Acid Rain? Clean Up Your Life

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
– Wendell Berry –

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Just a few weeks ago my partner and I paused on our hike and admired the beautiful Black Forest near Triberg in Germany. We had reached a high point in the trek and could see the dark, majestic trees covering miles of rolling hills. With a clear blue sky above and the warmth of a late summer, it was as mystical and magical as all the story books lead us to believe. However, this was not always the case. All of Germany’s forests, especially the Black Forest, were in serious decline in the 1980’s … and they are not out of the woods yet (never miss an opportunity for a well-placed pun!) … the reason? Acid Rain.

Acid rain is the wet and dry deposits that come from the atmosphere and contain more than the normal amount of nitric and sulphuric acids. They cause the rain to become acidic in nature, mainly because of environmental pollutants from cars and industrial processes. Decaying vegetation, wildfires and biological processes also generate acid rain forming gases, but human activity leading to chemical gas emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen, are the primary contributors.

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The result of acid rain? Acid rain accumulates in water and changes the pH level that certain plants and fish need to survive and breed. A reduction in biodiversity is one of the many effects. It destroys forests as they become vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, and insects. Soil composition is altered and destroyed, sensitive micro-organisms are killed. This has a direct impact on other vegetation which becomes stunted and dies. Also, architecture, especially buildings made of limestone, corrode and are destroyed. In short: Acid Rain is a disaster. You can read more about this environmental disaster on the Conserve Energy Future web site.

Recovery has been slow. Government solutions have been varied and there is a focus on seeking alternative energy sources. Eco-systems are slowly being restored. The severity of this disaster still eludes so many – especially if we do not recognise that Mother Nature, although patient, kind and long-suffering, is definitely not indestructible. Everyone has to play a part. Acid rain ultimately affects all of us.

So we carry an environmental responsibility in our wider world, but what about our personal lives? Noticed any effects of acid rain lately? Deposits of toxic pollutants that are killing you? Perhaps it is a relationship that has become dysfunctional, but you have put up with it for so long you no longer notice how it has stripped your soul? Maybe it is a barrage of poisonous words that have been levelled at you with sniper precision when you were least expecting or prepared? Or maybe it is the refusal to look at your own shadow, acknowledging the pain or wound that is hurting not just you, but the environment you exist in? Perhaps it is your relentless schedule, your inability to say “No”, or your addiction to pleasing others? Maybe it’s time to seek an alternative way of life?

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Friends, the sad phenomenon of acid rain is a reality that, whether we know it or not, like it or not, affects our world. We are all consumers. We are all responsible to live in a way that leaves no heavy footprints. In an “I-Need-This-Stuff” world this is no small feat. We are also responsible for the energy we use in our own lives and relationships. This becomes very confronting when there is toxicity in our close relationships. Acknowledgement is the first step. A healthier space is not created overnight because often it has to do with an embedded way of relating or thinking. It takes courage, recognition and a refusal to be resigned to an environment that is killing us.

Acid Rain in your life? Time for action. Take the first step. Be Brave!

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you. There is an undeniable mind-body connection … Don’t carve a roadmap of pain into the sweet wrinkles on your face. Don’t lay in the quiet with your heart pounding like a trapped, frightened creature. For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!”
– Bryan McGill –

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Autumn: A Time to See More Clearly

“There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves.”
– Joe L. Wheeler –

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I was on retreat at the beautiful and cold Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, this past week. It is autumn in our ‘down under’ part of the world. Each season speaks to us, holding its own treasures and reflections – but I love Autumn the most. I can almost feel the Autumn Equinox arrive each year. There is a shift in the atmosphere as summer gives her last hurrah and is ushered off the stage. Dressed in Jacob’s coat of many colours, Autumn takes centre stage, bringing with her breathless beauty a sense of melancholy and the paradox of life and death.

Autumn is a most inviting, contemplative companion. Unlike any other season, it calls us to nature and to listen to her wisdom. Over the years, I have found that I am drawn to thoroughly clean my house in Spring, but my soul cleaning happens in Autumn. Personally, many things have fallen away for me over the last several years. It has been a time of surrender. As the Autumn leaves have fallen, my perspective has changed. It is amazing how we can begin to really see in times of letting go.

