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Garden of Delights

Einstein said, “Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better”. Numerous studies have shown that getting outside into some green space is good for you and connecting with nature brings a host of benefits from reduced anxiety to increased fitness.  A 2009 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, summarised its findings by saying that the closer you live to nature, the healthier you're likely to be.

Einstein reminds us not just to be in nature, but to really observe nature in order to understand more about ourselves and the world around us. Learning how plants have been used in health, ritual and tradition over the centuries adds another rich layer of perspective to how one sees nature. In the garden, this means that all sorts of plants suddenly take on an added dimension and even the most diminutive species can grow in stature. Like getting to know a person, plants become even more interesting when you get to know their story. What once were weeds can become ingredients for teas or tonics to help support body systems, or valuable additions to balms and creams for topical application. Admittedly, from time to time this may create a little tension in the garden as cases are made as to why the raggedy patch of cleavers should stay as it is such a great herb for the lymphatic system!

But healing herbs aren’t just the modest weeds, many of the beauties and show queens of the garden are more than just a pretty face and it is wonderful to start to realise there is so much more to them than meets the eye. A beautiful rose catches the eye in a garden and it is well known that they have been used for centuries in everything from skin care and beauty regimes to love potions, but what about the lovely, shy little violet? Viola tricolor or ‘heartsease’ has more than a delightful scent as an attribute. It has been used since the Middle Ages mainly as a remedy for various skin ailments. More recently there have been studies into its possible use in helping treat cancer. The flowers are edible and make a beautiful addition to any salad, while the leaves make a nice tea which is said to help ease nervous headaches.

Take the beautiful golden flowers of the calendula; who could not love a plant that has the legend that if a young girl walks barefoot on its petals she will understand the language of birds? They are a delightful addition in any garden, with their vibrant orange blooms reminding us that spring is here.  Calendula also offers up many healing gifts and can be used in a variety ways; externally as an effective remedy for helping with skin problems like cuts, burns, nappy rash and cracked heels. Internally it can help soothe the digestive tract. I love it and use it alongside other herbs in balms and tea blends.

You can easily make your own calendula oil and this simple act is another lovely way of deepening your own connection to nature. Pick calendula flowers in the morning before the heat of the day has got to them, you’ll notice they are quite sticky to the touch and it is this resin which is revered for its healing attributes. Gently tear them up a bit to increase their surface area (I always say a little thank you to them while doing this), put them in a jar and cover with cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil or sweet almond oil. Do the lid up tightly, put the jar in a paper bag and place it somewhere warm like a windowsill. Give the jar a gentle shake every day for a couple of weeks, then strain and voila, you have your very own bottle of golden calendula-infused oil for external use.

From communing with little gems to blousy beauties, take some time out for yourself, get out into the garden or a local park and observe nature in its myriad forms in spring. Just being aware of how each plant is bursting forth into bud, or how each seedling starts to rise up out of the earth and unfurl itself to the sun, teaches us about the resilience of nature and how she travels through her cycles of decay and renewal – and that insight is a little bit of healing magic in itself.

(This article first appeared in my column in Element Magazine in September 2015)