This is the seed season: air, wind, thought, inspiration.
As the leaves start to turn into the deep hues of autumn, their work done, they drop back to the earth to begin the next cycle of death and growth. Their green energy has provided nourishment for seeds and nuts to appear from the flowers and fruits. Amongst the helicopters, burs, hips and haws, the magnificent horse chestnut tree starts to shed his green fruit, which, nestled amongst the fallen leaves, starts to crack as it dries. The fault line exposes the shiniest nut, which on closer inspection reveals wondrous concentric rings, mountain maps around and around, reflective landscapes in each one. There is nothing like collecting conkers. Peeling off the green, spiky shell, wondering how big the prize inside will be – will it be twins, or one large and one tiny? What autumnal treasures!
One of the best-known uses of horse chestnut, conker or Aesculus hippocastanum (its botanical name) is for the relief of varicose veins and haemorrhoids (piles). It helps to tone the veins in a way that prevents weakness of the blood vessel wall. This stops the veins from pooling, as in varicose veins, and swelling up, as in haemorrhoids.
To collect conkers for medicine it’s best to get them right as they drop, as fresh as you can, as then they seem to give more easily for chopping and I just feel that they provide more of the good stuff. Chop them up as tiny as you can (you can use a heavy-duty blender or nut-butter masticating juicer), place them in a jar and cover them with vodka. An alcoholic extract of a herb is called a tincture, and this is a great way of preserving herbs, making an easy-to-take preparation and as a base for other preparations like creams and gels.
As it steeps, your tincture will go a creamy-white colour. This is the saponins or soapy quality within the herb coming out – this is the good stuff. After a lunar cycle of stewing in the alcohol it is time to strain the liquid. If you have a press of some kind, this is best to get the maximum liquid out. An apple press or a masticating juicer does the job. If you don’t have one, just do the best you can through a piece of muslin, squeezing hard. The pulp will need to be put through a muslin after pressing too.
You now have the basic ingredient for your gel. You can simply mix your tincture with aloe vera gel from a health food shop. Use half and half. It will go a lovely milky colour. Add a couple of drops of cypress essential oil* into a 60g jar of your mix and start to apply daily to the affected area. In the case of varicose veins it should always be applied gently over the area and then massaged either side, always in sweeping strokes, up towards the heart. For piles you need to be brave and apply the gel with a finger into the anus and onto the surrounding area. How easy this is will depend on the type and severity of the haemorrhoids, but apply the gel at least twice daily. If you are planning to get pregnant and you know you are prone to piles you could try a few weeks with the gel beforehand.
You may find that you harvest far too many conkers because they are so beautiful. You can add the remainder to your autumnal Nature table in celebration of this abundant time or crack one open, plant it and see what grows. Young conker trees are something really special when viewed from above, perfectly symmetrical with lush green leaves. •
Conkers in a world gone bonkers…
While thousands of us are walking past conkers each year without having a clue that they can help us medicinally, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), through enforcing its legislation on Traditional Herbal Medicines, is stopping folk from making valuable medicine from them and other healing plants to sell to others who might need them. It’s strange to think that the MHRA believes that what herbs need is more regulation, rather than more sharing of their beneficial properties!
I write this column to provide information about common herbs that might be helpful in times of need. Not everyone wants to make their own preparations, but it costs £45,000 for the regulatory bodies to tell you that your product is valuable to the public, and even then it applies to just a few choice herbs. Medicines that have been used for thousands of years are now being taken into the arena of multinational drug companies, which can afford the licences and don’t mind that the regulation also states that a certain level of fillers and dodgy excipients has to be included in your recipes. A few herb companies have chosen to license their products, but it costs a further £15,000 each year to maintain each licence. It’s really important to continue connecting to plants and getting your children out there growing and harvesting too, to keep our future herb-filled.
Fiona Heckels is a hedgerow herbalist with a special interest in pregnancy, childbirth and children’s medicine. She runs a school of Sensory Herbcraft with Karen Lawton involving workshops, talks and walks. Their company, Sensory Solutions, provides natural health care through the magic and medicine of herbs. (Accurate at the time this issue went to print).
First published in Issue 29 (Autumn 2012) of JUNO: