You may not recognize the name but you will probably recognize this poisonous plant with its pink, white or red flowers which bloom from May to October, depending on where you live. It graces the roadsides in Greece, Sicily, Italy, Portugal, Pakistan (where it is still in bloom now although it is the end of November), the state of California in the US and other countries. It is useful because it seems not to mind the pollution; it is tolerant of salt and drought and prevents soil erosion as it has long, thick tap roots. It has naturalized in so many countries that no one is sure where it originated, although it might have come from South West Asia.
  Whenever I see these bushes growing in the middle of the motorways here in Pakistan I am reminded of Greece, both the mainland and the islands where these flowers abound. They also remind me of Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” album and the lyrics of “My Old School”. In other words I feel nostalgic when I see them.
  The oleander is toxic although not many deaths have been attributed to it, although I’m told that the seeds are particularly useful as a poison as it is not always noticed. Because all parts of this plant are toxic it is not recommended to use it as firewood or skewers for barbecues. It is poisonous for people and animals if ingested, but has been used in traditional medicine systems for centuries.
  Oleanders have leaves which look a little like those of the olive tree, but they are not related as the oleander is a member of the dogbane family or Apocynaceae family. It is believed to be the onotheras of Theophrastus who believed that the root when given to someone in wine improves their temper and makes them “gentle and cheerful.” Pliny concurred with Dioscorides that it could be an antidote to the bites of serpents, and this is what Dioscorides says of oleander in his De Materia Medica Book IV page 82 which was written in the first century AD.
  “Nerion, which some call Rododaphne, some Rhododendron . . . grows in enclosed greens and sea-bordering places; in places near rivers. But ye flower and the leaves have a power destructive of dogs; of Asses; of Mules; and of most four-footed living creatures, but a preserving one of men, being drank with wine against the bitings of venemous beasts; ye more if you mixed it with Rue, but ye more weak sort of living creature, as goats; sheep, die, if they drink ye maceration of them.”
  John Gerard the 16th century English herbalist tells us what Galen another ancient physician said about oleander, but omits to give credit to Dioscorides, if we compare the two pieces of text they are much the same. Gerard could be considered guilty of plagiarism. Here is what he wrote about oleander:-
"This tree being outwardly applied, as Galen saith, hath a digesting faculty; but if it be inwardly taken it is deadly and poisonsome, not only to men, but also to most kinds of beasts.
The flowers and leaves kill dogs, asses, mules, and very many of other four footed beasts: but if men drink them in wine they are a remedy against the bitings of Serpents, and the rather if Rue be added.
The weaker sort of cattle, as sheep and goats, if they drink the water wherein the leaves have been steeped, are sure to die."
  Oleanders were depicted in Roman murals quite frequently along with bay trees and myrtles. One famous mural is that in a subterranean chamber of Livia’s Villa in Porta Prima, Italy.
  In different traditional medicinal systems oleanders have been used in poultices to relieve backache; the fruit has been applied to the body to promote sweat in poultices according to the Hortus Sanitatis a 15th century herbal. It also says that the flowers provoke sneezing so could be used as snuff was. It was once believed that the plant was fatal to head lice and fleas.
  The macerated leaves were applied topically to promote hair growth and for syphilis symptoms and other skin diseases. Oleander has been used by herbalists for centuries to treat all kinds of illnesses from skin problems, to epilepsy, to induce miscarriages, as emetics and heart tonics. A decoction of the leaves has been used for gingivitis and oral problems. The plant contains the cardiac glycosides oleandrin and oleandrigenin which can be toxic when ingested, but they seem to boost the immune system of cancer patients when given in small controlled doses. It is believed that oleandrin might have antineoplastic activity and so can help in our fight against cancer.
  It has, in recent years been hailed as an alternative cancer treatment as the first phase of clinical trials have been a success reportedly. The US FDA has said that extracts of the leaves are safe enough to be administered orally and has approved clinical testing, which is now in its second phase as of 2011. Oleander contains cardiac glycosides which are the substances being investigated.
  As with aak (Calotropis procera) this plant can be fatal, but it can also be beneficial to our health.


