Things are a-changing at Urban Witch HQ.
We’re busy brewing up some herb-crafted loveliness, creating up-cycled awesomeness, and dreaming big magic.
Please come back soon for more details or follow us on Facebook for updates. x
Things are a-changing at Urban Witch HQ.
We’re busy brewing up some herb-crafted loveliness, creating up-cycled awesomeness, and dreaming big magic.
Please come back soon for more details or follow us on Facebook for updates. x
I’ve been experimenting with a cream to keep my hands and tootsies warm this winter. Like many women, my fingers have a tendency to turn to icicles at this time of year – particularly after hours in front of a computer.
Regular exercise, eating lots of warming foods such as curries and soups, and drinking teas throughout the day will keep the belly warm and help circulation – and this spice-infused cream (inspired by my obsession with Chai Masala tea and a James Wong recipe) promotes blood flow and warmth to the extremities. Oh, and smells divine!
2 x chillies (I used one fresh green and one dried red) | 40g fresh Ginger root chopped | 20 Black Pepper corns | 20 Cloves | 10g Frankincense resin | 200ml Grapeseed oil | 50ml Coconut oil | 150ml Rosewater | 5 tbsp beeswax | 10 drops Allspice, 20 drops Black Pepper and 20 drops Sweet Orange essential oils
A bain marie (double boiler) | Cheese cloth or sieve | Jug | Mixing bowl | Small saucepan | Whisk
* Add a Vitamin E capsule and the cream will last longer
** Take caution when touching sensitive areas such your eyes, as the spicy constituent in the chillies may cause irritation
I first heard the word “permaculture” in 2010 while staying at La Finca Argayall in La Gomera. Nestled between the mountains and ocean on 1.5 acres of land, despite unfavourable growing conditions, the gardens were lush and bounteous and fed the bellies of guests. I learned this was thanks to the permaculture principles to which they were designed. In 2012 I attended a two-week Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course to learn the magic myself. In a word (or two) it was life changing but when I returned home babbling with excitement it was apparent that permaculture was not a common term… “sorry, perma-what?!”
To explain the word more eloquently than I ever could, I asked one of my bestest mates who (sadly for me but fortunately for Wombarra) lives in a small town an hour south of Sydney, Australia. Yoga teacher Laura Hartley took her PDC last year, relished the experience, and is now sharing her knowledge and skills in her local community.
So Laura, what is this permaculture thing all about?
Permaculture is a way of designing systems of living based on those found in the natural world. In permaculture everything plays a part, is valued and helps sustain the whole. Nothing is wasted. Although permaculture has gained most fame for its organic approach to land-care, its principles (of which there are twelve – see here) provide a complete guide for living as a human on this planet in fulfilling ways.
Permaculture is based on three ethics – earth care, people care and fair share. In practical terms, using these ethics leads to beautiful, inclusive, rewarding and healthy ways of living.
How relevant is it to people living in cities?
Very! The principles of permaculture take into account the differences and variations we experience as humans within society and the environments in which we live. This can mean urban or rural and everywhere in between. Everyone, no matter where we live, can use permaculture for the benefit of themselves, their families, communities and the world as a whole.
Cities have more people living in close proximity to each other so there’s greater scope for people to get together, share resources and have the best of services (think public transport and the internet). There are loads of examples of urban permaculture popping up around the world such as growing food on rooftops/balconies/verges/social spaces, shared work spaces, community and school gardens and urban foraging. The clear advantage to living in the city is having access to people, tons of people! When people get together creatively all sorts of wonderful things start to happen.
What was the biggest lesson you took from your PDC?
Going into my PDC I didn’t think I was qualified to be a designer. I doubted my skills and knowledge and held an oh-so-common mentality that someone else was better qualified to implement change. One of our teachers got us to think about town planning and engineering. Although there are innovative designers, planners and engineers, the accepted norm still seems to be based on inefficient practices, cutting costs (and therefore corners). My teacher taught me to be critical of ‘the experts’, to look at the mess folk have made already and have confidence in the fact that I can do better! Really, being open to learning and working collaboratively is the only qualification you need to be a permie (someone who practices permaculture).
