports us with different properties as the seasons change and we become susceptible to different illnesses. 

For the next few weeks, a delicious aromatic cordial can be made from these beautiful flowers. It is easy to make and foraging for it along London's canals, parks and green spaces is an opportunity to notice the abundance of wilderness and nature around us. Pick the flower head in the morning on a dry day (preferably from higher up the tree where no animal or human has got to it!). Forage sustainably by only taking a small amount from each tree so there’s enough flowers to turn into berries in autumn and remember to ask its permission first! Happy and responsible foraging and let us know how you go on facebook and instagram.

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Recipe:

  • 25-30 elderflower heads
  • 1.5 litres boiling water
  • 600g caster sugar
  • 4 tablespoons of honey  
  • 3 unwaxed lemons
  • 2 unwaxed oranges
  • 40g citric acid (This is to help the cordial keep longer, I prefer not to use this and instead freeze it in ice cubes or plastic bottles and defrost anytime within a year)

To make:

  1. Gently wash off any bugs from your foraged elderflower heads

  2. Pour the boiling water into a large bowl or pan, add the sugar and stir until it dissolves and leave to cool

  3. Slice the lemons and oranges and put them into the sugary water

  4. Add citric acid if using

  5. Submerge all flowers head down into the water

  6. Leave in a cool place for 24 hours stirring once or twice

  7. Strain though a muslin cloth, tea towel or any clean cotton material and transfer to sterilised glass bottles or plastic bottles for the freezer

  8. Enjoy this delicious sweet cordial with ice, water or added to cocktails!  

 Words and images Amy Birtles.

Herb Highlight // Lemon balm

Botanical name: Melissa officinalis

Native to: S. Europe, Asia and North Africa. Naturalised in Britain.

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It's always a joy to see lemon balm springing back to life, a gentle reassurance that spring is definitely here! It is a herb that has always been associated with raising spirits and lifting the heart.The Arabian herbalist Avicenna (980-1037) said that Lemon balm "causeth the mind and heart to be merry". Recent research has shown that it can be an effective remedy for anxiety, depression and insomnia owing to its mild sedative properties. It's also a great herb for bees which go wild for its small white flowers and its botanical names is derived from the Greek word Melissa which means 'bee'. 

Our favourite way to enjoy lemon balm is in a hot infusion but you can also preserve it with honey or sugar to extend its short season. It can be enjoyed as a dried herb but it does lose some of its flavour during the drying process. Have a go at these simple recipes. 

Lemon balm honey

Fill a jam jar half full with fresh leaves and then fill with honey. Leave to infuse for 4 weeks and then strain. Use for deserts and cooking or have a spoonful in a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon. 

Lemon balm syrup

Dissolve 100g sugar with 100ml water in a saucepan on a low heat and then simmer lightly for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and add in a generous handful of fresh leaves. Leave to infuse with the lid on the pan for a few house or overnight and then strain out the leaves. Use to sweeten drinks.

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Herb Highlight // Stinging Nettle

Botanical name: Urtica dioica

Native to: Europe, Asia, North Africa and North America

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A wonderful wild herb that is abundant during the early spring. Sometimes a bit tricky to pick if you haven’t come prepared with long rubber gloves, but well worth the stings. Bursting with vitamins A & C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium nettle makes for an excellent brew. Try it as a detoxing herbal infusion or add it into soups and stews (which takes away the sting) for an iron rich boost. It's also a good infusion to try for your skin and can be used to remedy  the symptoms of acne and eczema. Nettle grows wild so you can forage for it in woodlands, hedgerows and other people's gardens! Always pick the fresh leaves at the tip of healthy looking plants. Always remember to check the foraging guidelines for picking plants in public and private space. 

Nettle Hair Rinse  

You can use nettle to make a clarifying hair rinse to remove product build up in your hair, nourish your scalp and condition your hair. It's also suitable for itchy and irritated scalps and those with sensitive skin.

1. Pick a big handful of fresh nettle leaves - the fresh  tips are the best

2. It's always good to rinse herbs that your pick from publicly accessible spaces

3. Gently warm roughly 2 cups of water in a saucepan and throw in your nettles

4. Bring the heat up and simmer for 30 minutes

5. Allow to cool and then strain out the nettles

6. Use straight away by pouring over and brushing through wet hair

6. Rinse out

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Herb Highlight // Pot Marigold

Botanical name: Calendula Officinalis
Native to: Southern Europe

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It's very easy to grow marigolds from seed. They grow happily outdoors either in a pot or in the ground and can also be grown indoors in a sunny spot next to a window. You can sow seeds outdoors in March or if you are keen to get going you can start them off indoors in February.

They are an annual plant - completing their life cycle in one year - and they drop plenty of seeds allowing new plants to grow in the next season. You can also collect some of the seeds at the end of summer to sow again the following year.
 
How to use


We mainly use our calendula to make an infused oil, the basis for all our herbal cosmetics. The flowers are rich in anti-oxidants (flavanoids) and these have a wonderful affect on protecting and restoring the skin. It is known as a vulnerary agent meaning it is useful for the healing of wounds. Calendula oil is very gentle and can be used to make creams and lotions to treat all sorts of skin complaints like eczema, stings and bites, psoriasis, scarring, stretch marks and nappy rash. Follow the guide below to make your oil which can be used directly on the skin or incorporated into another recipe.