Rice is a descendant of wild grasses and belongs to the Poaceae or Graminaceae family of plants along with wheat, maize (sweet corn), sorghum, millet, rye, oats and barley, among others. It is widely cultivated in the Asia and Pacific region where it is a staple food in 17 countries. It is also a staple in 8 countries in Africa and 9 in North and South America. There are more that 8,000 varieties of rice grown around the world and these are grown in various ways, including, of course in paddy fields in countries which have the monsoon season. Rice is the main food source of energy for more than half the world’s population. However for a balanced diet, pulses such as lentils, leafy green vegetables such as brussel sprouts and kale, and meat need to be added to it.
  Rice provides the world’s human population with 20% of its dietary energy supply, while wheat provides 19%, and maize 5%.
  Polished white rice has few nutrients left in it and for the sake of health and nutrition one should eat brown rice which is simply rice which has been hulled, in other words the bran and germ layers which contain the essential vitamins, minerals and Omega-3 and
-6 fatty acids, as well as the phytonutrients and amino acids are left intact.
  Writing her “A Modern Herbal” in the 1930s Mrs. Maud Grieve said: -
“The chief consumption of rice is as a food substance, but it should never be forgotten that the large and continued consumption of the white, polished rices of commerce is likely to be injurious to the health. The nations of which rice is the staple diet eat it unhusked as a rule, when it is brownish and less attractive to the eye, but much more nutritious as well as cheaper.”
  She clearly could see how things were going and warned then that white rice was not very nutritious. However it has since been the rice of choice in the West. Black rice, or Forbidden rice is also nutritious as is Bhutanese red rice, grown in the Himalayas, but brown rice is readily available, although now, it is not as cheap as white rice as it was in Mrs. Grieve’s day as it has become labeled “macrobiotic “ and “organic” which makes it more expensive than the highly polished white rice.
  Rice is believed to have originated in China and primitive agricultural tools and remains of rice dating back to circa 8,500 BC have been found in the Yangtze River basin in China, showing how long it has been a cultivated crop there. Archaeological remains discovered in the Indian subcontinent only date back to c. 2,000 BC. It arrived in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean basin from Syria via Arab traders. It was also introduced early into East Africa, and much later to the US. The Spaniards introduced it to South America in the 17th century, as it had been taken to Spain by the Moors in the 8th century. The Crusaders had later taken back to France with them; and so it travelled around the globe.
  Today there are several main types of rice which can be found on supermarket shelves:-
·        Arborio or Italian rice which is used to make risottos.
·        Basmati rice which is long-grained and used in biryanis and other rice dishes on the Indian subcontinent because of its delicate nutty flavour and the fact that the grains stay separate.
·        Sweet rice which is sticky and glutinous
·        Jasmine rice which may be brown or white, and which is aromatic due to the jasmine flowers in it.
·        Bhutanese red rice grown in the Himalayas which has a nutty earthy taste.
·        Black rice (as mentioned above) which is purple when cooked
There are other short-, medium- and long-grained rices too and here in Pakistan we can buy ‘broken rice’ which is cheap Basmati and which can be used in dessert dishes, flavoured with rose water and with coconut, sultanas and pistachio nuts or almonds added to it (much more interesting than a British rice pudding).
  Rice is used in traditional systems of medicine for upset stomachs and diarrhoea. In Greece lemon juice may be added to it, or it is served plain and boiled. Rice can be boiled, drained, allowed to cool then mashed to form a paste which is applied to boils, sores, swellings and pimples in the Indian subcontinent. The sticky, gelatinous variety of rice is used here for stomach upset, heart-burn and indigestion.
  Clinical trials have shown that extracts of brown rice may be effective in treating breast and stomach cancers and trials are still underway. It is thought that brown rice can help lower cholesterol levels in the blood, so can help prevent heart disease and arteriosclerosis among other diseases. It is also thought that brown rice can help to lower the risk of Type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
  Brown rice contains significant amounts of selenium which assists in DNA repair in cells and which has potent antioxidant actions. It helps to decrease the symptoms of asthma and the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis. There are also large amounts of manganese present in brown rice, and this assists hormone production, and also has powerful antioxidant actions.
  Brown rice also contains some of the B-complex vitamins including B1 and 3, pantothenic acid, folate, choline and betaine. As for minerals it has apart from those mentioned above, it has calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, sodium, potassium, phosphorous as well as 18 amino acids including lysine and tryptophan. It also contains a little vitamin E in the form of Alpha Tocopherol and vitamin K.
