Wild pharmacy: discovering the benefits of plants all around us

Jini Reddy heads out on a wild medicine walk with herbalist Rachel Corby and discovers how the plants around us, such as nettles, hawthorn and dandelions, offer a range of uses for our everyday health needs

A tiny, pretty, yellow star-shaped flower nestles in the palm of Rachel Corby’s hand. “Do you know what this is?” After a few unsuccessful guesses, she tells us: “St. John’s Wort. People know it as an anti-depressant. But if you fill a jam jar with the flower, add sunflower oil, leave it for a few weeks, and strain, then you’ll have a red oil that can help heal wounds, cuts and burns.”

I’m on a wild medicine walk at Wilderness festival on the outer fringes of its Cornbury Park site in Oxfordshire, and Corby – a herbalist and healer – is introducing us to, as she puts it “our heritage, the plants” and their healing properties. Nature’s pharmacy is awash with cures. “I believe that nature holds the key to great physical and mental health for humanity,” she says.

As she reminds us, wild medicine foraging was the only option our ancestors had before modern pharmacies came along and many plants contain the active ingredients for our our 21st century medicines. Small ailments, conditions, cuts and bruises can be easily treated by the nutritious, edible plants that grow in our hedgerows, our gardens and our woods.

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We crouch low to touch, smell, and taste the plants in our midst. She shows us how to firmly grasp a nettle to avoid being stung. It’s a wonder remedy though: a fresh tea brew cures hayfever, it’s cleansing, and immune boosting. Meanwhile, the delicate, thin, ribbed stems of the plantain herb are soothing to the skin and good for healing wounds.

The hawthorn berry is medicinal gold and a powerful heart-disorder cure, she claims, while rose petals will sort out your heart metaphorically speaking: “It’s good for lifting your spirits, when you’re feeling depressed, low and frazzled, or your heart is broken,” Corby says, as we all scribble down notes.

If you have a poor complexion, dandelion is your herb: “Many skin conditions arise from a sluggish digestive system and dandelion stimulates it,” she says, recommending chopping the leaves to eat in salad, and the sap from the flower stem to dab on your skin. Next we learn that the thin outer layer of the birch contains salicylate, which is contained in aspirin, and is good for cuts. “Peeling off a bit to put on your skin won’t harm the tree,” says Corby.

After the walk, we have a fascinating chat about the sacredness of plants. “Indigenous traditions all over the world communicate with plant life,” she explains. “They respect and communicate with the intelligence in nature. This is an innate ability within all of us, it just needs reawakening.”

So wild medicine isn’t just about blindly making remedies. She advises us to seek guidance from the plants themselves – before you pluck, ask the plants for permission. “Listen to your intuition,” she says.

Corby’s mission to demystify the use of wild plants as medicines has proven a success with the inquisitive crowds at Wilderness festival, and she hopes this rediscovery of the potential of the plants around us will continue to spread. “I hope that people will begin to form a relationship with the plants that flourish in our midst, and in so doing we might connect a little with the wildness inside us and understand that we too are a part of nature.”

Always consult with a professional herbalist before attempting to identify and pick plants for medicinal use and before using herbal medicines, especially if you are on medication, pregnant or breast feeding.