What do you intend to do with your permie knowledge?
I’m already involved in my local food co-op, volunteering regularly in the shop and at community events, but since doing my PDC I’ve started volunteering in a local school working in the school garden (aka food forest). I’m working with a small group of students to create a medicinal herb garden. The living classroom I work in is already 10 years old so produces an abundance of food, including macadamia nuts, olives, tons of citrus, bananas, not to mention all the veggies. The teacher has always wanted there to be a herb garden too so, as an aspiring herbalist, I was invited to lead this particular project. I’m thrilled to have a space to develop my knowledge and skills in.
I believe if more young people knew how to grow their own food and feed themselves the ongoing cycle of social exclusion, poverty, addiction, depression (to name just a few social issues) could at least be slowed down. What’s more empowering than having the skills and knowledge to feed yourself and your family? It’s extremely satisfying growing food, knowing where it comes from and what’s been involved in its production but it’s absolutely essential that we eat! Food, feasting and sharing food are key elements in ALL cultures, it simply brings people together.
Is there anything you do differently now? Has it changed your outlook on life?
I’m more adventurous in the garden now. I scatter more seeds randomly and am less controlled about where plants are planted and at what time. I encourage happy accidents in the garden! Working and socialising with other local permies, I get given cuttings and seeds for things I’d never have considered growing.
I’m more open to learning from the plants now simply by observing them and watching them through the seasons. I made the mistake recently of trimming the sage plant in the same way I trim tansy (fairly roughly) and felt like I got a telling off from the wise old sage! A sage plant demands care and respect. I’ve since apologised and have been forgiven… the sage is growing back healthily again!
I’ve also become much more conscious of my use of resources such as water, electricity and petrol. We live in a rented apartment block so it’s not practical to redesign our plumbing so that all our waste water gets used in our veg plot. However we can control the amount of water we use, recycle it wherever possible and turn off unused lights and electrical switches. I’ve recently changed my electrical supplier to one that uses 100% renewable energy and plan on changing my bank to one that invests in sustainable practices instead of one that funds coal seam gas exploration.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to learn about permaculture?
Start by doing whatever you can in whatever time you have. It’s really important that you do things that truly interest you otherwise you’ll simply lose interest! Also, because Permaculture is based as much on collaborative principles as it is on organic land-care, it’s essential to work with others and get involved in ‘community’. One of the most valuable lessons for me is that I don’t have to be good at everything. I love gardening, baking, fermenting and learning about the medicinal properties of herbs but am not such a great designer or builder. These are skills I can practise and learn but until I feel confident doing this side of things then I can work with and learn from others.
There are so many intro sessions, day workshops and short courses available, the best thing to do is to try lots of different things… just get started! Local libraries are a great resource as well and youtube has videos about how to do just about anything! Do It Yourself, whatever interests you, you can!
It’s easy to watch the news, look at the negative effects of globalisation and feel completely overwhelmed and powerless. Permaculture is a system that gives individuals permission to make change for themselves. You just need to start.
What other permie stuff is happening in your area?
There’s so much around here, I’m really lucky! To name but a few:
* Lead photo: Laura with her Permaculture teacher and friend, Aaron Sorenson, on site at a local primary school.
The growing light and increasingly loud bird song have roused me from a two-month hibernation. Like determined green shoots pushing up from the Earth and the promise-filled budding branches, I feel energy renewed for the year ahead, and I can think of no better person to kick off the 2015 Urban Witch blog festivities than herbalist, teacher, change-maker, wonder woman and friend, Karen Lawton – who has generously shared her wisdom on using herbs with children, and effectively treating common conditions naturally.