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I would like to encourage all my readers to take time out for some ‘soul cleaning’, regardless of whether you are in Autumn or Spring (hello, to my friends in the Northern Hemisphere). There are many great writers, poets and artists who we can choose as ‘alongsiders’ as we sort through the cupboards of our lives.

Here is a piece from Joyce Rupp’s and Macrina Wiederkehr’s “The Circle of Life“. May it bring you joy, hope and wisdom.

“In this lovely season when the dance of surrender is obvious,
We find large spaces left where something beautiful once lived.
As one by one the leaves let go,
A precious emptiness appears in the trees.
The naked beauty of the branches can be seen,
The bird’s abandoned nests become visible.
These new spaces of emptiness reveal mountain ridges.
At night if you stand beneath a tree and gaze upward,
Stars now peer through the branches.

This is an important Autumn lesson – when certain things fall away,
Here are other things that can be seen more clearly.

This same truth is celebrated in our personal lives.
When we are able to let go of a relationship that is not healthy,
The heart is given more room to grow.
We are able to receive new people into our lives whose gifts we never noticed.

Perhaps it is not a person we have lost but our dreams of good health that would last forever.
Our health fails, our dream dies.

Another significant area of surrender comes with possessions.
Our possessions can become like little gods that eventually get in our way.

There are those who struggle to discover the blessing and wisdom of ageing process.
The surrender of youth can be the most difficult of all.

Autumn invites us to let go, to yield … yes, to die.

We are encouraged to let things move in our lives.
Let them flow on into some new life form just as the earth is modelling these changes to us.”

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn,
about the wild lands, and the strange visions and mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

“Even eaten raw fennel does not harm the body in any way. In whatever form one eats fennel, it makes us happy, gives us a good skin colour and body odour and promotes good digestion.”
– Hildegard – 

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Fennel was a regular star in the meals consumed in my childhood. To this day I can identify it blindfolded, simply by its unique, slightly sweet taste. It is also somewhat of a divisive culinary accompaniment, a bit like coriander. People such as my parents and grandparents were devoted to this humble vegetable, while others refuse to allow it anywhere near their kitchen. But there was one historical figure who swore by fennel – and her love affair was recorded in the annals of history.

In the fertile, temperate Rhine valley, near the River Main, a convent of Benedictine nuns became the focal point of many religious devotees in the Twelfth Century. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) remains somewhat of an historical phenomenon to this day. Her many visions and knowledge about the meaning of Scripture drew the attention of people such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope himself, Eugenius (1145-1153), who read her writings to a synod held in the German city of Trier. It did not take long for the news to circulate that a prophetess was living in Disibodenberg. You can read more about her remarkable life here.

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Hildegard may well have been Germany’s first nutritionist and produced writings on medicine, science and the healing power of nature. She saw fennel as one of the most important plants for achieving physical wellbeing. It is excellent, she wrote, for the eyes, brain, hearing and heart. Eating fennel makes one happy. Her applications for fennel were numerous:

– For puffy eyes, place 2 tsp of roasted fennel seeds or ground fennel seeds in hot water, let steep for 5 minutes or more. Once cool enough to touch, dip the corner of a folded paper towel in the solution and apply to the under eye region.

– For weight loss, steep 1/2 tsp roasted fennel seeds in warm water and drink twice a day.

– For a cold, drink warm fennel tea 2-3 times a day.

– For heartburn, bloating and gas, eat a pinch of roasted fennel seeds immediately following a meal.

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Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family, second cousin to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It contains a unique combination of phyto-nutrients that allow for strong antioxidant activity. Research has found that one of it’s most interesting phyto-nutrient compounds is anethole. Anethole has reduced inflammation and prevented the occurrence of cancer. It has shown to be able to protect the liver from toxic chemical injury. The high Vitamin C content in the fennel bulb is anti-microbial and needed for the proper function of the immune system. It is also a great source of fiber, folate and potassium.