  Annapura is the goddess of rice in Indian mythology, and gets her name from anna which is Sanskrit for rice. For Hindus rice is also associated with the goddess Lakshmi, who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. It is also a fertility symbol. Annas were also the currency of the Indian subcontinent before rupees, so the word for money was ‘rice.’ There are also associations of rice with the Buddha as he was given rice and milk by a poor woman, so the story goes, and it is given now as an offering to him. Turmeric coloured rice is thrown over newly married couples in Indian wedding ceremonies, and rice flavoured with saffron and topped with gold leaf is also served at weddings, as yellow is the colour of happiness.
  In some parts of India symbols and patterns are traced on thresholds and floors in rice powder or made with paste so that the household has good luck. This tradition is centuries old, and is still practised today. Rice paste is also used in the dyeing process on cloth in India. There are festivals held all over Asia when rice seeds are sown, when the seedlings are planted and when the harvest is gathered in.
  Rice extracts can be found in medicines and cosmetics, as it is believed that they can add to the volume and thickness of hair, so they are used in shampoos and other hair-care products, as well as in moisturizing creams as it moisturizes and is said to have anti-ageing properties. A mixture of rice starch and honey is used by some women to reduce the shine on their faces.
  To cook brown  rice, you need one part rice to two of water and it should be washed thoroughly and cleaned then allowed to soak for 20 minutes to half an hour before draining the water and cooking with salt.
  You will find many recipes on this site which use rice including one for rice pudding and a chicken ball soup if you would like to try some.


Pignuts are so named because pigs love to find these, as do European Brown bears. They grow in woodland in Europe and in Britain seem to love to grow in bluebell woods. You can find them all year round, but they are easier to spot in spring and summer when you can see their feathery leaves and white flower heads (umbels). They are members of the Apiaceae or carrot family, so are related to anise, caraway, celery, dill and parsley. If you go foraging for them you will have to dig about 20 centimetres down to get at the small “nuts” which are tubers with long thin roots growing around them. You have to rub the outer skin from them to eat them but they can be eaten raw or cooked (you can add them to dishes as you would water chestnuts or sangaray). They taste rather like sweet chestnuts, although some say that they are like Brazil or hazel nuts or perhaps sweet potatoes. The “nut” can grow to 3 cms in diameter although most I’ve seen have been smaller than that. If you find them they indicate that you are in ancient grass or woodland.
  In the UK they have been found at archaeological site, at the Bronze Age Barrow Hills and Mile Oak, which shows that they were known as a food source by our early ancestors. The discovery of them at Barrow Hills might also indicate that they were used in rituals.
  They were clearly known in Shakespeare’s day as he has his ‘monster’ Caliban tells Trinculo (a drunken servant) that he will show him the delights of the island which include these ‘nuts’.
  “Caliban: I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow,
                 And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts.”
   (Act II scene ii The Tempest)
John Gerard, writing in the 16th century tells us that there was a “Plaister made of the seeds” of the plant, but he rather coyly declines to continue as regards the use it was put to. This mystery was later (probably) solved when Nicholas Culpeper writing in his Complete herbal in the 17th century points out that the nuts were aphrodisiacs and stimulated “venery” or lust. He calls these “Earth chesnuts” and says this: -
“They are called earth-nuts, earth-chesnuts, ground-nuts, ciper-nuts, and in Sussex pig-nuts. A description of them were needless, for every child knows them.
Government and virtues. They are something hot and dry in quality, under the dominion of Venus; they provoke lust exceedingly, and stir up to those sports she is mistress of; the seed is excellent good to provoke urine; and so also is the root, but it doth not perform it so forcibly as the seed both. The root being dried and beaten into powder, and the powder made into an electuary is as singular a remedy for spitting and pissing of blood, as the former chesnut was for coughs.”
  The Physicians of Myddfai do not mention this but used them in this way: -
“Peritonitis is treated by means of an emetic, the blue confection and a medicine. These are the herbs required (for the medicine ;) the sweet gale, bay leaves, pimpernel, male speedwell, river startip, borage, moss, liverwort, the young leaves of the earth nut, and the mallow.”
