Helpful herbs

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Throughout WWII, Scouts made herbal remedies for the injured. Today, we can honour their legacy by putting our own green fingers to good use 

Words: Aimee-lee Abraham | Papercraft: Becki Clark  | Photography: Phil Sowells

Throughout history, Scouts have shown themselves to be resilient people – making the most of what’s on their doorstops, lending a hand and taking the time to appreciate the things others mightn’t notice. It should come as no surprise, then, that during the 1940s – as war raged across Europe and medicine supplies ran critically low in the UK – they put on their walking boots, headed outside, and did something about it. They became herbalists.

Called upon by the Ministry of Supply, Scouts across the country set about harnessing a range of natural ingredients to replace the traditional pharmaceuticals no longer available to those in need. Together, they gathered things like horse chestnuts and broom tops, bagging them up into sacks bound for the battlefield, and for use in hospitals closer to home. 

The operation was impressive in scale. Herbal Committees were set up at county level, distribution centres dispatched the materials needed, and Scouts were encouraged to work in partnership with landowners to take advantage of their untapped stock, turning the landscape into their very own community apothecaries.

Today, it’s no longer of great national importance that Scouts forage for ingredients and make medicines in their spare time, but – as community herbalists Melissa Ronaldson and Rasheeqa Ahmad suggest – there is much that young people can learn from herbs, and real potential for them to reconnect with their history. 

Melissa runs the Herbal Barge, a herbal clinic aboard a London houseboat, offering individual consultations, workshops and a pop-in apothecary. Practising as a herbalist for nearly 20 years, she first became aware of her ability to understand and utilise plants when she had a child. Taking up an adult education course with little expectation beyond access to the créche, she stumbled upon something very special. ‘Within just a few lessons,’ she says, ‘I felt I had found the precise thing I needed to 
do with the rest of my life.’

Almost immediately, Melissa started noticing plants that could be collected and utilised, growing right under her nose. ‘I’d always loved plants, but I hadn’t understood them. Through that course, I was introduced to herbs I’d known all my life, and I started to see things differently. In my experience working with children and young people, I’ve noticed that they have similar reactions. They’re fast learners – often very intuitive. Once they’ve learned to see and identify a plant safely, they can never unsee it. Meeting plants is not unlike meeting people. Once you know their faces, you’ll always recognise them when you cross paths in the street.’ 

When Europe’s biggest influx of migrants and refugees since World War II turned into an escalating refugee crisis, Melissa – much like the Scouts of wartime Britain – felt compelled to do something tangible to help. She headed straight to the heart of what became known as The Jungle: a refugee camp in Calais, France.

Initially, she assisted volunteers in the kitchens, advising chefs on how to best utilise common kitchen ingredients such as garlic, ginger and turmeric to yield their antimicrobial (infection-fighting) effects. Since then, she has become a valued helper on the ground in Calais and Dunkirk, working alongside traditional doctors and nurses to provide fully integrative treatments for refugees. 

For a while, she dispensed remedies from the makeshift clinics volunteers had set up but when the camp was torn down in October 2016, things got considerably more challenging. Nevertheless, she persisted – filling up her van with supplies, and operating from the back of it. She still visits France regularly, dealing mainly with respiratory and skin issues from the backseat – things like coughs, colds, and allergies – ‘the common issues you see in ordinary children in ordinary circumstances’. Her most popular items include a throat soother mild enough to be dispensed to babies, and a homemade chest rub that aids restful sleep, though she occasionally works with doctors to support those with more severe ailments too. 

Despite growing accustomed to the harsh reality of the situation, Melissa is yet to become desensitised to the human stories behind the headlines.

‘There are countless examples of unspeakable heroism and resilience on the ground,’ she says, ‘but what people don’t understand until they visit is that there’s also a degree of normality. People have to get on with their lives because they have no choice.’ 

‘A day that really stands out is the day I spent my birthday in the camp, before it was torn down. I’d been working non-stop, distributing medicines and doing consultations back to back, when one of the translators insisted I stopped to get a cup of tea at one of the makeshift cafés that had sprung up. When I got there, a crowd of refugees, translators and nurses – some of whom I’d never even met before – collected a load of Eid cakes and repurposed them as a birthday cake. Then they started to sing. I can’t even describe what that felt like.’

Melissa’s distribution works on a ‘pay it forward’ basis. Although she makes the bulk of the medicines herself, she’s constantly looking for ways to make the operation more sustainable and consistent. Recently, she’s been running more workshops and sharing her cough syrup recipe with other herbalists, who also run workshops for her. Those new to herbal medicine who would like to learn more pay a small donation to reimburse teachers for the materials used, and go home with a newfound skill for life. 

In the meantime, the finished products are either passed back to Melissa to replenish her stock, or distributed in the UK as part of a similar project being launched in London by Rasheeqa Ahmad. Rasheeqa is a practitioner keen to take Melissa’s model and apply it to the homeless community in the capital, who are often unable to access healthcare and prone to the same ailments Melissa sees in Calais. Together, they hope to make herbal remedies accessible to the people who would most benefit, and provide the people who attend their workshops with the skills they need to become more self-sufficient and intuitive. They also want to rewrite the narrative around nature in cities, encouraging more people to get outside more often. The key to this is allowing everyone to have a go, and as Scouts, we can help to facilitate this. Though we aren’t in a position to donate supplies, we can still do more to empower young people to engage with nature, and use what they learn to do good in their own communities and beyond. 