Fennel has also been called the pearl of aphrodisiacs. A recent concoction of fennel seeds, liquorice root and water was named the ‘tonic for happy lovers’ (yes, I know, you will all rush to brew this now!!). It holds benefits for lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and to help dissolve kidney stones. One of its main historic uses was to cure issues surrounding indigestion. In short – fennel is fantastic! Why aren’t we all in love fennel?!

I find it surprising how many people shake their heads at things they have never tried. Over the years we have had countless people around our dinner table. Herbs and vegetables have been the ones regarded with the greatest suspicion by many. Of course, I understand that once tasted some may decline delicious vegetables or salads because of poorly-evolved, artificially-sabotaged taste buds, but at least give it a go. Shock horror – it may even improve your health!

You may never develop a love affair with fennel like Hildegard did. However, you could discover in fennel a friend that has been sent to make you feel happy! Here is to health, and cheers to a beautiful earth that graciously shares with us her fennel friend.

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.”
– William Shakespeare (Hamlet) –

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Want to Learn about Community? … Listen to the Trees!

“Trees also understand that slowness is the key to a good life. For humans, at the moment, it feels like life is going faster and faster. This way of living uses up so much energy that the quality of our lives doesn’t get better. We should slow down.” 
– Peter Wohlleben – 
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My father has always maintained that Mother Nature is the best teacher. He laments our modern day disconnect from the wild and the sense of ‘lostness’ that so many feel amidst our techno-driven, hyper-real existence. So it was with interest that I read the interview with Peter Wohlleben in the recent Slow Magazine and his study on The Hidden Life of Trees.

Peter’s premise is that trees, like us, experience pain, and form social and family bonds. His years of research have him conclude that different trees have different personalities. Some act as parents and good neighbours, while others are brutal bullies. Trees are anthropomorphic. It is almost as if they have feelings and character. They communicate via a ‘woodwide web’ of chemical and electrical signals. Their young ones takes risks and then learn life lessons from their mistakes. It is like trees form villages, recognising their friends from strangers.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of reading article after article about Wohlleben’s study of the ancient beech forest he manages in the Eifel mountains of Western Germany, I was reminded of my father’s sentiment – Mother Nature is a much better teacher than humans. While we wax lyrical about community and philosophise about life, trees just simply live their ‘philosophy’. No wonder one of the wisest men in ancient text studied the cedars of Lebanon and nature (1 Kings 4:33). Jesus himself suggested that we look at nature to obtain wisdom and meaning (Matthew 6:26).

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Wohlleben points out the communal nature of trees. In a tree community, every member is important, including the ‘weak’ ones:

Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.”

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“Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.”

Wohlleben has observed the friendships between trees, some deeper than others. They grow but don’t compete with each other and “if you fell one of those two trees, the other will die too, like an old couple.”

Trees teach us about life and community. In our very important, crazy-busy lives, we seldom notice their quiet and majestic presence. Unlike trees, our ‘developed’ world tends to shove our frail and ‘weaker’ members into places where they are not seen, somewhere on the margins where their presence does not taint our perfect image or require our time and understanding. We build on ideas about community that are quickly dismantled in times of crisis. We betray each other by the disregard we display to these very ideals. The ancient forests teach us that every tree plays a role. Even the oldest, frailest stump is cared for and significant. 

In this Year of Discernment, I have found the learnings about trees astounding and healing. I no longer stare past them as I look out my window. I notice these giant teachers of life. I find hope in their presence. Perhaps one day us humans can become as kind and learn to love our neighbour as these ancient Douglas firs and beeches? 

“A community that is growing rich and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love. A community is alive when it is poor and its members feel they have to work together and remain united, if only to ensure that they can all eat tomorrow!”
– Jean Vanier, Community and Growth – 
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Assumptions: The Noxious Weeds of Relationships

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” 
– Isaac Asimov – 
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The front garden demolition has started. Since moving into this house in November, I have been eyeing the garden beds, overgrown with weeds and noxious plants that have taken the liberty to propagate in the fertile soil. After several months of hectic commuting back and forth from Melbourne, the time has come to get stuck into these green runaways.

As we are pulling out barrow loads of weedy squatters, we began to notice the richness of the soil and the very happy earthworms that call this place home. Under the tangle there are decorative rocks and stepping stones – someone once loved this garden. I had suspected that the ramble of weeds was a sure sign that no one ever bothered to care for the garden, but that was not the truth. I had simply assumed it.