To make an infused oil

1. Harvest marigold flowers in the morning on a dry day before they lose their volatile oils
2. Leave herbs to dry in a cool, dark place (away from direct sunlight) for 1-2 weeks to dry out
3. Pack the dried flowers loosely into a jam jar and cover with oil - sunflower, olive and almond oil all work well (about 15g herb to 100ml oil).
4. Leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks to infuse
5. Strain out the flowers and store oil in a cool, dark place.

If you don't have a sunny windowsill you can also infuse your oil by placing herbs and oil in heat proof bowl set over simmering water. Heat for 30 minutes then leave to stand for 1 hour. Never let the oil boil.

 

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Herb Highlight // Thai Basil

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Botanical name: Ocimum Basilica

Other names: Anise basil, Liquorice basil

Native to: Southeast Asia

It's too early to be sowing seeds outdoors but Thai Basil is something that you can sow indoors every month of the year. So it's great for those of us with an itch to get sowing again. It's also a great herb for people without gardens because it will actually be much happier basking in the sun of a cosy sheltered windowsill than being outdoors against the perils of the English climate. Its fragrant leaves can also offer a good defence against flies and other indoor insect pests. You'll find seeds online if not at your local garden shop.

How to use

It is delicious raw in salads or can be added to stews, soups, curries and stir-fries. You might have added it to your phở (noodle soup) if you've been to a Vietnamese restaurant. If you can't grow it have a look for it in your local Asian supermarket. It slight aniseed scent makes a refreshing sweet tea (fresh or dried) and can be infused in sugar to make a syrup for drinks.

Thai Basil Pesto

  • 50g peanuts (lightly roasted)
  • Large bunch thai basil
  • 50g parmesan
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 100ml olive oil
  • 1/2 lime (optional)

Blend the ingredients in a food processor until smooth and serve with a squeeze of lime for a citrus twist. Vegans can substitute the parmesan for a vegan cheese or leave it out, it still tastes great!

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Capturing the colours of summer: harvesting and drying flowers

 Pot marigold,  Calendula officinalis

Pot marigold, Calendula officinalis

It's prime time herb harvesting at this point in the summer, so we thought we'd share with you some tips on harvesting and drying flowers. For a lot of herbs we cut the flowers from the plants without their stems, which means you can't hang them up to dry! So instead, we lay out flowers on drying racks or well ventilated surfaces. Read on for a guide on how to do this and some of our top tips. 

 Floral roses - use a clean container to collect your flowers as you harvest them

Floral roses - use a clean container to collect your flowers as you harvest them

1. Harvest on a dry day in the morning, once any dew has evaporated 

2. Select the best looking flowers. Avoid ones that are already fading or have been eaten by insects.

3. Use sharp garden scissors or secateurs to remove flowers. Remember to prune back to a leaf on plants like roses and marigolds to keep them tidy and promote more flowers. 

4. While you harvest you can also deadhead flowers that have gone over and remove tarnished leaves to keep your plants in check. Compost these bits.

5. Once harvested, spread the flowers out on your drying surface. Ensure that they are nicely spread to allow good airflow to the flowers. It's ok if they overlap a bit, just avoid them being piled up on top of each other.

 Laying flowers out to dry on sheets of muslin cloth

Laying flowers out to dry on sheets of muslin cloth

6. Dry away from direct sunlight as this will deteriorate the flowers and encourage volatile oils (which hold a lot of herbal goodness) to evaporate and be lost.

7. Check on your flowers every few days and gently turn them to ensure air is reaching all parts of the leaves.

 Vibrant colours of dried Rose petals; bright colours imply a good quality dried herb

Vibrant colours of dried Rose petals; bright colours imply a good quality dried herb

You know that the flowers are ready if they crumble easily. If you are drying flowers or herbs for the first time it's a good idea to experiment with different areas in your home to find where the driest and best ventilated areas are!  Once they are dry you can store them in an airtight container, in a cupboard where there is no chance of them being in contact with moisture. Brown paper bags inside airtight containers or recycled jam jars work well.

Happy harvesting!

Psst. If you need some help with growing herbs or want to get started come along to our next workshop, City Gardening: Growing your own herbs on Thursday 27th July at the Bee Garden in Dalston.  

WINNING! CSR Awards

Last week we were at the National Corporate Social Responsibility Awards and are so chuffed to have received the Special Judges' Award for Grass Roots Communities! It was a wonderful night celebrating some great achievements and meeting the folks behind some great initiatives. We gave special thanks to Hackney City Farm for giving us the space and support to grow our herbs, Tiosk for being the first cafe to stock us and the Centre for Better Health for welcoming us into their community hub to run our Herbal Craft Course. We couldn't have done it without all of you! And a final thank you to ALL our volunteers with a special mention to our wonderful 2016 trainees, Oli and Fran.

Congratulations also go to our friends at Project Dirt for winning Best Education Project for Outdoor Classroom Day in partnership with Unilever and also to Bromley-by-Bow centre for winning for Best Community Legacy Project for their Beyond Business scheme in partnership with Investec. 

You can see all the winners here or by following the #GlobalGood posts on social media.