This morning I have been making ‘skin healing medicine’ with my three-year-old daughter Elektra. It’s a herbal ointment we use for her dry skin that is a mix of the delightful sunny Calendula officinales also known as marigold, the intriguing Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), and the fragrant lady Lavendula officinales (lavender) with her famously calming blooms.
Harvesting the flowers from the garden over the summer months is a total joy. Elektra is extremely observant of every plant and cuts each flower head so carefully (with her Hello Kitty scissors) all the while singing little ditties to the world. Hypericum’s yellow flowers stain your fingers deep, dark, red as they are picked, we try to harvest as close to the full moon as possible on sunny dry days.
Once we have our floral crop they are individually placed upon newspaper in the airing cupboard to dry out for a couple of days. We do this because if we were to infuse them in oil straight away they can be more prone to moulding. Once dry we fill three glass jars with the flowers and cover them with organic Almond oil (that a friend sends from her yield in Southern Spain). The herbs are then left for one lunar cycle. We leave the Hypericum oil in the full sun of our south facing front garden so all visitors are met with the alchemical process, it is truely amazing to watch the yellow flowers colour the pale almond oil a deep blood red within days.
The Latin name Hypericum is derived from a Greek word meaning "over an apparition" and the plant was believed to ward off evil spirits. This highlights its modern use as an anti-depressant since depression is often described as ‘being taken over’, ’loss of control’ or ‘feeling low’. Perforatum signifies the perforations or little dots on the green leaves that you can see if you hold them up to the sun.
Applied externally to the skin Calendula is primarily a wound-healer, but it also has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. The yellow and orange flowers of our Calendula plants dye the oil a brilliant yellow. This one is also left for one lunar cycle.
The name lavender derives from the Latin lavare, meaning, “to wash”. The Romans who brought this lovely herb to Britain used it to scent their baths. As well as smelling fabulous it has wound healing, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. We bury the lavender and almond oil infusion at the bottom of our garden in the vegetable plot – we found this technique for infusing oils in an old herbal and have had fantastic results. The cooling earth energies are exactly what we wanted buried deeply amongst the roots of our Fig tree this infused oil took on a dark green tinge and a still quality – prefect to counteract itchy irritated skin problems – we left this on in the ground for 3 lunar cycles.
Once all the oils are ready we strain the herbs out and store the oils until we are ready to create our magic ointment
Equal amounts of each oil are poured into a Bain-Marie and then melted with beeswax and organic fairtrade Coco/Shea butter to form a creamy ointment.
The beeswax is from our local beekeeper, Michael, and it arrived as a big round cake of deliciously honey waxy smelling beauty – He cleans out his spent hives and filters the wax with rainwater.
It was quite tricky chipping bits off this cake of wax to weight for the balm, as it is a very sticky consistency, so we used a little knife to literally chip away little flakes of wax. It is so much nicer than using mass prepared snow white pellets of wax than one can buy from wholesalers and some chemists.
Beeswax is the natural wax made by honeybees in the hive and its Latin names are Cera alba and Cera flava. A wide variety of cosmetics use beeswax as an emulsifier, emollient, and moisturizer. After processing, beeswax remains a biologically active product retaining anti-bacterial properties. It also contains vitamin A, which is essential for human cell development. Throughout time, people have used it as an antiseptic and for healing wounds.
Beeswax is added to the herbal infused oils to "set" them giving the ointment its consistency.
The Coco or Shea butter (both from Africa) give the ointment a soft creamy consistency. Shea butter contains more vitamins and is said to have superior healing capabilities than coco butter. In the past Europeans would have used lard or egg yolk.
25ml Coco/Shea butter
It is a good idea to do a spoon test when all the ingredients are melted together to get the consistency perfect. Drop a little of the mix onto a plate and leave for five mins, then mash it up with your fingers. If it’s too hard add more oils, too soft add more beeswax.
As we dispense the ointment into jars we add lavender essential oil (about 3-5 drops into each 60ml jar). A brilliant book that I have used constantly for recipies is Herbal Remedies by Chris Hedley and Non Shaw, full of useful creative ideas.
Since birth Elektra has had very sensitive skin with a predisposition to eczema. I was quite perturbed by this as I am not a sufferer myself and my eldest Harry has never had any kind of sensitivity reaction, but Elektra has a different dad to Harry and he is a classic allergy type, meaning he is prone to eczema, asthma and has sensitivities to dust, animals and pollen.
The healing balm has been amazing on Elektra’s skin really helping to clear the eczema. We have also cut out all dairy and wheat products from our diets, mine whilst breastfeeding, and now hers. She loves drinking almond, rice and sometimes soya milk. I recently stayed with a friend with a hemp seed milk maker and I now want to invest in one, because I am concerned at the sugars and additives in the packaged ones.
The digestive system is where a lot of skin problems and allergies originate so I have always used Chamomile with both kids to aid digestion brewed from the fresh flowers out of the garden. Chamomile is a mild bitter and herbal bitters have profound actions on the guts stimulating appetite and digestive processes she happily drinks unsweetened chamomile tea and now eats the flower heads right off the plants!!
Chamomile is totally safe for Babies and young kids and it is important to get children into drinking herbal teas and use to the many diverse flavours so that when they are ill administering herbs is easy. As a herbalist I see many parents wanting to give natural treatments to their children for specific health problems and my advice for getting children to happily take their medicine is to make herbal teas your daily family drink, making a pot of different delightfully coloured, aromatic smelling herbs is magical and a form of healing in itself.
I am Karen Lawton, a Green Witch living and working with plants in Hertfordshire, over the summers I tour with Sensory Solutions’ Witch theatre, dress up in Witchy costumes and teach folk about the joys of Herbs through practical sensory workshops around festival and fayres all over the U.K.