Assumptions are such toxic and interesting brain critters. We all tend to create a narrative that we live by and from which we view the world. This narrative affects our relationships – our families, friendships, and workplace. We assume things of people and often these assumptions can be negative. We jump to conclusions that are not only wrong, but hurtful. We may assume how someone would like to be treated in a certain circumstance, but fail to realise that we are simply processing a situation from our vantage point, assuming that our friend or partner thinks the same.

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Assumptions are a bit like those noxious weeds that I am digging out of my front garden. They take over. They create perceptions that are false and before long the beautiful garden of relationship has been invaded by these uninvited, paranoid guests.

It is so easy to create stories in our heads and assume the worst. Someone does not respond to our text and before long we have a complete seven volume series written in our heads about the drama that has unfolded in their world, what we may have done to upset them, and how we can never trust them again. In the meantime, our friend has dropped her phone into the toilet, her husband has the man-flu, her children are late for school, and someone has blown up their letter box. Assumptions are not helpful.

We can assume things from our dearest and nearest. We can assume that they should know what we are thinking and in turn behave in the appropriate manner like a telepathic teletubby or Martian Manhunter. When they fail to read our minds and, alas, show total disregard to the untold story in our head, we become resentful. We assume they are hurting our feelings on purpose. In the meantime, our partner is wondering what has brought on the storm clouds! So if you do not verbally communicate your feelings or make your requests known, please understand that there is a 0% chance of your partner or family member knowing what you want!

Oh, and then there’s indirect assumptions! For instance, second hand information that sounds so true and reliable, we simply have to buy it hook, line and the darn sinker.  Second hand information is not beneficial. People hear what they want to hear and will re-write and re-tell a story from that perspective. We all have lenses through which we look at the world and all of our lenses are slightly distorted. Learn to be sceptical about things you hear second hand. You can save yourself a lot of trouble and you can save your relationships.

We all have learnt the treacherous trait of assuming, dear friend. It benefits us to regularly put on the garden gloves and do a decent weed through the fertile furrows of our brain and radically clean up our assumptions. It is amazing how good the world looks after such an exercise.

“The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.”
– William of Ockham –
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The Broken Birch


“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” – Parker J. Palmer

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Spring has come to the world’s most liveable city. You would be forgiven for doubting this. As I write, Melbourne is in the throes of arctic-like weather conditions and it is pouring down gallons of water that are creating havoc across the State. But when you look outside, Mother Nature calms our fear and produces the evidence – Spring is here! My garden is thriving. Amongst the many plants bursting with new life is a tree that stands taller than all the others: a birch with a peculiar story.

When we moved into this house we had many generous people give us plants to help establish this ginormous garden. We also kept our eye on any nursery ‘specials’. We planted a small birch grove because a nursery was shutting down and they were selling birches as part of a ‘super’ special. They also gave us a birch for free. Someone had accidentally broken it whilst moving it to a new spot. It was a quarter of the size of its birch brothers and sisters and frankly, looked miserable.

In hindsight, birches were not the best choice for clay soil, but hindsight is not always helpful. Our birches struggled to establish. They needed extra tender loving care in those hot summer months. Except for the broken birch. We all expected it to die. It did the opposite. Defying birch-law, clay soil, brokenness and the misery of its tribe, it grew and flourished. Within three years it outgrew its birch siblings. Today, it is a magnificent tree that provides shelter to so many other plants. It is easy to forget that this was a broken birch once …

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You see, friend, in life you will face many circumstances and situations that will cut you off at the kneecaps: personal failure, the betrayal of friends, financial hardship, death of a loved one, illness, loneliness, changes – the list goes on. When you walk through these shadowed valleys it may feel like everyone else around you is standing tall, growing and flourishing. Everyone else, but you. You feel broken on the inside and no amount of positive thinking and meditation seems to cure that nagging pain within.

There are many times in life that we are that broken birch. It’s no use trying to tell ourselves some pseudo-narrative to dull the pain. There is no way ‘around’ these valleys. We have to learn to walk through them. Religion that calls you to growth without suffering, without pain, without heartache and without experiencing brokenness is no true religion, but simply a decorated band-aid for grievous wounds. In life you will experience brokenness.