One of my first herb harvesting experiences was infact with Karen and her daughter Elektra. One sunny afternoon Elektra showed me how to pick delicate Tilia blossom and explained that Daisies help make coughs go away. She was five years old at the time. Naturally I was impressed by my young friend’s knowledge and wondered why it should be that I was only discovering the healing powers of these plants in my thirties! Why don’t we learn this in school? How can we better teach our children about their plant allies? And how can we share knowledge and inform parents of the safe alternatives to pharmaceuticals? Karen had a few ideas…
What’s your experience of introducing children to herbs?
Elektra’s school has involved me with her class over the past couple of terms. I’ve taken the children out to the woods and also explored the school outdoor environment with them. In the last session we talked about what they might want in a first aid box, and looked at Lavender as an anti-infective and anti-inflammatory that can be used on cuts, scraps, burns and even for headaches.
My son, Harry, and Elektra drank chamomile tea from a few months old and as they grew I simply added more herbs to their palates. At four years old Harry knew all of the Latin names of our local flora, as I was studying for my degree in Herbal Medicine. We called them ‘the magical names’ so a walk to school would be filled with stories of The King, Quercus robar (Oak) and his many subjects, fairies and elves. Elektra helps me harvest flowers from the garden in the summer months, which is a total joy. She’s extremely observant of every plant and cuts each flower head so carefully while she sings!
I had tonsillitis frequently as a child, what herbs are helpful for this?
When Harry was 13 he had tonsillitis and the white spots on his swollen tonsils indicated it was bacterial. He felt utterly miserable but he wanted to use herbal medicines he made himself rather than see the doctor.
He made a tea with Bay leaves, Thyme, Sage, Marjoram, Elderflowers and Rosemary all thrown into a pot and left to infuse for 15 minutes. He drank a whole pot with plenty of honey every couple of hours. I also made up a mix of Elderberry syrup, Pokeroot, Marigold, Ginger, Sage, Thyme and Rosemary tinctures and put them in a spray bottle for him to spray on his tonsils regularly.
Sage, Thyme and Rosemary are full of antiseptic oils that help fight the infection. Pokeroot and Marigold are powerful lymphatic herbs that encourage the immune system to remove the infection from the area, to be safely excreted by the body. Harry soon felt better, although he’s insistant it was the ice-cream that cured his tonsillitis! He’s 18 now and has only taken conventional medicine once, when he had meningitis as a baby. He received intravenous penicillin that saved his life but other than that he has only ever taken herbs to treat various ailments.
What’s your go-to herb for colds and flu?
I make Elderberry syrup every Autumn and have a year’s supply in my fridge. Harry loves it as, like most kids, he enjoys sweet tastes. It’s extremely immune-stimulating and anti-viral, and therefore very effective for flu. Hypocrites called the Elder tree the Medicine Chest, as it’s used to treat so many ailments.
We have oil burners with essential oils of Geranium, Lavender and Eucalyptus, which is a staple blend for getting rid any cold viruses that may enter our home. Essential oils are very powerful medicinally, and help to prevent the spread of infection to other family members, while being uplifting and beautifully scented. We don’t have ‘normal tea’ so pots with various herbs brewing are the norm. The children love to harvest and make their own concoctions from the garden, field and hedgerows.
For coughs, especially when there’s lots of mucus, I’ll make a tea by first decocting Marshmallow root and then add Thyme. Marshmallow root is demulcent and soothes inflamed tissue, while Thyme is an anti-viral and expectorant, and helps move phlegm up and out of the body. Elektra and I made a video on herbs for childhood coughs, with some more helpful tips.
Are there natural remedies for childhood acne?
Acne is an embarrassing condition that typically develops in teenage years but is becoming increasingly common in the pre-teen age group too. The cause of nearly all teenage acne is the complex hormonal surge that occurs around the time of puberty, which can also be aggravated by stress and bad diet. Roaccutane seems to be all too easily prescribed to teenagers with acne, with reported adverse reactions including gastro-intestinal disorders and even suicide.
