Fiona Heckels is a traditional herbalist and one half of wild and wicked witchy duo, Sensory Solutions. She started working with medicinal plants at Neal’s Yard in her teens and, being blown away by their power to heal, went on to study a BSc in Herbal Medicine. She’s also trained in reflexology and aromatherapy massage, is currently studing yoga nidra, and combines aspects of these healing arts with plant medicine with her patients. Two weeks of being a midwife’s assistant in the US, learning from Ina May Gaskin, not only prepared her for the birth of her bestfriend’s daughter, but inspired her into further studies and a particular interest in using herbs to help pre and post natal women, and children.
Fi and her partner in crime, Karen Lawton, have been my teachers and inspiration on many levels for over two years, and are largely responsible for my chaotic cupboards crammed with jars, tinctures and drying herbs. Together they run workshops around the UK, as well as year-long apprenticeships, reconnecting people with their native medicinal plants, sharing remedies for common conditions and providing informative, professional guidance for more complex health issues.
As the days get darker and we approach the festival of Samhain — or Halloween — we got chatting about pumpkins, Day of the Dead and adventures in digging.
What does this time of year mean to you?
The trees have almost finished shedding their leaves and the wild weather and storms are hitting the coast of Dorset. It’s a poignant time in the farming calendar as the last harvest has been collected, except maybe berries like sloes, and also chestnuts and roots. That palpable energy of growth is dropping away. Creative energy is returning to the earth.
This is a special time of year for me as we’re approaching my favourite festival, Samhain — or Halloween — which I love not just because it’s my birthday but ‘cos it’s such a blatant Pagan festival that almost everyone celebrates in some way! Whether carving pumpkins, dressing up or doing more intentional ritual, it’s a recognition of the changing seasons, a celebration of death and psychic abilities. I think it reflects our desire to touch the dark side – we need the dark as well as the light, to face our fears and the fear of death.
In our culture we’re encouraged not to think about death and to move on from grief quickly. In the UK if you’re experiencing depression mourning the loss of a loved one, after two months it can be classified as a mental condition and medicated with anxiolytics. In the United States it’s two weeks. There’s pressure to ‘get on with it’ rather than to feel grief to its full extent.
The Day of the Dead in Mexico is another example of a pre-Christian festival celebrated by the masses. They have huge parties in graveyards and remember the dead through storytelling and music. As with Samhain, it’s a celebration to honour those who came before us, our ancestors and people we knew in our life. A time we can fully acknowledge death and the dead.
What potions are brewing in your kitchen now?
I’m currently making a Horseradish root infused oil, an awesome native circulatory plant. We use it in our Ache Ease balm with Comfrey and Heather. It’s an extremely fiery plant, so I wear goggles chopping it up – the mustard oils that are released can be painful even breathing them in! I chopped the root into small pieces and placed them in a paper bag in the airing cupboard for 2 – 3 days to remove some of the moisture. After that I put them in a glass jar, covered with almond oil, put the lid on loosely and placed in a sunny spot. Two weeks later the oil has gone slightly cloudy, so it’s ready to strain. You can read more about making Horseradish oil here.
If you find Horseradish growing wild, you’ll usually find it in abundance, as you will Comfrey and Heather. That’s why we use them in our Ache Ease balm, for muscle and joint pain, and teach students on our apprenticeship how to make it too.
So you harvest more roots at this time?
Yes it’s a root-tastic time! Dandelion, Burdock, Elecampane, Marshamallow, Valerian and Blackberry are just some of the roots we harvest. Roots have a sweetness to them. They are nourishing and grounding, and although they may have direct actions on different systems, almost all have an action on the digestive system.
The digestive system is the first point of entry of food into the body. How we process our thoughts, digest information, is dependent on how well our digestive system is functioning. If we’re having trouble with our digestion, that might manifest in cloudy thoughts and being unable to think clearly. In elemental herbal medicine, the digestive system is related to the element of Earth, and the roots of a plant are connected to Earth.
Elecampane root is a shit hot lung herb, currently being tested for MRSA treatment, and we use it in lung tonics and our cough mix. It’s also a warming digestive. Marshmallow root too is a lung herb but its mucilaginous quality makes it great for soothing and treating stomach ulcers, gastroenteritis and gastro reflux. I also use it when there’s unquenchable thirst – particularly in winter when we’re continually moving between really hot, dry environments and the cold. It helps hold in fluids to keep us hydrated, nourished, warm and literally rooted.
Dandelion root is known for being an ace liver herb but it’s also highly nutritious, regulates blood sugar, is fibrous and helps keep us regular. Similarly Horseradish root is a bitter stimulant. It has an action in the gut, helping to break down fatty foods, which is why traditionally it’s eaten with red meat — to help the body to digest. Valarian root is so sweet and nourishing, and Blackberry roots are highly astringent, so a great remedy for diarrhea.
Roots are used a lot in Traditional Chinese Medicine also, particularly Ginger, another great warming digestive herb. Herbalists in the 1500s were actually called Root Doctors because they would travel with plant roots more than the aerial parts, as they hold more strength and would last longer than leaves and flowers.
How do you harvest roots?
Digging for roots is always an adventure, heading out with your shovel and properly getting your hands in the dirt. There may not be much of the plant visible above ground so you need to look for leaves dying back or signs of last year’s flowers.
Make sure you don’t take all of the root, no more than 60% to 70%. You can drop seeds in the hole, to put something back where you’ve taken. You might want to set an intention with the seeds, an idea you want to grow as the seeds do.
Harvest with care and respect. A herb journal is a great way to keep track of herbs you know grow in certain places – note what you harvest, when, where and what they were like. You can also harvest roots in Spring just before the plant starts to grow. They’ll have a different quality so it’s good to compare roots from an Autumn and Spring harvest.
What can we learn from roots?
Roots teach us about nourishment. How am I nourishing myself? How can I nourish myself more? Whether it’s taking a deep conscious breathe, doing yoga, sprinkling seeds on your porridge, having a nice shower gel to use. What things do you do to nourish yourself?
Roots teach us about stillness. Even if they are fiery or watery or earthy, all roots hold. They are stable and secure. They can help us know who we are, where we are going, and give ourselves space to do so. It’s important to nourish ourselves. To rest, be still, to listen. Take the phrase “getting to the root of a problem” – we can understand and see things better from a place of stillness, taking on the qualities of roots. They are the foundations for everything.
Where can we find you over the coming months?
Workshop on History of Witchcraft and the Green Flying Ointment, Bridport
9th November, 10am – 2.30pm, £45
Workshop on herbs for the reproductive system, Dorchester
26th November, 10am – 2pm, £30
Sensory Herbcraft Apprenticeship, Dorset
18th September 2015 to 13th May 2016
This initial one-year apprenticeship is designed to introduce you to the ancient, magic and practical art that is herbal medicine.
Dorchester in three words
Ancient, historic, old.
Contact Fiona at email@example.com for more information on workshops and the 2015 apprenticeship. You can also find heaps of herb info and recipes on the Sensory Herbcraft blog and on Facebook.