Just like my birch, you may also find yourself planted in places that are less than ideal. Environments that should hamper your growth and well being. But my broken birch tree didn’t seem to take that much notice of that. It grew anyway. The environment was not its defining moment or its core identity. The reflection I take away is that sometimes we simply have to ignore the masses and the circumstances, put our head down and grow anyway. The opinions and ignorance of others does not define you.

In the end, dear friend, only you can live the life given you. And you have been assigned to live it amidst all the ups and downs and ‘accidents’ that come your way. Only you hold the integrity of your narrative. Only you can tell your story. No one else. People may try. They may refer to you as that ‘broken birch’. Don’t argue with them. Smile and wave and get on with your life. And when your inner core and strength overshadows their fear and judgement, show them much kindness …

“The Wound is the Place where the Light enters You” – Rumi

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The Colours of Autumn

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Autumn burned brightly, a running flame through the mountains, a torch flung to the trees.
– Faith Baldwin

I love Autumn. I love watching the light change to thick, plush gold as our planet tilts on its axis while we orbit the sun. In our Southern Hemisphere, the temperature begins to drop in March. Well, that is in most years! This year of 2016, Melbourne is achieving record high temperatures. It seems the Summer Diva is throwing a tantrum as she has to exit center stage to make room for Sister Autumn.

With Autumn comes the changing colour of the leaves. The stuff of poets and artists. “Autumn … the year’s last loveliest smile,” writes William Cullen Bryant. John Donne chimes in, “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” French author,
Albert Camus, saw autumn as the second spring, where every leaf is a flower. George Eliot was totally smitten, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” Emily Bronte discovered that every fluttering
autumn leaf spoke of bliss to her. The colours of autumn are indeed one of those spectacular reminders of a rapid fading season of warmth and light.

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Stanley Horowitz wrote, “Winter is an
etching, spring a watercolour, summer an oil painting, and autumn a mosaic of them all
.” Autumn, to me, is the great crescendo of the seasons. As we observe this dramatic display, we can also take time to ponder the colours and seasons of our lives. Autumn can teach us many things, perhaps one of the greatest lessons is the certainty of change.

In a constructed social culture that generally measures success through growth, influence and numbers, you would be forgiven to think that a ‘Summer Witch’ has taken over ‘Narnia’. Summer speaks of vibrancy, happiness, and growth: the mantras of today’s modern world. Yet, as charming as it is, an unending summer would destroy us. Autumn stops us in our tracks. It reminds us that Winter is Coming. In its flaming glory it tells us to rejoice and stop wasting our energy in the pursuit of a fantastical, everlasting summer.  

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schedule. Walk through a magnificent deciduous forest and take in nature’s masterclass on change. Notice the grace and ease with which trees let go of what once was. Discover the easy rhythm with which they embrace transition. There is no frantic panic, for in these magnificent woodlands, change is celebrated.

Autumn colours also have a sobering reminder of death, something our western culture is so ill prepared for. Autumn advises us to live with humility, for nothing is permanent. We need to consider our days carefully, for they are indeed fleeting. Autumn beckons us to surrender ourselves to this divine dance of change. It whispers to us with hope. For there are a few things that remain – Faith, Hope and Love … and the greatest of all is Love. Perhaps this is an indication of how we should colour the leaves of our lives? 

There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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The Wisdom of Elders

Elderberry Soup with Semolina Dumplings! Just the thought makes my mouth water and evokes childhood memories and nostalgia. This was a staple dessert during Elderberry season, whilst we lived in Germany. Elderberry picking was a compulsory past-time and my grandmothers would process this precious purple berry for both culinary and medicinal purposes. No one complained about taking Elderberry syrup as a medicine against cold and flu. Sadly, I find this highly nutritious fruit remains somewhat neglected and overlooked on our sunny continent. So allow me to share some Elder wisdom.

