Dandelions, nettles and chickweed are the bane of most gardeners’ lives, cropping up where they are least wanted, between paving stones and in lawns and cultivated flower beds.
For medical herbalist Anna Canning, however, these same plants are vital ingredients in cooking, health remedies and beauty balms. Her Edinburgh-based company Floramedica runs courses and workshops for both adults and children, teaching practical skills for using wild plants in self-care.
Canning also works with the Scottish Waterways Trust leading wildflower surveys on the Union Canal and collecting data for Plantlife Scotland, a charity which aims to protect wild flowers.
In addition she runs foraging workshops with local cafes and restaurants including Edinburgh Larder and Spoon.
“Everything I do is centred around using plants, and in a broader sense green spaces, as a resource for health and wellbeing,” she says. “I use plants in ways that connect people with the environment.”
Canning says that as well as being a source of vitamin C and potassium, dandelion leaves act as a diuretic and help digestion. Stinging nettles are also packed with vitamins and minerals and can be used to lower blood sugar levels, stimulate circulation and calm irritated skin.
And chickweed, which is also known as knitbone, acts as a very effective healer of cuts and grazes and also helps treat deep tissue bruising and damage.
At a workshop at Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh on 1 June, Canning will be demonstrating how these and other wild plants can be combined with simple cupboard ingredients to make skincare products.
“It will examine how we look after ourselves generally,” she says of the workshop. “We will take a good long walk around the grounds talking about plants and the different ones that can be used as food and medicine. We will make some food and some remedies.”
Some of the wild plants that will be on hand in the grounds of Lauriston Castle in early summer are stinging nettles, sticky willy, birch leaves, dandelions, burdock, red clover, ground elder and lady’s mantle.
These will be supplemented with kitchen ingredients such as porridge oats, sea salt and yoghurt as well as witch hazel and dried herbs to make teas, bath soaps, hot infused oils, lip balms and bath scrubs.
“It’s great to see how people light up when they discover very ordinary plants, often garden weeds, can be used to make effective remedies and how simple it is to make them,” says Canning.
“There are a lot of books about making remedies and a lot of them overcomplicate matters. It’s really good to strip it all back, to show people how to make things with basic ingredients. It can be very off-putting if you think you need 20 ingredients when you only need three.”
To make a basic infused oil for example, all that is needed are some fresh or dried herbs such as calendula or comfrey. The stripped petals of the calendula flower, the chopped leaves of comfrey or the dried herbs are placed in a preserving jar and covered with almond, sunflower, soya or light olive oil. The jar is then left on a sunny windowsill for three weeks before being strained through muslin and poured into a dark glass bottle.
“I have a lot of fun with it,” says Canning. “People do seem to enjoy it and come back for more. They get a nice little collection of bodycare products to take home. I also have a handout with notes on plants and ingredients and some recipes for various things such as creams and balms.”
Canning’s interest in plants was born after her work as a translator took her to Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic.
“I grew up in a very urban environment,” she says. “I didn’t know very much about plants other than using a dock leaf for a nettle sting. We were outdoors a lot – I’m of the generation where you were shut outdoors – but certainly I didn’t know anything about plants.”
It was while working in Central Europe she discovered a whole new world.
“I was astounded by the living knowledge people have there. I got very interested in remedies and getting to know how to identify plants.”
Following the birth of her two children, this interest in natural health treatments grew and she embarked on a herbal medicine course at Napier University before setting up her own clinical practice. However, she became frustrated by the fact that as a herbalist in a clinic she was only accessible to people with a disposable income and with some knowledge of natural therapies, and she began to focus on community education.
“I love doing that,” she says. “That’s where my heart lies and that’s what I have pursued.
“It’s about putting that knowledge back into the community in some smaller way. Giving people the tools to be able to look after their health, understand how their bodies work, how they can use plants to make simple, effective remedies.
“People crave knowledge to be able to help themselves. Health articles online are among those with the biggest hits. The vitamins and supplements market does very well.
“It’s about trying to give back some of the know-how that we have lost. Britain is the worst of the European countries for the loss of this knowledge.”
She attributes this to the fact that we intensified agricultural practices much sooner than other European countries.
“With urbanisation and industrialisation happening earlier, we lost that connection with the land much earlier on,” she says. “And with it our knowledge of plants.”
So for gardeners frustrated at the sight of yet another clump of unwanted weeds taking up residence in their gardens, instead of reaching for the weedkiller they should view them in the same light as they would their fruit or vegetable crops and harvest them for use in the kitchen or bathroom.
Anna Canning’s Skin Care and Beauty Naturally workshop will be held at Lauriston Castle on 1 June from 10am-4pm. It costs £30 including lunch and prior booking is essential, contact Margaret Findlay at Edinburgh Museums, tel: 0131-529-3963 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; for more information about Floramedica, go to: www.floramedica.org