They also used it in treatments for intermittent fevers as this remedy shows:-
”The following is a good medicine for this class of diseases : take moss, ground ivy, or elder, if obtainable, (if not obtainable, caraway,) and boil these two vegetable substances well together. Then take the mallow, fennel, pimpernel, butcher's broom, borage, and the young leaves of the earth nut, and bruise them as well as possible, putting them on the fire with the two herbs before mentioned, and boiling them well. This being done, let elder bark be taken from that portion of the tree which is in the ground,-let it be scraped and washed thoroughly, and bruised well in a mortar. Then take the liquor prepared from the fore-mentioned herbs, and mix the said bark therein assiduously between both hands, and set it to drain into a vessel to acidify, fermenting it with goat's whey, or cow's whey. Let a good cupful thereof be drank every morning as long as it lasts, a portion of raw honey, apple or wood sorrel, being taken subsequently in order to remove the taste from the mouth, after the draught. This liquor is beneficial to every man who requires to purge his body.”
  They don’t mention the aphrodisiac qualities but it makes sense that Shakespeare’s Caliban would have enjoyed them if they had such a reputation as he was a portrayal of the baser side of human nature.



Groundsel gets its Latin name, Senecio vulgaris, from ‘senex’ meaning ‘old man’ and vulgaris, which means ‘common’. It is believed to have got this name from the appearance of the grey hairs on the seeds. The name groundsel comes from the Anglo-Saxon, “groundeswelge” which means “ground swallower” doubtless because of its ability to spread. One plant will produce around 1,200 seeds, with hairs which are dispersed by the wind and birds which love to eat them. It has been estimated that 85% of these seeds will germinate in the first year with 100 % germinating in a five-year period, so it is a very prolific stubborn weed to remove once it has occupied an area. It is in flower between May and October. It is a member of the Asteraceae or daisy family of plants.
  It has numerous other names, including Old-Man-in-the-Spring, birdseed, chickenweed, grinsel and grundsel to mention just a few. It is an invasive alien species in North America and probably arrived on its shores in sacks of grain seed, but it is native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. It has mainly been used for chickenfeed and for birdseed - the Victorians fed their canaries on it in Britain. Rabbits like it too but cows, and horses seem to instinctively know that it isn’t good for them and tend to avoid it. Groundsel contains some pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are also found in Common Ragwort, and these cause progressive, irreversible damage and ultimately death to cows and other animals. The lethal dose is between 5 and 8% of the animal’s body weight. However sheep and goats, have rumen bacteria which breaks down these toxins and so they can be used to keep down groundsel in fields.
  It is said that the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked by humans, but perhaps this is not advisable. The Anglo-Saxons used groundsel medicinally in poultices with salt added to them.
  The 16th century English herbalist, John Gerard, recommended “the down of the flower mixed with vinegar” as a good dressing for fresh wounds. He also said that the juice of the plant, when boiled in ale could be used as a purgative with a little honey and vinegar added. It was believed that you had to dig up the roots without using any iron in the digging tool as it would then act as a remedy for wounds caused by iron. The roots were thought, if harvested in this way, to relieve headaches. It was also used as an emollient for chapped hands, with the whole plant chopped and boiling water poured over it and then allowed to infuse for half an hour. A strong infusion was used to produce vomiting and as a purgative.
  Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the 17th century in his “Complete Herbal” had this to say of groundsel: -
  “ This herb is Venus's mistress-piece, and is as gallant and universal a medicine for all diseases coming of heat, in what part of the body soever they be, as the sun shines upon; it is very safe and friendly to the body of man: yet causes vomiting if the stomach be afflicted; if not, purging: and it doth it with more gentleness than can be expected; it is moist, and something cold withal, thereby causing expulsion, and repressing the heat caused by the motion of the internal parts in purges and vomits…
The decoction of this herb (saith Dioscorides) made with wine, and drank, helps the pains of the stomach, proceeding of choler, (which it may well do by a vomit) as daily experience shews. The juice thereof taken in drink, or the decoction of it in ale, gently performs the same. It is good against the jaundice and falling sickness, being taken in wine; as also against difficulty of making water. It provokes urine, expels gravel in the reins or kidneys; a dram thereof given in oxymel, after some walking or stirring of the body. It helps also the sciatica, griping of the belly, the cholic, defects of the liver, and provokes women's courses. The fresh herb boiled, and made into a poultice, applied to the breasts of women that are swollen with pain and heat, as also the privy parts of man or woman, the seat or fundament, or the arteries, joints, and sinews, when they are inflamed and swollen, doth much ease them; and used with some salt, helps to dissolve knots or kernels in any part of the body. The juice of the herb, or as (Dioscorides saith) the leaves and flowers, with some fine Frankincensein powder, used in wounds of the body, nerves or sinews, doth singularly help to heal them. The distilled water of the herb performs well all the aforesaid cures, but especially for inflammations or watering of the eyes, by reason of the defluxion of rheum unto them.”