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This tree was once considered sacred and linked to the ancient vegetation goddess, Hylde Moer. It was believed that the Elders were inhabited by tree dryads, who were benevolent if properly cared for. So Elders were planted around homes as people sought protection from witches and evil spirits. To cut down an Elder tree, in order to process it for the many medicinal uses, permission had to be sought from the tree dryad: “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood, and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest.” With the rise of Christianity, tree worship was forbidden, and the Elder tree was depicted as a tree of sorrow. The narrative changed to imply that it was an Elder tree from which Judas hung himself and it was Elder wood that was used to make the cross on which Jesus died.

Many herbalists would consider the Elder as one of the most useful plants. Modern medicine is rediscovering this potent plant. Elders were listed in the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (CRC Press) in 1985 and in the 2000 Mosby’s Nursing Drug reference for colds, flu, yeast infections, nasal and chest congestions, and allergies. The Hasassah Oncology Lab in Israel is using the plant to treat cancer and AIDS patients as it stimulates the body’s immune system. Further studies at the Bundesforschungsanstalt in Karlsruhe, Germany, show it is so effective against disease because it boosts the body’s production of cytokines; a unique protein that helps regulate immune response. Elderberry extract also reduces oxidation of low-density (LDL) cholesterol, and therefore has been effectively used to combat high cholesterol. Hippocrates reportedly referred to the Elderberry bush as his “medicine chest”.elder-59745_1920

The Elder is officially known as Sambucus, a species that comes as tall shrubs and small trees, and is part of the Honeysuckle family. Most species of Sambucus are edible when ripe and cooked. However, most uncooked berries and other parts of the plant are poisonous. Sambucus nigra, the one I have planted and is flourishing in my garden, is the variety considered to be non-toxic, even when not cooked, and is most often used for health benefits. Several species are native to North America and Europe. The Black Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) is the one used by many Native American tribes: “Used traditionally in Native American herbalism, Elderberry has been used by many tribes as a tonic medicine and food to promote health and vitality, as well as to fight pain and swelling. Used to clear lungs and ease breathing and to fight rheumatism. The flowers and berries of the Elder plant are now being researched as herbal remedies for bacterial sinusitis, bronchitis, high cholesterol, and management of the flu.

Every part of the Elder tree can be used. I pick the flowers and infuse it into a tea. People also use the infusion in bathwater and as an eyewash. The leaves can be turned into an ointment, treating wounds and bruises (even haemorrhoids). The berries are delicious and there are many recipes that are dancing with goodness. The bark and branches have served in dyes, tool-making and insect repellents. If, for whatever reason you cannot plant Elders in your garden, or you don’t have a garden, don’t despair. I order dried, organic Elderberries online and make the soup out of that. The trees in my garden are still growing and developing.

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Like any plant that is used for medicine or culinary purposes, caution needs to be applied. Please inform yourself about allergies and side effects. Elderberries are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

So, why not listen to the wisdom of Elders and try something new that comes with excellent health benefits? I respectfully disagree with zee French Soldier in the Monty Python’s Holy Grail. King Arthur was quite right in asking whether there was someone else he can talk to up there. To have your father smell of Elderberries, is after all, not really an insult!