As herbalists we treat each person on an individual basis but there are some general principles to treating acne, such as supporting the liver and lymphatic system, and healing the skin which you can read more about on our blog. Steam facials are also a good tool. I fill a basin with boiling water and a few drops of Lavender essential oil, then ask my patient to put a towel over their head and leave their face in the steam for 5-10 minutes.
Herbs for eczema
Since birth Elektra has had very sensitive skin with a predisposition to eczema. We make a healing balm which has been amazing on her skin and really helped to clear the eczema. For the healing balm we:
The digestive system is where a lot of skin problems and allergies originate so I’ve always used Chamomile with both kids to aid digestion. It’s a mild bitter with profound actions on the gut. It’s totally safe for babies and young kids and it’s important to get children drinking herbals teas and used to the diverse flavours so it’s easier to administer herbs when they’re ill. The Herbal for Mother and Child by Anne McIntyre is a great book anyone wanting to learn more.
As a herbalist I see many patients 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.
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Karen and her Seed Sista Fiona Heckels run community workshops and apprenticeships, re-connecting people with native plants. Their mission is to make natural healthcare accessible to all. You can also find Karen teaching Sensory Herb Yoga in Enfield, North London.
19th March 2015 – Detox Juicing Day
11am-5pm, YHA, Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. £65
Learn about the benefits and pitfalls of detoxification, juicing and herbs. Includes a herb walk around the Lea Valley canals, making a herbal vinegar and cleansing juice with local greens, and energising yogic postures to support detoxing. Lunch is included.
2015/2016 – Sensory Solutions Apprenticeship
This initial one-year apprenticeship is designed to introduce you to the ancient, magic and practical art that is herbal medicine. The beautiful, Gaunt’s House in Dorset is our apprenticeship venue, which is fully residential over four seasonal weekends. All delicious vegetarian meals included.
It only takes one person and one story to change your perspective and how you choose to Iive from that moment onwards. When I met Kimiko Foster at her DIY shower kit workshop in Victoria, Vancouver Island, I went home with much more than homemade natural treats for my hair and body. My relationship with the bottles in my bathroom would never be the same again!
I’ve tried to buy natural skin and hair care products for many years, somewhat conscious of the toxic chemicals big name brands pack into their bottles, and the health-harming effects of which are only now being discovered (carcinogenic parabens and sodium laureth sulphates, for example). Buying products that are genuinely free of toxic chemicals requires close scrutiny of labels, as words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are not regulated and as such big business can profit with chemical laden products and misleading marketing.
Thankfully in 2011 I discovered Read the Label at London’s Camden Market – a delicious range of 100% natural soaps, body scrubs and moisturisers handcrafted by Daniel Knight, who not only supplied goodies for guests on our retreats but also brought to my attention to the dubious regulatory process by which mainstream bodycare products are approved for public use. Check out the video on the Read the Label home page.
Fast-forward three years to Oaklands Community Centre and Kimiko is reminding me of the harmful chemicals found in everyday cosmetics, and that while our bodies may only absorb small amounts deemed “safe” each time we wash our hair, moisturise our face or apply make up, over time these chemicals accumulate in body tissue and have been linked to asthma, severe allergies and even cancers. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue, and it’s thought that the average woman is exposed to 15mg of parabens a day through cosmetics.
Shocking as these facts are, it was learning the devastating effects of the petrochemical industry (who manufacture these toxic chemicals) on the environment and the health of a whole community living on the other side of Canada in Sarnia, Ontario —also known as the Chemical Valley, with the most polluted air in Canada — that really opened my eyes.
Is this really clean?
Kimiko wasn’t always into natural products. It was an Anthropology and Environmental Studies degree at the University of Victoria that first drew her attention to the process behind the products, inspiring her to write a paper on industrial pollution and indigenous people in Canada. Her research focused on Sarnia’s Chemical Valley where there are 65 industrial facilities in a 25km radius, making household cleaning products, plastics and cosmetics. The Aamjiwnaang people — a community of less than a thousand — live next door to the rows of smoking chimneys, their rivers classified as toxic and home to tumorous fish.
