Yarrow and Nettles: Inside a Hedge Witch’s Medicine Cabinet

A few hundred years ago, it would have been normal for you to strip off and roll around naked in the nettles to alleviate rheumatic pains. These days, we prefer Western, modern medicine to complementary wellness therapies, but practitioners in Belfast still believe there’s something we can learn from the days of yore.

According to modern day Hedge Witch Joan Howard, ‘Nettles are an excellent blood purifier.’ Joan is an expert on the medicinal properties of what most us would see as common weeds and is so convinced of their power, she has given up a successful career as a horticulturalist to work full time in herbalism. However, that is not to say that Joan disavows conventional medicine. ‘I don’t interfere with it; I work in partnership with it,’ she says. ‘I treat the person holistically. There is cynicism about herbalism but that’s changing. A lot of medics work with alternative therapists.’

Along with nettle, dandelion, elder, hawthorn and yarrow, one of the herbs Joan specialises in is St. John’s Wort, which can in handy when her son, Luke, sustained a nasty injury while playing football. ‘It has an anti-inflammatory effect which meant he didn’t need antibiotics and he was back playing the next day,’ Luke recalls. ‘The rest of the team was amazed.’ Joan adds that yarrow is brilliant for fevers and staunching nose bleeds, wood betony is ‘great for grounding’ when your head’s astray, and that dandelion is an excellent cleanser for the liver and kidneys.

However, one of the exceptions in Joan’s Irish herbal medicine cabinet is cayenne, a spice which is indigenous to East Africa, India, Mexico and America. She explains, ‘If I feel a cold coming in I take cayenne right away and it stops it. It won’t stop those terrible viruses of last winter – I think that was a form a swine flu we all had – but it will alleviate symptoms. Where possible I use locally grown herbs – I think our bodies are more in tune with what is growing around us. We are connected to them. I don’t use Chinese herbs, with the exception of ginseng.’

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