‘Children and young people learn best with herbs when they’re free to engage their senses. When they can taste, smell and touch. Once they’re doing that, they’re already engaged,’ Rasheeqa says. 

Melissa agrees. ‘We’re living in the post-Harry Potter generation. Young people love making potions. They love getting their hands dirty. They like playing. They like having the autonomy to explore and to try new things. They like being helpful. Herbs provide opportunities to do all that. And then there’s the science of it. The practicality of it. The skills. I mean, it’s on a plate, really.’   

Feeling inspired? Check out our safety guidance below, then dive into the two recipes featured with your Scouts and see where they take you. 

 

Safety guidance

  • These recipes feature a herbal tea to sip and sample, and a balm which is applied topically to the skin. Check with young people and their parents before running the session to see if there are any allergies in the group, just as you would when running any cooking activity. 
  • It’s important to be aware that some allergies would prevent young people from being in contact with the ingredients needed for the activity, ingesting them, or – in extreme cases – being in the vicinity of the activity.
  • Adult supervision is required throughout, especially when working with heat.
  • Make sure you choose the right type of stove to use in the calendula balm recipe. An electric stove is best, although alternatively you could use a stove with a supply of gas which will last for the duration of the activity. Make sure the stove is supervised and in a secure location.
  • Remember that information on herbal remedies should not replace professional advice by a qualified medical practitioner. Minor health conditions such as mild skin irritation may be suitable for self-treatment. However, if you are worried about any health condition, it is always advisable to have a face-to-face consultation with a doctor in order to obtain a diagnosis and treatment advice. These recipes are complementary remedies, not cures. Remind your young people that they should see them as such, and never attempt to make their own herbal remedies unsupervised.

  Flower2

Rasheeqa’s bedtime brew 

Time: 10 minutes 

Before you can even think about sampling herbal remedies, you need to familiarise yourself with how plants taste, smell and feel. One of the simplest ways to start experimenting is with herbal teas. 

Promoting peaceful sleep, chamomile, catnip and limeflowers make for the perfect bedtime brew, and is a great healthy alternative to the sugary builder’s tea and hot chocolate you might usually indulge in on nights away. Sip slowly before everyone goes to sleep on camp, or to mark the end of your Scout meeting. 

  

Ingredients 

  • ½ teaspoon dried chamomile flowers (purchased from a reliable source)
  • 1 teaspoon limeflowers
  • ½ teaspoon catnip

 

Equipment

  • Teapot
  • Spoon
  • Kettle
  • Mug

 

Instructions 

  • Put the dried chamomile flowers, limeflowers and catnip in a teapot.
  • Mix them together using a spoon.
  • Carefully pour freshly boiled water into the teapot. Put the lid on. 
  • Allow the herbs to steep for 10 minutes.
  • Strain the liquid into a mug. As your pour, take a moment to breathe in the aromas. What can you smell? What can you see? How do you feel?

  FLOWER3

Rasheeqa’s soothing calendula balm 

Time: 30 minutes (set-up, preparation and finish), 3 hours (infusion)

Calendula is an oil extracted from the yellow and orange flower heads of marigold. Mixed with a little oil and some beeswax, it transforms into a soothing balm with anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. Soothing itchy, inflamed or sunburnt skin, it can be comforting to apply after a long hike, or whenever the skin is feeling a little unloved. Make a batch together as part of your next residential or night away, and pop it in the first aid kit.  

 

Ingredients 

  • Dried calendula (purchased from a reliable source)
  • Organic plant oil – olive, rapeseed or sunflower seed will all do
  • Beeswax pellets 

 

Equipment 

  • Electric stove (or gas stove with enough gas to last for the duration of the activity) 
  • Sterilised jam jars
  • Muslin cloth 
    Strainer
  • Measuring jug

 

Instructions 

  • Loosely fill a sterilised glass jar with the dried calendula flowers.
  • Pour in your organic plant oil, fully covering the flowers. 
  • Talk to your young people about how to use a stove safely. 
  • Once you’ve finished your safety talk, gather together to place the filled jars over the stove in a pan of very gently simmering water. You should leave this to infuse for three to four hours, supervising throughout. 
  • Strain the oil through a large square of muslin cloth placed over a strainer, carefully pouring the mixture into a measuring jug. 
  • Measure the volume of your infused oil. 
  • For every 5ml of oil, you’ll need 1g of beeswax. For example, if you have 100ml of oil, you’ll need 20g of beeswax.
  • Place your jug of oil into a pan of gently simmering water. 
  • Add your calculated weight of beeswax pellets. These will soon melt and merge with the oil. 
  • Once the oil and wax have completely melted, remove from the heat. 
  • Pour the mixture swiftly into your small glass containers. The mixture will set quickly as it cools. 
  • Once the mixture is fully cooled and set into a balm, put lids on the jars and label them with the date, ingredients and instructions for use. 

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