Aamjiwnaang women have a 30% miscarriage rate, children suffer with breathing difficulties and rare cancers are common. The connection between this and the filthy air emitted by the production of chemicals used in our household and beauty products is undeniable.
The Aamjiwnaang’s fight for the basic human right of clean air has been widely reported in national press but as yet their request for thorough research into the effects of the air pollutants has been been ignored due to ‘lack of funding.’ This short documentary on Vice.com gives you an idea of what they live with.
Deeply affected by this knowledge, after leaving university Kimiko was on a mission to raise awareness of chemicals and reduce consumption. This is how her business, Seeds of Change, was born. A period working for local government on campaigns to educate people about what not to put down the plughole (fish can’t say no to drugs!) made Kimiko even more conscious of her own habits. She experimented with recipes for natural home and body care products, and began teaching others how to make them in 2013.
“Here comes the science bit”
Before we set out to make our shower kits, Kimiko explains that on the surface of our skin is a fine, slightly acidic film that protects us from bacteria and viruses. It’s known as the acid mantle and has a pH level of 4.5 to 6.5. Most commercial shampoos and body washes are alkaline, which strip away the acid mantle in the ‘cleaning’ process and then replace it with a chemical layer. This is why hair can become oilier when washed daily, as the skin is trying to rebuild the acid mantle. It also means when the acid mantle is removed, we’re more vulnerable to external chemicals, especially those we’re rubbing directly into our skin or scalp! Kimiko went on to explain the structure of hair and that conditioner is, essentially, like a hole filler for damaged hair to give it shine. Most manufactured conditioners fill these holes in the hair shaft with synthetic proteins and plastics. which took me back that classic 90s L’Oreal ad with Jennifer Aniston. I think we’re all worth more than Ceramide R!
So what’s the alternative?
Unfortunately most of us grow up believing that clean means ‘squeaky’ and loads of bubbles (me included, I love bubbles). Many of the chemicals in shampoos and body washes are designed to create those effects, and they are just that, effects. Kimiko demonstrates it’s possible to make effective shampoos and body washes using alkaline ingredients that don’t destroy the acid mantle, such as glycerin and castile soap. A conditioner using a base of apple cider vinegar (pH 3 – 4) will also support and replenish the acid mantle. Next, the group are let loose on tables of steeping herbs, herb-infused oils and essential oils, and encouraged (with suggested recipes to guide us) to tailor our homemade shampoos and conditioners to our own unique hair type. Kimiko advises that we may initially experience a ‘grease period’ as our scalps adjust to a new, more balanced pH level, but once they do our hair will, undoubtedly, be healthier and stronger.
It was heartening and empowering to spend a Sunday afternoon with a group of people united by a desire to keep toxic chemicals out of their home and live lighter on the planet. I left with new skills, an awesome tip to use coconut oil as an eye-maker remover (it’s amazing!) and a Seeds of Change Morning Java circulation scrub recipe that Kimiko kindly gave me to share with you.
Kimiko’s philosophy is that sustainable living is fun, easy, affordable and rewarding. There was no preaching at this workshop – just the facts laid bare for us to make our own choices. She admits that no longer needing the cleaning and cosmetic aisles at the supermarket gives an interesting perspective, as well as saves a few dollars!
Due to public demand she has just launched her first range of gift bundles and stocking fillers for the festive season including herbal muscle sticks, a ‘for everything’ salve, citrus laundry soap, eco-friendly dryer balls, an all-purpose lavender cleaner and an up-cycled record bowl.
People of Victoria, don’t miss out on her Do-It-Yourself Holiday Crafting Workshop & Mini Craft Fair on Sunday November 30th 12pm – 3pm.
Thanks to Bree @ Breeze Photography for the photos.
Our concrete jungles are buzzing with magic makers working to transform the health of people and planet. Urban Witch is a collection of interviews and stories; a platform to share knowledge of plant medicine and ideas for sustainable living. From London to Vancouver and everywhere in between!
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