  The whole herb should be picked in May or when it begins to come into flower, and dried for later use, or used fresh. However other herbs are less toxic than this one and so treat groundsel with care.


Couch grass (pronounced coo-ch) is a much reviled weed that loves growing on lawns in Britain and infuriates gardeners because it is difficult to get rid of. It is classed as an invasive weed in the US, although some believe it is a native species in both North and South America. It is certainly a native of Europe, North Asia and North Africa, as well as Australia. It is a member of the Poacea or Gramineae family which includes rye, millet (bajra), oats, barley, sorghum and wheat as well as sugar cane and the grasses.
  It is known as Quitch or Quitch grass (perhaps this is how J. K. Rowling invented Quidditch, the name of Harry Potter’s favourite game) and Quackgrass so has as many English names as Latin ones for its genus.  Another of its names is Dog’s Grass, because dogs will search for the rough leaves if they feel ill and will eat them to make themselves vomit.
 Although it is viewed as a pest today, the root was valued in the past for its medicinal properties. It is a sweet-tasting root that is said to taste a little like liquorice. It is the root which is usually used in traditional medicine systems, and it has been used since Roman times as a diuretic and to expel gravel in the bladder. The root has also been used as a coffee substitute like that of the dandelion and chicory when roasted. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten raw in spring and the root has also been ground to make meal and then mixed with wheat flour in times of scarcity.
  Couch grass has been approved by the German Commission E for urinary tract infections, and is useful if you have cystitis as it soothes the urinary tract and promotes the flow of urine. It is also said to be good for Benign Prostate Hypertrophy (BPH), for gout and rheumatism. The infusion, one ounce or the root to one pint of boiling water, steeped for 20 minutes can also be used externally as a wash for swollen limbs. It can also be drunk as a diuretic and to remove gravel. The wash will also act as a moisturizer for dry skin and is said to be useful for making rough skin smoother. The decoction can be made with 2-4 ounces of the chopped root boiled in 2 pints of water until the water has been reduced by half. Juice expressed from the roots can be added to water and drunk too. For this you need half a teaspoon to 2 teaspoons of juice and water. It has also been used as a mild laxative, although eating bananas might be easier and more productive.
  Culpeper writing in his Herbal in the 17th century has this to say about it: -
“the most medicinal of all the quick grasses. The roots of it act powerfully by urine; they should be dried and powdered, for the decoction by water is too strong for tender stomachs, therefore should be sparingly used when given that way to children to destroy the worms. The way of use is to bruise the roots, and having well boiled them in white wine, drink the decoction; it is opening, not purging, very safe: it is a remedy against all diseases coming of stopping, and such are half those that are incident to the body of man; and although a gardener be of another opinion, yet a physician holds half an acre of them to be worth five acres of carrots twice told over.”
  Gerard, writing in the 16th century wrote: -                                                 
“Although that Couch-grasse be an unwelcome guest to fields and gardens, yet his physicke virtues do recompense those hurts; for it openeth the stoppings of the liver and reins without any manifest heat.”
 In his time it was used for cirrhosis of the liver and for jaundice.
    It is thought that the glycolic acid in the root makes it a good diuretic, and that the agropyrene also present makes it an antibiotic. One study by Newell et al (1996) found that it had sedative properties when given to rats and mice. It contains the phenolic glycoside, vanillin, the minerals calcium, phosphorous and potassium, flavonoids which include tricin; fructose, pectin, glucose, inositol and mannitol and the aerial parts are high in protein which makes it good animal feed.
