Herbs in the city

I’ve been dabbling in herbal self-healing for a few years. I’ve read up a little here and there about different herbs, their medicinal and magical properties and how to use them. Experimented with tinctures, teas and wines. Learned to identify a few of my favourites in hedgerows, roadsides and canal banks.

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Then a few weeks ago, Em and I took a trip to Lincolnshire to visit her family. Emma’s mum Maggie lent me Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal, which I read from cover to cover…twice. I just couldn’t put it down. Unlike other botanical reference books, the stuff here really stuck with me…I think because the herbs it talks about are all familiar to me, all recognisable from roadsides and wastelands of places I’ve lived. As we drove home through Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire and Derbyshire I spotted many of the plants I’d been reading about, growing in fields, hedgerows and verges along the road. We stopped at Mexborough, the small South Yorkshire town where Maggie was born, to look for family graves in a quiet churchyard. Straight away I was able to find several of the herbs from my book, which was really satisfying and exciting.

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So this week, I set out to find out what was growing in my own neighbourhood of Ancoats, Manchester. And then, to photograph or harvest and learn about the herbs I discovered.

Ancoats is an urban area of Manchester close to the city centre with dense housing estates, two (fairly neglected) canals and a fair amount of wasteland. It’s scrappy, filled with the remnants of Manchester’s industrial past – derelict mills and the beginnings of some serious gentrification – but also pretty green.

Here’s what I found growing on the short canalside walk between my boat and my studio, five minutes away:

Mugwort

A herb of divination and dreaming, and of relaxation, this plant looks damn witchy, with it’s ethereal waving haze of white-grey flowers and ragged, fingerlike leaves.

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I’m drying a bunch for tea and a tincture. Last time I tried this, I had weird, beautiful dreams. I’m looking forward to seeing if it works again! I’ll also try drinking mugwort tea while doing tarot readings. Maybe it will deepen my intuition…?

Dandelion

Surprisingly not growing en route, but the small garden at the mill is full of dandelions – a recent enthusiastic gardening day and barbecue couldn’t get rid of them, and now I’m glad, as I have a simple recipe for dandelion beer to try out. Plus, I drink dandelion tea every day – it’s probably time I switched to a foraged variety.

Chamomile

Another herb for sleep and rest, most of us have enjoyed a nice cup of camomile tea, which is made from the flowers. I found a lovely big mass growing by the River Clyde on a trip to Glasgow last week.

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Cornflowers (flax)

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Hemp agrimony

hemp agrimony

Black knapweed

A beautiful, thornless thistle with bright purple tufts and elegant leaves which grows in droves at the marina:

black knapweed 3

Curled dock

I have a new respect for those straggly, dry brown weeds you see all over wastelands and unkept fields – this member of the dock family is an excellent liver tonic and supports general wellbeing.

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It’s the root that you use – it can be made into a tincture, which is what I’m going to do. I plan to combine it with dandelion (using the whole plant, roots, leaves, stalk, head) to create something I can take every day to support my health.

Traveller’s joy

travellers joy

A beautiful climber, the only wild clematis, the only native British clematis, and a member of the buttercup family. I found it scrambling (as they say in the flower books) all over the lower parts of the hemp agrimony near the entrance gate. It has strong green leaves (pairs, opposite, each one made up of four leaflets) and white-green flowers that have four main sepals (which look like petals), then a lovely burst of much finer petals (again these are technically not petals but I’m not sure what they are).

The flowers appear in August, and then apparently will follow furry grey-white seed heads which give the plant its other name – old man’s beard. I’ll have to wait a month or two to see that.

There are more, many more, with names like lady’s mantle, purple loosestrife, cleavers, ragwort and vetch. Beautiful, weird, old-sounding names. I’m learning to draw these plants, and to recognise them on my walk to the studio or along the canal.


Interested in the intersections of tarot and herbalism?

RheaTarot_HerbAlexis J Cunningfolk’s series, Tarot Herbology, is a walk through the tarot and how cards correspond elementally, emotionally, energetically, to medicinal herbs.

It’s a fascinating read – both from tarot and herbalism perspectives. So far we’ve looked at the herbal allies of watery cups cards and airy swords, and tomorrow Alexis shares a look at the wands and how different herbs can support and manage that fiery energy.

Read the whole series here.

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