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The Wonder of Mint

“As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits.” Pliny

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I have been overseas and arrived home just in the ideal time to pick and dry the mint I have growing everywhere in my garden. In Spring, the leaves are bursting with vitality and goodness. Mint is an aromatic herb that has its origin in Asian and Mediterranean countries. It is used both for cooking and healing. It is  packed with vitamins and minerals, especially carotene, Vitamin C, magnesium, copper and iron.
Never thought about mint? Most of us depend on it everyday. From toothpaste to lotions, medicine and health or hygiene products, everyone benefits from this fantastic herb. It’s a brilliant healer for painful joints, headaches, sciatica and IMG_2063inflammation and research has shown that
menthol is hugely beneficial in aiding digestion, which is why it’s so popular in teas. Mint plants contain an antioxidant known as rosmarinic acid, which has been studied for its effectiveness in relieving seasonal allergy symptoms. When applied topically in oil, ointment or lotion, mint has the effect of calming and cooling skin affected by insect bites, rash or other reactions.
A few words of caution. Remember that peppermint oil in large portions can be toxic. Pure menthol should not be taken internally. Some medication can react with mint or mint oil. If you’re unsure check with your doctor. Do not use mint oil on the face of an infant as it can interfere with breathing. Also, be aware that digestive issues relating to gastric reflux may be exacerbated through large consumption of mint.
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Some fun facts about mint:
  • It derived its name from the nymph, Menthe, who, according to myth, was turned into a plant by the goddess Perserpina when she found out that Pluto was in love with her (ultimate revenge … turn your rival into a herb).
  • Greeks used mint in their baths.
  • Romans used it in sauces to aid digestion and also brought the herb to Britain.
  • It was used in medieval times for its culinary and medicinal properties.
I have a large garden and grow mint everywhere. It is one of those ferocious growers and will take over a garden bed if not restrained. One way to contain mint is to use an old bottomless bucket pushed into the ground. The mint won’t be able to put its roots out sideways, so will take longer to spread. If grown in a pot, mint needs to be watered regularly to keep it healthy. It prefers damp, partly shaded areas and once established will grow for many years. Mint dies down in Winter and sends up new shoots in Spring. It really is the perfect plant to begin with, as you build your herb garden. It’s easy to grow and is really fun to add to many recipes – whether breakfast, dinner or dessert.
There are many different types of mint: Peppermint, Spearmint, Pineapple mint, Apple mint, Ginger mint, Horsemint, Catmint, Chocolate mint, Lavender mint (a personal favourite), etc. Obviously, not all mint varieties are used for culinary purposes. Some are better utilized for their aromatic properties or aesthetic appearances while others, like field mint, are normally treated as medicinal plants. Different mint types should be planted as far apart as possible – like opposite ends of the garden, to avoid cross pollination which affects taste and unique characteristics.
I dry the mint in bunches, in a cool, dark storage cupboard. When dry (brittle), I just shred it into a container and, presto, it’s ready for tea. On a hot, sunny day there’s nothing better than ice tea – with only homegrown ingredients: mint, lemon and/or lemon balm.

 

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Why not give mint a go?
Here are some recipes to get you started:
Fresh Mint Tea
A large handful of fresh mint leaves (I also add fresh ginger and/or lemon balm to vary the taste)
A kettleful of filtered water (about 2 to 4 cups depending on how strong you want your tea)
Honey to taste
  1. Roughly tear the leaves with your hands and place them in a small strainer placed over a teapot or glass bowl.
  2. Bring the water to a boil and pour over the leaves.
  3. Gently bruise the mint leaves with the back of a wooden spoon or a muddler to release the oils.
  4. Cover the teapot or bowl and let the leaves steep for at least 5 to 10 minutes, then remove the strainer pressing on the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible.
  5. Pour into tea cups or mug and sweeten with honey or sugar to taste, if desired.
For iced mint tea: Follow the directions above adding sweetener if using while the tea is still warm. Cool the infusion to room temperature, then store in the fridge. Serve over ice with an additional sprig of fresh mint.
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Pearl Couscous with Mint and Pecans

Serves 2 as main, 4 as a side

1 medium-sized red onion, cut into slivers
1/2 cup pearl couscous
1/2 cup (plus 2 tablespoons) water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped (reserve a few whole leaves for garnish)
1/4 cup pecans, roughly chopped and toasted
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan on medium heat, sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for approximately 20 minutes. The onion should be soft and slightly caramelized, but not completely reduced. Sprinkle the onions with a dash of salt.

In the meantime, chop the pecans and toast in a smaller pan on a low flame for about 5 minutes. Nuts should be aromatic, just lightly toasted. Stir frequently to prevent burning (they can go from toasty to burnt in just a second, so keep an eye on them the entire time). Chop the mint, reserving a few leaves for garnish.

Place couscous in a medium-large bowl. Boil water, measure it to 1/2 cup mark and add one more little splash. Pour water into bowl with couscous. Cover with foil for about 12 minutes. Remove foil, then add cooked onion, toasted pecans, fresh mint and a tablespoon of olive oil and vinegar. Stir until evenly mixed, and sprinkle with a little fresh mint on top.

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Mint! Explore the wonder!

