LEAVES OF GRASS
Photography: Mónica R. Goya
Illustration: Carla Cascales
The use of plants as medicines precedes written human history. Medicinal plants have been on the side of humans for millennia and it feels right to try to find out more about some of the plants we could easily cultivate or find at parks or fields.
Artist and herbalist Maria Vlotides and I meet at eleven o’clock in front of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. After having exchanged a few emails in which you could sense a good dose of enthusiasm, we shared ideas about how this new Norte chapter should be.
The main reason why we are going to the Chelsea Physic Garden is similar to the purpose of the foundation of the Garden, which was created in 1673 to train apprentices in identifying plants. Maria knows that is better to learn step by step and so, to make sure that I learn the essentials, we decide to focus on three plants and its uses. We choose calendula, rosemary and lemon balm.
Over the first coffee of the morning I find out that Maria started to have an interest for medicinal plants in her early twenties, when she suffered from a skin condition. No drug seemed to heal the urticaria and she started considering the home care remedies of her Greek grandmother. Maria and her family travelled to Greece every summer to visit their family and she remembered tenderly how every time she complaint that something hurt, her grandmother pointed at a plant in her garden and said “make a tea with that”. She thought that since traditional medicine didn’t work, maybe some of those plants could help with her problem. And that is the way it was.
"I have always had this connection between things making me better and plants"
Learning to Identify Plants
As we come close to the calendula flowers, their beauty and the richness of their orange colour impress me. Maria explains that the name Calendula is derived from the Latin word “calendulae”, which means through the months and is supposed to point out the long flowering period of these flowers.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) seeds are easy to recognise as they look like the letter “C”, for Calendula. The colour of the flowers can go from yellowish to orange and it is easy to identify because they are in full bloom most of the time. We are going to make infused oil with its petals, which turns orange. Maria measures the oil before pouring it into the opaque jar. This oil is wonderfully healing for skin, especially for eczema and fungal infections, but cannot be used for cooking.
"It is a natural instinct to use what is around you"
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is one of those plants easy to recognise and with multiple uses. While we cut a few sprigs and we put them in a jar, this time transparent, Maria tells me that its aromatic essential oils, which are both antiseptic and warming and particularly good for the circulation, can be used to make lotions for the skin. I ask her for its cooking uses, and she tells me that it helps digestion by breaking down fat; hence it makes sense that rosemary is used with fatty meats.
To make the infused oils, both with calendula or rosemary, we place sprigs of fresh plants into a clean jar. I write down on my notebook that the best time of the day for collection is in the midday sun, so that it is rich in oils and also does not have any water or dew on it. Once into the jar, we cover it with olive oil, although we could also use sunflower oil. Maria insists on making sure that all the plant matter is submerged in oil, otherwise it will go mouldy. She adds that to be used for massage or a salve base, it is better to use jojoba or almond oil instead. We sealed the jar properly. Then there is the waiting. Both the rosemary and calendula need a couple of weeks in a warm place, like a window sill, for the scent to infuse the oil.
I must not forget to remove the rosemary sprigs the first time I open the jar. Maria comments that both calendula or rosemary oils, after two weeks, can be used as a base for a warming body or bath oil (adding other essential oils), as foot scrub (adding sea salt or sugar) or salve.
We have to make a pause because I need a break to digest all the information. We have lunch at the cafe at the Chelsea Physic Garden. We speak about the importance that herbal medicine has had and still has in some communities, especially among women.
"Herbal medicine as a tradition is very female orientated in many ways because it is very linked with cooking, with caring for the family and it goes mother to daughter and there is an oral traditional of learning"
We go back to the garden to review what I have learnt. I am still surprised at the fact that the same plant can be a remedy for more than one symptom. Once the lesson is reviewed Maria heads home and we agree to meet a couple of days later.
The next day
We meet again, this time in East London, to see some more plants. Today Alfonso helps us with the logistics. It rains and there are dozens of children playing around at the Hackney City Farm.
Maria is the first one to spot the lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis) and we gather around it. She explains that Melissa means in Greek “honey bee”, and effectively, when its flowers are out, the bees are all over it. However, for using it, it is better to do so before it comes into flower, for the essential oil in the leaves. I thought it was plain mint when I first saw it and indeed, it belongs to the mint family. Nevertheless, it is easy to recognise because of the smell of lemon. Maria cuts a leaf and I rub it between my fingers, the lemon smell is unmistakable. This plant is capable of bringing a sense of calm whilst it also works as uplifting the spirits, it soothes the mind and heart and it is brilliant when you have had a stressful day.
Unlike most medicinal plants, the lemon balm leaves do not dry well so this is one of the few herbal teas where you need to use fresh leaves. It is a native to the Mediterranean and although it is not a wild plant, it is easy to find in gardens and parks.
Maria and I cover the teapot whilst the herb infuses in the water. If the steam escapes, it carries the essential oil away with it and this will therefore reduce both the taste and therapeutic effect of the tea.
We sit in a bench and talk for a while, enjoying the delicious tea. Maria is nervous because in a couple of hours she has to go to a promotional event for her last book, Pharmapoetica. She says that the tea will make her good and calm her.
For a few hours we are able to forget that we are in the middle of the city and touching and discovering plants, adding oil…
In the end I take home the satisfaction of being capable of recognising some medicinal plants and their uses. Also, there is something mystical to it: identifying the plant, observing nature and feeling its energy, gathering a few petals and making an oil or a tea with your own hands.
There are hundreds of different plants and being able to identify them requires proper study and a good few hours of foraging walks. For the moment, my next step is to create my own herbal journal. Now I feel closer to my grandmother that as Maria’s, knew about medicinal plants but didn’t consider it particularly special because back then everyone did.