  If its presence is annoying you and you don’t want to use it medicinally, an infusion of the whole chopped plant will make very good liquid plant food. It is a useful grass and not just an invasive weed.


The tiger lily is a relative of the much less in your face, lily-of-the-valley, as they are both Liliaceae family members. I think I first encountered a Tiger lily in my great-aunt’s garden in Worcestershire, England, and then in the Disney adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking-Glass.” The tiger lily was the first in the Garden of Live Flowers (Chapter 2) to talk to Alice:
“'O Tiger-lily,' said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, 'I wish you could talk!'
'We can talk,' said the Tiger-lily: 'when there's anybody worth talking to.’"
The tiger lily was much nicer to Alice than the rose, violet and daisy and I felt she was one of the better sorts of flower.
    There’s no doubt that these flowers are impressive, as they can grow to heights of 4 feet, and the ones in that garden of my childhood were much bigger than me. There is a superstition that if you smell the flowers of the tiger lily you will get freckles, probably because the vibrant orange petals are covered with black spots which resemble freckles.
  Tiger lilies are associated with remedies for uterine problems and it seems that a tincture of the plant is used to strengthen and tone the nerves of that region. It was used in cases of prolapsed uteri. However in traditional Chinese medicine, in which the plant has been used for at least 4,000 years it would seem that it is used for respiratory problems such as bronchitis while the bulb, dried is used in soups as an anti-flu measure. The buds, bulbs and young shoots are all edible, with the roasted bulbs being compared to a baked potato in flavour. They can also be used like kachnar flowers and cooked with meat. Dried parts of this plant are used in egg dishes, so go well in scrambled eggs and omelettes. In China they are symbols of wealth and prosperity.
  In the Kyoto region of Japan the bulbs are traditionally boiled (they are said to taste a bit like parsnips) and combined with pickled plum puree to serve at New Year’s festivals.
  The tiger lily is native to China, Japan and Korea and found its way to the States in 1804. There are native lilies in the US but this is not one of them.
  There have been several studies carried out by Chinese researchers into the properties of the tiger lily and it has been found to exhibit some anti-tumour activity (Journal of Phytochemistry 1994, September, Vol. 34 (1) 227-32 Mimaki Y. et al “Steroidal Saponins from the bulbs of Lilium lancifolium and their anti-tumour activity”), to be useful in the treatment of mastitis and breast cancer and the bulbs exhibit antibacterial properties as well as being diuretic and antiparasitic.
 Hu Wy et al, August 2007, Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi Vol. 32 (16):1656-59, “Studies on chemical constituents in fresh fleshy scaleleaf of Lilium lancifolium” found that it contained berberine, the first time this has been found in a lily. It is found in Berberis Lycium or Wolfberry and the Barberry. (The scale-leaf is on the bulbs of the tiger lily.)
  The roots also have anti-inflammatory properties according to research carried out by Kwon Ok et al, July 26th 2010, Journal of Ethnopharmacol “Anti-inflammatory effects of methanol extracts of the roots of Lilium lancifolium in LPS-stimulated RAW264.7 cells.”
  Research is limited however and more needs to be done to discover if the results of these studies can be reproduced.
  It is known that cats and tiger lilies do not get along as the plants can cause renal failure and death to cats. So think twice if you buy Tiger lilies for your garden and have a feline friend.


Red currants are very closely related to blackcurrants, Ribes nigrum and the other sweeter variety, white currants. They are a gorgeous glossy red jewel-like fruit which can be eaten raw, but they are bitter, so mostly cooked. They can be mixed with blackcurrants in pies and jams, or used alone. They should not be confused with cranberries, although you can make a delicious red currant jelly that can be used with meat dishes. Like blackcurrants they are members of the Grossulariaceae or gooseberry (the European kind) family.
  Red currants are native to north, central Europe and northern Asia; they were first cultivated in Scandinavia and were introduced to the London market in the late 16th century, and taken in 1639 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639.

