Giving London its herbal fix
Words by Alicja McCarthy
Photos by Jake Kenny
Herbs are amazing
They truly are. Not only do they look good and smell good, they enhance culinary dishes, are used globally as alternative medicine and have wellbeing properties for the body and mind that some of us never knew existed. Did you know, for instance, that rosemary is a natural anti-inflammatory and is a good alternative to caffeine? Or that, besides tasting great, the humble basil is perfect for growing indoors and its scent is good for lifting moods? That yarrow is a natural first aider and that lemon verbena aids sleep and helps with insomnia? Thanks to one enthusiastic herb expert, Hackney Herbal founder Nat Mady, we have a renewed respect for the humble herb. Here’s why.
From humble beginnings
Hackney Herbal launched in East London back in 2015 as a social enterprise. From humble beginnings volunteering in community gardens such as Cordwainers in Hackney to drying and selling herbal tea and hosting workshops across the capital, it was time to focus on promoting the wellbeing benefits of herbs by teaching city dwellers how to grow, harvest and really use them.
“I found that people became really interested in the herb workshops. They were also quite excited about sharing their own herbal knowledge, especially with people from quite diverse backgrounds. I noticed that a lot of community gardens, public spaces and home growers were growing herbs but they weren’t really harvesting them or they didn’t necessarily know of all the great uses of herbs. So the idea to grow and harvest tea was born”.
“Our cities are full of green spaces that may not appear all that wild, but are actually quite fruitful”
An ex-structural engineer, Mady has always been interested in plants, sustainable ways of growing and promoting wellbeing. Having worked on farms and not-for-profit organisations such as City and Hackney Wellbeing Network she has helped to promote wellness of the mind and body by harnessing the power of herbs. Take the Valerian root, which acts as a mild tranquilliser and is especially good as a bedtime tea to relieve anxiety and insomnia. Even the humble basil, with a multitude of varieties – Thai, Greek and Lime, is said to promote positivity but also fights diseases.
“People are fascinated in learning about not only what herbs can do but also where they come from and their cultural history. For instance, marshmallow leaf can soothe coughs and colds, so when you learn about that, you have a newfound respect for these plants and nature as a whole. As soon as you discover the meaning and use of something your view changes for the better”.
Understanding Herbs & Growing Tips
Mady is keen to share her passion for herbs; she has teamed up with other city growing organisations and charities such as Capital Growth to run workshops not just on growing basics, but also on harvesting, drying and teaching the practical benefits of herbs. First, however, it is important to get your head around plant cycles. Understanding whether a certain herb is an annual or perennial will help you to establish how it should be grown.
Can’t Grow? Forage
If growing is not for you, but you like the idea of harvesting and preserving herbs to make teas or infused oils, you can always forage. Our cities are full of green spaces may not appear all that wild but are actually quite fruitful. Local parks, marshland and even roundabouts can offer surprises from wild garlic to chickweed. All you really need is a guidebook if searching for more obscure herbs.
“There are a lot of wild herbs that are abundantly available in wild urban spaces, marshland, and parks or even in other people’s gardens. Nettles are good for detoxing, but they are also good for mild headaches and purification of blood. If you know anyone who has an unmaintained garden they will likely have nettles which you can add to soups, stews or dry to make tea. A good pair of rubber gloves is all you need!”
“A good pair of rubber gloves is all you need!”
Harvesting & Uses
One of the key attributes to herbs is the specific use of each variety. Lemon Verbena is a sleeping aid but it also smells like lemon sherbet so it can be added to summer drinks or desserts. Other herbs like rosemary will help you stay alert and are a good alternative to caffeine. Some herbs are great all by themselves but others are excellent when blended in tea. For colds or flu, Mady suggests an infusion of sage, thyme, echinacea, yarrow and peppermint. Adding a little natural honey and lemon peel will also add those essential immunity-boosting vitamins.
Harvesting and drying herbs is a lot easier than it sounds, too. Just tie a bunch of leaves and stalks together and hang upside down in a cool dry spot. Keep away from direct sunlight and heat for up to a week. Store in an airtight jars and the dried herbs will last from one to two years. Two teaspoonfuls of dried herbs in hot water will make excellent home grown tea.