 

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In Honour of the Humble Nasturtium

Nasturtiums, who coloured you, you wonderful, glowing things? You must have been fashioned out of summer sunsets.

Lucy Laud Montgomery

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It has been nearly six years since we moved into our newly built home in the countryside. I remember looking at the scraped clay all around the house, the many slopes and awkward corners, and thinking what a daunting task lay ahead in the shaping and establishing of a garden. Today, as I sit in my office and look out the window, I see a mass of flowers and trees, with king parrots and tiny finches flitting through the branches. One of the most prominent colours in this garden of mine is orange. The cheery faces of nasturtiums smile at me from every corner. You see, when I set out to plant my garden, I bought 5 packets of nasturtium seeds, and this turned out to be one of the best, cheapest, most rewarding garden decisions I made.

2014-11-19 15.55.56A local with his/her nasturtium home.

Nasturtiums have delighted both gardeners and cooks for centuries. They bear the botanical name Tropaeolum majus, meaning prize or trophy. The ones you find in most gardens today descend from mainly two species native to Peru. According to Jesuit missionaries, the Incas used nasturtiums as a salad vegetable and medicinal herb. They were introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the late 15th century and became known as Indian Cress or ‘Capucine‘ cress, as the flower shape resembled the hooded robes of Capucine monks. Leaves and flowers were consumed in salads, and the unripe seeds and flower buds were pickled and served as a substitute for capers. From Europe they made their way to North America as early as 1759 and into Thomas Jefferson’s garden. He listed them as a fruit, along with tomatoes.

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Nasturtiums are happy flowers. My mother had a German word to describe the ‘attitude’ of these sort of plants – she said they were dankbar, meaning they were grateful or thankful. They grow nearly anywhere in Australia, even the most terrible soil does not seem to daunt them. However, they take exception to the very cold mountain ranges. If space is limited they will trail over pots on a balcony. Not only do they look magnificent and make you smile, they are seriously good food.

These humble super plants provide significant amounts of Vitamin C, B vitamins, iron, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, flavonoids and carotenoids. They are an immunity booster and medicinally they have been known to break down congestion, provide relief from colds, encourage the formation of blood cells, and they can be used as a blood purifier. Historically, they have been used to treat liver, kidney, bladder and skin disorders. They are an expectorant, as well as an antibiotic, anti-fungal and antiseptic. It’s very easy to make an infusion. As they promote menstruation, they are NOT SUITABLE FOR PREGNANT WOMEN.

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Even the pug has developed a love for nasturtiums!

But there’s more! Nasturtium seeds can be made into an oil and used to varnish furniture. In the garden the trailing plants form outstanding living mulch, reduce weeds and retain soil moisture. I plant them around fruit bearing trees and my veggie patches, as they repel pests such as mites and aphids. They attract bees and secrete an essence into the soil that is absorbed by other plants, helping them to resist pests and disease.

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So, folks, what are you waiting for? Plant some nasturtiums and fall in love with these green friends.

Nasturtium Vinegar

1 cup nasturtium leaves, flowers, and buds

1 pint champagne or white wine vinegar

Place the ingredients in a clean, clear glass jar or bottle. Tightly seal. Let sit for at least 3 weeks before using. Place a new nasturtium in the finished bottle for decoration, but you should make sure the vinegar always covers the flowers or they will mould. Makes 1 pint of vinegar to use in salads, sauces, and flavouring in other dishes.

Nasturtium Salad

2 nasturtium flowers per person, washed and dried
cream cheese (depending on how many flower heads)
black pepper, freshly ground
2-3 cloves garlic
1 small kos lettuce
½ red radicchio lettuce
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 spring onions cut thinly into slivers
1 tbsp capers
black olives
fresh parsley sprigs to decorate
white wine vinegar
olive oil
Method
Mix the cream cheese with the garlic and freshly ground black pepper, then stuff the flowers with it.
Use whole leaves of the lettuces and decorate with other salad ingredients.
Mix 2 parts olive oil to 1 part white wine vinegar.
Add herbs or a little red chilli powder, or cayenne or paprika according to your preference.
Shake well and use as a salad dressing.
Top with the stuffed flowers.
…or just use your imagination…
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