They were cultivated not only for their edible qualities but for medicinal purposes as well as they have 4 times as much vitamin C as an orange when compared by weight, so were useful to combat scurvy which is due to a vitamin C deficiency which was more prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Red currants also contain the mineral magnesium which is essential for the health of bones, nerves muscles and the healthy functioning of the heart. It also helps to regulate blood pressure and levels of blood sugar. Vitamin C of course helps to boost the immune system and has antioxidant properties which help protect the body from scavenging free-radicals which can damage healthy cells and cause cancers. It also boosts the body’s production of collagen which puts life back in to tired, jaded skin. Vitamin C is also essential for wound healing. Red currants are also rich in potassium which also helps to regulate blood pressure and promotes a healthy heart, bones’ and muscles’ contraction and aids digestion.
  Red currants also contain traces of the minerals zinc, selenium, copper, manganese, and some phosphorous while also containing some of the B-complex vitamins, vitamin K and a little vitamin A, along with amino acids.
  The fresh leaves of the red currant bush contain the toxin hydrogen cyanide, but this is not dangerous in small doses. In small quantities it can help improve digestion and it is claimed that it has a place in cancer treatments. However an overdose can result in respiratory failure be fatal.
  The berries have a mild laxative effect and contain sugars and dietary fibre, so are a good, no-fat, no-cholesterol, and low-calorie food for those on a weight-loss diet. The leaves can be chopped and made into a tisane (fresh or dried) and used as a diuretic or to relieve the pain of inflammation in rheumatism. The leaves can be warmed and put into a poultice and placed on painful rheumatic joints and are also used to relieve the pain and swellings resulting from sprains or dislocated joints.
  If you pulp the fresh berries you can make a face mask (leave it on for 20 to 30 minutes before rinsing off with tepid water, then splashing your face with cold water) which will leaves your skin feeling fresher and more elastic. A yellow dye can be obtained from the leaves and a black one from the fruit- although it would be better if you found ways of eating the berries rather than using them in this way.
  You can poach red currants in a little water, cooking them for about 4 minutes or until they just begin to burst and sprinkle them with sugar and serve with cream for a really quick, easy dessert, or pour them over ice cream or try this simple recipe for a Red Currant Fool.

750 gr red currants removed from stalks
2 tsps vanilla extract
4 tbsps icing sugar (or confectioner’s sugar)
200 ml double or whipping cream
200 ml natural Greek yoghurt (thick natural yoghurt)

Separate the fruit and put two-thirds of it into a blander with 2 tbsps of the sugar and blend to a puree.
Whip the cream until it is stiff then add the vanilla extract and the remaining sugar and whisk until stiff again.
Add the yoghurt and fruit puree to this and mix in well. Fold in the remaining fruit, leaving some to decorate the top of the fool with, and mix well.
Spoon into individual glasses and refrigerate until ready to serve.
This has Taste and is a Treat.



The name opoponax comes from the ancient Greek, opos meaning vegetable juice and panax meaning a panacea or cure-all. The plant, Opoponax chironium, is native to the southern Mediterranean regions and also grows in parts of Africa, such as Somalia and Kenya, as well as in Iran. The botanical name chironium means that it was associated with Chiron the centaur who, in Greek mythology, was the first medical practitioner who was given healing herbs such as centaury by Artemis the goddess of hunting. It is also known as Sweet myrrh and Bisabol myrrh, although these terms are not necessarily related to Opoponax chironium as there are several varieties.
  Opoponax is a member of the Umbelliferae plant family and as such is related to fennel, carrots, angelica, hemlock, lovage and cow parsley among others. The oleo resin extracted from cuts in the base of the stems of this plant is used in the perfume industry and has been used as incense for centuries. It is one of those Biblical resins along with balm of Gilead, True myrrh, frankincense and used along with cinnamon and cassia for its aroma. The smell of the fresh juice which is dried to form the resin is not very pleasant, but King Solomon seemed to believe that it was the best incense available to him.
  The aroma is said to be reminiscent of lavender and to have a balsamic tinge to it. It has been used for centuries in the perfume industry and James Joyce, the early twentieth century novelist was familiar with it as Leopold Bloom, his main character in the epic tome “Ulysses” recognized it as an ingredient of his wife, Molly’s perfume. It also makes an appearance in Thomas Pynchon’s later work, “Against the Day” where “Plug” Loafsley’s club is said to smell of it combined with bodily smells and vervain. It makes an appearance in other novels, but these two novelists clearly knew exactly what it was, as opposed to Stephen King, who uses it rather nonsensically in one or two of his books. No doubt it is a name to conjure with, but if you use it you really should know what it is, I think.
