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The everyday herbalist

16 June 2023

Passionate about herbs since childhood, Jane Wrigglesworth is now one of
New Zealand’s foremost experts on all things herbal. In an extract from her new
book The Everyday Herbalist she shares some favourites for de-stressing.
Words Jane Wrigglesworth | Photos Lottie Hedley

I became interested in herbs as a child around the age of 10 when my family and I visited a herb farm somewhere in Aotearoa. My memory is fuzzy on where exactly it was, but I distinctly remember being fascinated by the groupings of plants. (There was a gypsy caravan there too, with which I was greatly enamoured.)

There was a section of herbs for headaches, one for first aid, one for coughs and colds, and others for various other ailments, plus one for beauty.
I was likely more interested in the last one, but I remember being hugely impressed that a herb could be grown in the garden and used to treat a headache. We left there with a newly purchased herb book and I pored over that avidly, intrigued at the prospect of making my own shampoos and lotions from herbs, and later how to use herbs for first aid.

In my teens I progressed to experimental beauty formulations. I brewed and blended all manner of herbal concoctions to slather onto my face. In my bedroom-cum-science lab I churned out amateur lip balms, toners and face scrubs.
I recall a thyme, beetroot (for colour) and glycerine lip tint that did a fairly good impersonation of a Nivea strawberry lip gloss. (Except it tasted like beetroot.) I made herbal creams and ointments, in my early days referring to the newsletters of the Herb Federation of New Zealand for advice.
I now make my own ointment and cream formulas with herbs that I know will benefit the skin, whether it be for acne, rashes, cuts, wounds or wrinkles.

My interest in herbs peaked in the early 2000s when I was editing the Weekend Gardener magazine. I developed a bleeding stomach, unbeknownst to me, and eventually ended up in hospital with dangerously low iron and haemoglobin levels. I had blood pumped back into me and was given some nice red pills to bring my haemoglobin back up to where it should be. Except they didn’t seem to work, and they made me nauseous.

So I googled natural remedies and found that parsley, a veritable wonder herb, is high in virtually all vitamins and minerals, including iron. I began to consume it on a daily basis, along with chamomile tea, which helped to reduce the inflammation in my gut, and soon enough my iron levels began to rise. That was revolutionary for me, and since then I’ve been a convert to the magic of herbal medicine.

I went on to study herbal medicine formally and I’ve been fortunate to meet many amazing herbalists and herb enthusiasts along the way. I edited the quarterly journal of the Herb Federation of New Zealand for seven years and went on to write a herb column in New Zealand Gardener magazine for over a decade.

It seems only natural now to go one step further and put my thoughts and formulations down in a book. I hope that my narrative will encourage you, too, to dip your feet in the world of natural medicine. If nothing else, perhaps you can try your hand at making a lip tint or two – I can recommend a thyme, beetroot and glycerine lip tint. (Except that it does taste of beetroot…)

Caution! Herbs, just like prescribed medications, can be dangerous – or at the very least produce unwanted side effects. If a herb is potent enough to produce a positive effect, such as reduce cholesterol or anxiety, it is strong enough to do other things.
There is a list at the end of the book of known medical risks associated with the herbs mentioned. It’s important to research not just the benefits of a herb but also any known side effects before use, in order to avoid adverse reactions. Don’t assume that because it’s natural, it is safe.

Nervines to the rescue
Nervines is the name given to a group of herbs that can help to restore a sense of calm. Nervines specifically support the nervous system and can be used to promote calm, elevate mood and help induce sleep. Many nervine herbs can easily be grown in the home garden.

Herbs for de-stressing
Some of my favourite herbs to help you de‑stress are ashwagandha, barley grass, skullcap, passionflower, German chamomile, lavender and motherwort.

Ashwagandha (also referred to by its botanical name, Withania) is one of the best herbs for combating stress. Many herbalists list it as their all-time favourite herb and it pops up fairly frequently in the book.
Christchurch-based herbalist Richard Whelan once told me, “If, by some horrible drought of supplies, or whatever passes for the herbalist’s modern version of being shipwrecked on a desert island, I could only have one remedy to use, it would definitely be withania”.

