Herbs of Early Summer - Fennel, Thyme, Chamomile and Lemon Balm

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a perennial herb, now naturalized here, especially on limestone. The name derives from the Roman foenum = hay, and they cultivated it for its aromatic fruits and succulent edible shoots. It was prized for its medicinal virtues as long ago as 1500BC: valued by Dioscorides in C1st, featured in the materia medica from Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, and one of the 9 sacred plants of the Anglo Saxons, who frequently mentioned it in cookbooks & medical recipes. It appears in most herbals since that time (Gerard, Parkinson, Coles). Charlemagne declared that fennel was essential to every imperial garden (in 812 AD).

Bruised fennel seed is a great cure for indigestion (eg wind, IBS), being gently warming and antispasmodic. Steep a few tsp in a couple of cupfuls of boiling water, and drink throughout the day: it also mixes well with aniseed and cardamom. Fennel was considered as one of the best herbs for melancholy by Hildegard von Bingen *

I also use the fresh green leaves and stems in salads and teas. Both seeds and leaves are aromatic and carminative, diuretic (aiding detox), promote milk production in nursingmums, and help to regulate periods; together with aniseed and dill, it is found in gripe water. It is a delightful eyewash (use fennel tea bags or sterile lint soaked in well strained fennel tea), and a stimulating bath (as are lemon balm and thyme – brew a teapot full and pour it into the bath).

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, sweet balm, bee balm) is a native perennial of southern Europe, especially in mountainous areas, but is now naturalized in southern England. ‘Melissa’ is from the Greek for ‘bee’, and the bees do love this fragrant herb – when it is covered in bees is a sure sign that its time to harvest Melissa. ‘Balm’ is an abbreviation of ‘balsam’, the chief of sweet smelling oils, (from the Hebrew for ‘spice’ and ‘perfume’) and it was considered very restorative, especially for the nervous system.

John Evelyn wrote ‘Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy’. Carmelite water (a compound of balm, lemon peel, nutmeg and angelica root) was very highly esteemed for stress, anxiety, headaches and neuralgia. It is calming, and relieves fevers, helps uterine disorders, including menstrual problems. It is antiviral and anti bacterial : dab the tea onto cold sores. Combined with peppermint it is a traditional remedy for digestive problems (such as IBS) and poor sleep. Combine with a few sprigs of wood sorrel and a slice of lemon for a very refreshing drink.

*Lived 1098 – 1170 Mystic, herbalist, abbess, artist /poet/musician/ composer, visionary and saint.

There is a bewildering array of Chamomiles – their scent is a good guide to identification. Anthemis nobilis ( Roman chamomile, Maythen, common or lawn chamomile ) is a perennial and is scented all over: Matricaria recutita ( Wild or German chamomile) is an annual, and only the flowers smell. The name comes from the Greek for ‘ground apple’ – it has an apple like scent. It grows on well drained waste ground, often at field margins. The Spanish name, ‘manzanilla’ means ‘little apple’, the name given to their lightest sherry, which is flavoured with this plant.

It is another of the 9 sacred Anglo Saxon herbs, and an old favourite garden herb, with a long tradition of medicinal use. It was an aromatic strewing herb of the Middle Ages, and was popular in gardens for the scent released when it was walked on. As a tea it is gently relaxing and anti-inflammatory. It makes an excellent compress for inflamed joints and nerve problems, and it is also used for skin problems (eg the essential oil and aromatic water in eczema lotions), and for acne and abscesses. Grieves (‘A Modern Herbal’) refers to poppy head and chamomile poultices. The E.O’s are directly anti-inflammatory and anti- microbial: a dilution of 1:170,000 of the E.O heals infected wounds (Griggs, ‘Green Pharmacy’).

When making tea, cover the pot or cup, as the volatile oils in the steam contain much of the vitality of the plant- so a steam inhalation is good for sinusitis and as a facial.Some of the many uses for Chamomile are : inflammations of the digestive & upper respiratory tract, sore mouth & throat, teething, conjunctivitis; for insomnia, headaches, restlessness, spasm, PMT. I like to use it with valerian, hops and passionflower for the nervous system; with licorice for ulcers and indigestion; with peppermint and balm for wind, diarrhoea, colic, heartburn, travel sickness, and IBS.

Footbaths, baths and hair rinses are also beneficial.

Similar looking herbs, Ox-eye daisy (Field daisy, Moon daisy) and Common daisy (Bruisewort, Llygad y Dydd, or ‘eye of the day’ – hence the name ‘day’s eye’) are of similar tonic use as the chamomiles, esteemed by Dioscorides, Gerard, & Culpeper). Used for chronic coughs & bronchial catarrh, they also had a great reputation for treating wounds, bruises, ulcers and skin diseases. It was said that ‘when you can put your foot on 7 daisies, summer is come’.

Beloved by bees, the Common garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and its smaller relative, Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum, ‘mother of thyme’ ) love heaths and sunny banks. The name derives from the Greek ‘to fumigate’ or maybe ‘thumus’ meaning courage, since it strengthens and invigorates. In medieval times it was a symbol of activity, bravery and energy. The leaves are sweetly aromatic, and it is another long valued medicine: it is powerfully antiseptic and tonic. A 5% aqueous solution of thymol ( one of the E.O’s found in thyme) can kill typhus bacilli in 2 minutes, strep & diphtheria in 4, and staph in less than 8 (Griggs). In 1914 thymol was one of the few antiseptics available (pre antibiotics): less harmful to tissues than coal tar derived carbolic acid and 25x more germicidal. It was one of the key ingredients of ‘Listerine’ mouthwash, & valued in the WW1 trenches to control infections, colds and catarrh as well as intestinal worms. It was also important in the home medicine chest. Actually Ajowan seed ( from India) was a better source of thymol - but sourcing this during the war was problematic due to Germany being the main manufacturer of the oil ( see ‘Green Allies’ ).

It is an excellent digestive remedy for spasm and infections, especially combined with mint ( for wind) or agrimony ( for diverticulitis); for colds, fevers and coughs – the oils open the airways & relieve wheezing, encouraging expectoration. I often put it in chest rubs, with infused oil of elecampane as the base. Sore throats, oral thrush, ulcers, inflamed or infected gums, all benefit from the use of thyme, as a gargle, mouthwash or tea. A poultice is useful for wounds, warts, abscesses and boils, and as a wash, for hair(dandruff), and in the bath.

Thyme is used as a condiment by the Arabs the powder is mixed with roasted sesame, coriander seeds and salt, and eaten with bread (Za’atar) and in salads. It is used in herbal tobacco, perfumery (soap), insect repellents, and in many foods.

NOTE: Thyme and Roman chamomile are contra-indicated in pregnancy.

Written for The Hedge, Spring & Summer 2018.

Source: www.thehedge.org.uk