Discover The Healing Properties Of Herbs At Shaftesbury Abbey

An expert on the healing properties of herbs will answer your questions during a special event at Shaftesbury Abbey on Wednesday evening. And Julie Wood, who has been a practising medical herbalist since 2005 following a four-year degree, says she hopes to inspire people to start using herbs again.

“They have so much to offer us, with medicine, healing and just bringing balance back to our busy lives, minds and emotions,” said East Stour resident Julie. She’s one of the authors of Neal’s Yard Remedies’ new book, ‘Complete Wellness’, published by Dorling Kindersley. “It covers herbs, essential oils, aromatherapy and there’s a little bit on nutrition,” Julie explained.

At 6.30pm on 25th July, Julie will talk about herbal medicine and offer a guided walk around the 100 varieties of herbs growing in the Shaftesbury Abbey’s garden. “I’ve been working with the Abbey since 2001. I’ve been helping develop the garden with (Garden Director) Peter Holloway, as a volunteer Gardener. We have a wonderful collection of medicinal herbs that we can follow back to the Anglo-Saxon period,” said Julie.

1,100 years ago there were people in Shaftesbury who both understood and relied upon the potential healing power of plants. “There was a Benedictine Order of nuns in the nunnery which was established by King Alfred. The nuns had a duty of care for the sick. I would like to think that the cloisters and gardens would have been filled with medicinal herbs,” Julie said, adding that her talk will explore the strong connection between the Anglo Saxons and their use of herbs.

Julie Wood

In some parts of the world, herbal medicine is more widely adopted. It plays an important part within both Maori and aboriginal culture. So why is herbal medicine less prominent here? “We’ve lost it because the wise women were persecuted and went underground,” Julie said. “There has always been an anti-establishment feel about herbalists, going back in time. The introduction of the linear-minded scientific world, which has offered so many wonderful medical breakthroughs, meant that people lost confidence, faith and the knowledge (with herbal medicine).”

There’s no written evidence of Shaftesbury Abbey’s inhabitants using medicinal herbs but Julie said that research has shown that the practice was well established. “We have ancient manuscripts, which is what I have referred to when learning about their use in Anglo-Saxon times. We try and pull as much of our knowledge together as we can to piece the jigsaw together again.

You might walk past some plants in the lanes around Shaftesbury, unaware of the plant’s properties. One herb was used to flavour beer before hops were introduced. “That’s mugwort,” said Julie. “You’ll see it growing around the Dorset lanes at the moment. It was very much prized by the Druids.

Julie said that mugwort was one of the herbs in the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’, a tenth century poem which offers instruction on how to prepare and take each of the nine herbs it references. “It’s a warming, digestive herb, very good for indigestion. It’s also good for women’s problems, female organs and the lower abdomen,” Julie offered.

Differences in soil and rock types obviously influence the type of herbs that grow here. “Some herbs grow better on the chalk downs. If you go to the chalk hills at Fontmell then you will find herbs like eyebright. That’s a wonderful herb, literally for the eyes and the upper respiratory tract. It does with it says,” Julie said.

Julie believes that one particular herb, often found growing in damp places or on riverbanks, stands out. It’s a plant with hairy, broad leaves and cream or purple bell-shaped flowers. “Comfrey. That is a herb also known as knitbone. There are recipes in the old ancient manuscripts telling you how to use it to put the body back together again. They tell you how to heal wounds. We use it today for the same purpose because it contains a constituent called allantoin, which increases cell proliferation. If you applied comfrey as an oil or a balm to the skin it will promote rapid healing. You need to be careful with taking it internally, not too much and not for too long, but it is safe to take for 4 to 6 weeks at a time. It is an excellent herb for stomach ulcers and mending broken bones,” Julie said.

As with all wild plants, it’s best to ask an expert before consuming comfrey or any unfamiliar herb. Comfrey is controversial. Some countries have banned the sale of comfrey products made for consumption. There are concerns that it might cause liver damage and other problems. “If people are self-medicating with herbs they need to do their own research very carefully,” advised Julie. “They need to ensure that they are not taking herbs which affect any medication that they are on. If they are pregnant or breastfeeding, they also need to check herbs very carefully. Dosage and amounts are very important,” Julie cautioned.

You should also be confident that you know what you are picking. “If you are going to forage your own wild herbs, make sure you’re picking the right ones. I’ve heard of people mistaking hemlock for the cow parsley, having a few mouthfuls and ending up in A&E. I advise people to take their botanical books with them,” Julie advised.

There’s a much more familiar herb which Julie recommends. It is often found in the kitchen because of aniseed-like taste. “Fennel is used for cooking but also because it is a carminative. It is excellent for digestion. The Anglo-Saxons also used it for the eyes. Today, we recommend it for eye washes,” Julie added.

Julie doesn’t suggest that patients give up on GP prescribed medicine for herbal remedies. If she is approached by someone interested in herbal medicine, she says that she asks whether they are taking any prescription drugs and, if so, which ones and why.

“I would never advocate people coming off their medication but people do come to me because they are suffering from side-effects. I’ve worked with people who are taking antidepressant or antianxiety drugs and they are looking to reduce their medication and use herbs to supplement it. We work alongside the doctors. I would never advise people to stop taking the medication from the doctor,” she said.

Julie says some NHS practitioners are starting to embrace herbal medicine. “There are doctors now who are widening their view because they do see the effectiveness of herbs and there is so much potential. I am encouraged, I hope that this will grow and we will start working more alongside mainstream medicine, which will be a wonderful outcome,” she said.

During Julie’s session on Wednesday, she’ll guide her guests around the Abbey Gardens, pointing out the special herbs and she’ll read excerpts from ancient manuscripts. “And then at the end I usually have a few samples of tinctures for people to taste so they can see how I prepare the medicines and how we apply them in herbal medicine,” she said.

Julie’s talk begins at 6:30pm on Wednesday, 25th July at Shaftesbury Abbey. It costs £6 for adults and children are free. Cold drinks and nibbles will be served. You do not need to book.

“I’d love people to go away thinking that they will try to make their own teas, oils, creams and balms. There is so much to learn. It’s a joy working with the plants. They have so much to offer us,” Julie said. You can find ut more at Julie’s website, LadyComfrey.co.uk.