Upper Hutt herbalist Donna Lee agrees: “We have more than 250 herbs at Cottage Hill Herb Farm, in dried form and/or in the garden, and withania is our top-selling herb because it works across so many areas. We use it for anxiety and stress, mild depression, lack of energy, sexual issues and that ‘everything is on top of me’ feeling. Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue as well as insomnia respond well to withania.”

I love it too. It can be used as both a tonic (to increase energy) and an anxiety-buster. Like other adaptogenic herbs, it helps the body to ‘adapt’ to situations, exerting a ‘normalising’ influence. It helps strengthen the body’s response to stress, and enhances our ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue. It helps you to get your glow back. I suggest taking it on a daily basis if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or just ‘blah’.

German chamomile
While German chamomile has many useful properties, it’s best known as a calming herb. As a tea, it helps with stress, nervousness, anxiety and insomnia.
Chamomile is a gently acting herb so it’s suitable for children and babies. It’s especially useful for soothing fussy babies and calming excitable toddlers. Keep a chamomile glycerite on hand for any childhood ailments, including colic and digestive issues, as well as restlessness, irritability and nightmares.
Make a tea by infusing 1–2 heaped teaspoons of dried flowers in freshly boiled water. Steep for 10–15 minutes.

Lavender needs no introduction. It’s been used as a remedy for frazzled nerves for centuries, and with good reason. Modern research confirms that inhaling lavender reduces the level of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol.

A recent study found that lavender oil aromatherapy reduced the level of perceived anxiety and physical symptoms of anxiety in nursing students in South Korea. In two exploratory randomised control trials, lavender oil was found effective in reducing anger–frustration moods and negative feelings about the future.

There are many types of lavender, but those used for essential oils, fragrance and medicinal purposes are generally the English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia syn. officinalis) and the Intermedia varieties (hybrids between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia). One that is well known and readily available is ‘Grosso’.
A simple way to release lavender scent into the air is to use a diffuser with 3–4 drops of essential oil, perhaps in your bedroom at night to induce sleep. Or swab a couple of drops of lavender essential oil onto your pillowcase.

Touch, as well as smell, has a calming effect on the body and mind, so if you can, use a combination of both with a lavender massage oil using flowers freshly picked from the garden. For a quicker massage oil, add 10 drops lavender essential oil per 1 tablespoon carrier oil (e.g. olive, sesame, jojoba, sweet almond).
An infusion of the flowers can be taken as a tea or added to a bath to aid relaxation.

chamomile and lavender infused honey with edible gold leaf c lottie hedley

Chamomile- and lavender-infused honey

This goes down a treat with kids. For adults, add a spoonful to a cup of chamomile tea for sweetening if desired, or take a spoonful as is. For fun, add edible gold leaf (which is actually real gold and surprisingly inexpensive online) for a special gift.

50g (2 oz) dried chamomile flowers
50g (2 oz) dried lavender flowers
1 cup honey
Edible gold leaf (optional)

Crush the chamomile flowers with the blade of a knife and mix them in a jar with the lavender flowers. Add the honey, stir, then seal with a lid. Place in a warm room out of direct sunlight and leave to infuse for 4 weeks. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clear jar. If adding edible gold leaf, layer it in with the honey.

Mood-balancing ashwagandha tea (or capsules)

My first foray into making my own herb capsules was with ashwagandha powder. I bought powdered herb and empty gelatine capsules, and stuffed the powder into them. It worked a treat and was an efficient way of consuming the herb, but it was a bit fiddly.
If you want an easier option, go for tea.

1 tablespoon finely chopped ashwagandha root
1 cup milk and 1 cup water (or 2 cups water)
Sliced or powdered ginger and/or liquorice root (optional)

Gently simmer the ashwagandha and milk/water in a small saucepan, covered, for 15 minutes. Add ginger and/or liquorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) if desired, to support the adrenal glands’ response to stress. Strain before drinking.
Sweeten the tea with honey if desired, but if you still cannot stomach it, give capsules a go. Buy them pre-filled, or buy the vegetable-based capsule shells online and fill your own.

Images and edited text from The Everyday Herbalist by Jane Wrigglesworth, photography by Lottie Hedley, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP$49.99.

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