 In times past, opoponax was used to unblock obstructions in the body in the organs and in the uterus, so was used as an emmenagogue. It was also used to cure fits of hysterics, as the aroma has a soothing effect which is said to open us up to our spiritual side. For centuries it was used to protect against evil of all kinds, and was used to cleanse and purify the spirit. It has been used to treat respiratory problems, and as an anti-spasmodic. Now, however its chief use is in the perfume industry and as incense. It is good combined with other spicy sweet smelling things such as rose, star anise, vanilla, amber, cloves, juniper, spikenard and patchouli among other things. You need about 10 grains of the resin for a potent smell. It is calming and worth smelling, even if you only try it once!


Bastard balm clearly doesn’t care about the slur on its lineage, as it looks as though it is poking its tongue out at the world. It has orchid-like flowers which may be completely white or pink or a combination of these colours. It is very rare in Britain today, although it can be found in parts of Devon. It is a protected species, although it is much more common in mainland Europe. It can also be found in Turkey. The plant smells of new-mown hay as does sweet woodruff, because of the coumarins present in the leaves.
  It has been used traditionally in a number of European countries for a variety of aliments.
  The ancient physicians of Myddfai used it in combination with other herbs for fevers: -
“The mugwort, madder, meadow sweet, milfoil, hemp, red cabbage, and the tutsan, all these seven herbs enter into the composition of the medicine required. Whosoever obtains them all, will not languish long from a wounded lung, or need fear for his life. Any of the following herbs may be added thereto, butcher's broom, agrimony, tutsan, dwarf elder, amphibious persicaria, centaury, round birth wort, field scabious, pepper mint, daisy, knap weed, roots of the red nettle, crake berry, St.John's wort, privet, wood betony, the roots of the yellow goat's beard, heath, water avens, woodruff, leaves of the earth nut, agrimony, wormwood, the bastard balm, small burdock, and the orpine.”
They also employed it in this way, although clearly there were white and pink bastard balms in Mid-Wales at the time as this remedy calls for the “reddish” variety.
“A woman who is subject to profuse menstruation, should take the reddish bastard balm, small burdock, orpine, stinking goose foot, pimpernel, water avens, with the ashes of a hart's horns, that has been killed with his antlers on, boiling them, as well as possible in red wine, straining the liquor carefully, and drinking it daily, till it is finished, abstaining (the while) from stimulating food. Being restrained by the above means, the blood will be habitually diverted to the thighs and ankles.”
  In Italy a tea or tisane is made with it and the infusion is used as a remedy for eye inflammation. The tisane is said to have anti-spasmodic properties which could be why the Physicians of Myddfai used it in the remedy above.
  A decoction is made to get rid of kidney stones with a handful each of couch grass (Agropyron repens) which most people detest because it grows on lawns, bastard balm and the common mallow (Malva sylvestris). The whole plant of each is used including the root; these should be shopped and put in a pan with 1½ litres of water, brought to the boil and simmered for 15 minutes. The liquid will be the same colour as tea. This should be drunk over three days to get rid of kidney stones, but be warned- if you drink this your urine will be dark and tea-coloured for the first two days, but will then return to normal when the kidneys have been flushed out thoroughly.
  There have been clinical trials on this plant and some have found that it is liver protective and helps heal liver damage in vitro, although coumarins are supposed to damage the liver in large doses. A study conducted by Biljana Kaurinovic et al., published in “Molecules” Vol. 16 (pp 3152-67) on 14th April 2011, “Antioxidant Activities of Melittis melissophyllum” states that the essential oil from the leaves has been used for its sedative, narcotic, antifungal, antibacterial and antifungal effects and that it is a muscle relaxant and spasmolytic. The leaves contain the flavonoids kaempferol, apigenin and luteolin among others. Extracts from the leaves showed antioxidant activities in vitro in this study. Another study suggests that the plant can reduce inflammation, although these are studies which have not been replicated yet.
  Traditionally the plant has been used as a diuretic, blood purifier, astringent, for wound healing, and as a sedative. It may be that further clinical trials will verify at least some of the traditional uses of the bastard balm.