• 1
  • 2
  • 3
Read article

the magical alchemy of plant medicine

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Driving back from the south coast last week I brought a sore throat and a head cold home with me. Not surprising really. I went down there to spend time with my most favourite dog, Mr Pablo, and his owner, Tanmaya . Pabs was nearing the end of his life and he chose to leave this world while I was staying there. I had two days with him wandering round me, lying across me and loving me.

The very next day he climbed in the car to go out with Tanny and when they arrived home he was dead. We sat around him in shock for ages and then we set about giving him the best ritualised burial inside a circle of love, candles and prayers. With our blubbering farewell speeches Mr Pablo’s wake lasted well past midnight. It was cold out there on Gulaga mountain side. Even the mist was miserable.

Next day we cried a lot and only managed reluctant glances at food.

So I went walking looking for herbs to warm our tummies and help us eat.

While Tanny planted a wild briar rose (Rosa canina, the rosehip rose) on Pablo’s grave and I gathered wild fennel leaves and seeds. In the garden I found nettles for strength, rosemary for remembrance, Florence fennel (the bulb fennel you get in the shops), a few early rosehips, carrots, potatoes and onions. Sobbing onto the chopping board I made us a restoring soup. Hopefully the fennel would help us digest and the nettles would start working during the night.

I grew up on rosehip syrup made at home by boiling down the crushed hips into a thick liquid. With honey added it tastes like rich rose cordial. When no-one was around I used to swig it straight from the bottle. Bursting with vitamin C this herbal syrup (Delrosa) was commercially made and distributed during the war to help strengthen the tummies, circulation and immune systems of a population on a severely rationed diet, and support the growth of the children.

Until about 1930, when they were banned by law from helping women at home, the herbalist midwives used their own strong brews of Rosa canina flowers for nourishing women during birthing. It was used as a medicine for hundreds of years to prevent or stop the mum haemorrhaging after the birth.

Arriving at Tanny’s in autumn when the rosehips are ripe is a treat not to be missed. An avenue of sweet rose fruit to chew on and gather is worth a long drive.  In spring the bushes are covered with heavenly scented pink flowers inviting me to gather them. Then I make fresh roses and almond oil face cream in time for special Christmas presents.

Not many wild briar roses are to be found in Bondi these days. They’ve all turned into David Austen’s with scent like rose flavoured fly spray.

So the evening after Pabs died we listlessly gathered round our soup. Slowly the warming effect of the fennel, especially the wild seeds, began to work. Roger’s headache disappeared and Julia told us her tummy pains had gone. Nicola’s sinus congestion cleared and she began to breathe easily and my nausea went away. The cold, damp congested feeling we all had from our heads to our stomachs, the unshed tears of grief, was gone by the end of the meal.

And we went to bed feeling a little better in our bodies if not in our hearts.

The first time I remember my Gran using fennel on me I was 6 years old and my eyes were very red, sore and swollen. My dad wanted to go to the doctor and an argument erupted with my Gran and mum shouting about wasting time and money and picking the remedy from nature and fennel seeds are the best. I locked myself in my room and the they went for a walk. My dad stormed off up the road muttering about witches in the family. Mum and Gran got home with a bag full of fennel seeds and proceeded to add lots of seeds to a cup full of milk. On the stove on a low temperature they heated it slowly and let it infuse for 20 mins. They called me down and got me to lie on the sofa. They soaked two pieces of cotton in the milky fennel brew and they popped them over my closed eyes. The relief was almost immediate. And 20 mins later my infected red swollen painful eyes were completely healed.

Of course this was organic, unprocessed milk full of minerals and vitamins not destroyed by pasteurizing and homogenising. Untainted by the chemical fertilisers and weed killers of today. Those were fine days – collecting the warm milk from the dairy on the edge of town – hanging about for the cream to gather on the top and scooping it off to put on my porridge with honey.

I have used this fennel seed remedy for the eyes many times since. It never fails. As a regular eye poultice for eyes that work at computers all day it is wonderful. Try it 1-3 times a week. Get organic milk to mix it with. And watch out for the time to collect or buy good quality, fresh, this year seeds. If the seeds are too old they will be ineffective.

This is some of the magical alchemy of plant medicine.

Wild fennel lines the railway tracks and the edges of parks all over Sydney; and the road sides of the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands. There it is offering itself to us from Spring to the end of Autumn. First the leaves, a tender and delicious explosion of deep green lushness, when the plant is lower to the ground. Slowly it grows taller and taller and the feathery leaves get stretched out along the main stem. The flower heads are like little umbrellas with lots of tiny, yellowy, lime green flowers. These are also delicious and medicinal, like the leaves and stems. But the seeds have the strongest medicinal actions.

Fennel tea, brewed strong and left to infuse, or brew, for half an hour, taken 4 times a day, will increase milk production for nursing mothers.

Fennel is great to mix with bread, fish or meat. It helps you break down the oily bits and stops the wind and bloating from undigested foods in your belly. Mixed into bread is also an old tradition. This helps stop the undigested grain from turning damp, fermenting and cloggy inside you. Because of these medicinal qualities fennel was believed to help you lose weight.

The health benefits of adding it to your diet have been written about since the time of Pliny in 77 A.D. The ancient Greeks revered it as giving strength, courage and long life. Their name for it was marathon. Florence fennel is the one in the shops for many months each year. Buy it every week and add it to something you cook. It has the same benefits but you don’t get the opportunity to eat the seeds. You have to go and collect from the wild fennel yourself. It’s worth it.

Back at Tanny’s the next morning Dave reported on his night of unbroken sleep. He told us it was his habit to wake a few times to go for dribbly pees and this morning he awoke to have a lovely long easy one. He declared his new addiction to regular fennel in his meals. Julia’s tummy was still pain free, and by lunchtime when her period arrived with ease, her dedication to fennel in her meals was determined. They all requested more fennel and nettles with dinner, when Dave added that he was experiencing noticeably improved vision. And we all were feeling stronger and with a deep glow of love, remembrance and gratitude for fourteen years of Mr Pablo’s presence, instead of the cold wet misery of the grief.

There’s that fennel and rosemary at work.  

When I got home I made myself a large pot of rosemary, lavender, peppermint, sage, thyme and ginger, added honey and lemon juice and sipped this regularly for a couple of days, took Echinacea tabs and kept up the fennel in my meals.  I found a big pin up photo of Pablo and put it on my fridge so I could help send him on his way with love. And I got strong again.

Tanmaya is the maker of the Himalayan Flower Enhancers so popular all over the world.  I use them and I give them to my friends and patients for miraculous transformations.              

You can find him on   

And if you want medicines from me you can click on my name below and find my websites


Alchemy: Linda Bates

Photography: Andy Cowen

Illustration: Thomas Jackson











blog comments powered by Disqus