The Medicinal Forest with Dr Anne Stobart

by | June 30, 2023 | Permaculture Podcast | 0 comments

In this episode of the Sense-Making in a Changing World podcast, host Morag Gamble interviews Dr. Anne Stobart, a herbal practitioner and herb grower from Devon. Dr. Stobart, an educator, author, and founder of the Herbal History Research Network, has written two books through Permanent Publications: “The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook” (2020) and “Trees and Shrubs That Heal: Reconnecting with the Medicinal Forest“, scheduled for release this year. It has 80 plants profiled, each with a simple recipe. Ann has also published her PhD research, “Household Medicine of 17th Century England.”

Dr. Stobart’s journey into the realm of herbs started when she participated in a permaculture design course at Dartington in Devon during the early 1990s. This ignited her passion to cultivate more herbs for her clinical practice and she began cultivating herbs in her cottage garden and allotment. However, her desire for a more substantial supply of plant materials motivated her to purchase Holt Wood in 2004. Using permaculture design, she and her partner transformed the area from a redundant conifer plantation into a flourishing medicinal forest garden.

Beyond her hands-on work with herbs, Dr. Anne Stobart has worked extensively in education. She took a leading role in a professional herbal medicine program at Middlesex University in London. Additionally, she is a founding member of the Medicinal Forest Garden Trust and is a member of the advisory board for the Journal of Herbal Medicine. Her noteworthy contributions to the field led to her appointment as an Honorary University Fellow at the University of Exeter.

Anne has also published research articles on historical recipes and the history of herbal medicine, and has a continuing interest in research into agroforestry and permaculture related to herbal medicine.

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Read the full transcript here:

 

Morag:

Well, thank you so much for joining the show today. It’s an absolute delight to have you here. I’ve been exploring your works in medicinal forest gardens and I absolutely love it. It was fascinating to me that you did your PhD on 17th century healthcare. Where did that spark of inspiration come from? Because it’s quite a specific thing.

 

Anne:

Well, I suppose when I completed my first degree, which was in psychology, I really didn’t know where I was going. So I was trained as a teacher and I ended up in adult and further education. To cut a long story short, I used to live in Liverpool, being from London originally, I moved down to Exeter. Exeter University had this wonderful programme, which was a Masters in Women’s Studies and being an out and out feminist I joined up as soon as I got there.

 

The tasks set in that course were very varied. Looking at women’s history, I kind of latched on to the history of medicine. I discovered some local archives of handwritten recipe books and I just wanted to know where they used and that sent me on quite a long exploration. I was very lucky that I was able to embark on the PhD when I was working at Middlesex University, training herbal practitioners and I had a wonderful supervisor who was interested in the history of science. So the whole idea of herbal history really got kind of wrapped up into a study of domestic medicine – this was in the 17th century.

 

Morag:

Fantastic! Household medicine in the 17th century. Wonderful! So are people still doing those practices in some way? Did you find that there was a continuation of this? Or are you rediscovering things that were done before and bringing them into this new food forest garden context?

 

Anne:

Okay, so there is a punch line here. The records that still exist are mainly to do with larger households – more wealthy, aristocratic households. So it’s still very difficult to research what happened to poorer people and women in particular, because so much of their work went unrecorded. But I looked very closely at letters, recipes, household accounts, for those that were focused during the southwest of England and prepared a huge database of the recipes, the constituents, and so on.

 

I actually discovered that most of the recipes probably were not used. I mean, it was a bit of a shock and it still is a shock. People don’t want to hear this from me when I say it. But even further than that, I discovered that the recipes that were likely to be used, recorded and shared as very valuable were ones that contained bought ingredients. So spices and more expensive items. There were a few simples that tended to get repeated quite a lot and so it’s possible that they were handed down.

 

But in general, I think we have some very mythological ideas about household recipes. I write about that in the book and describe the research process in some detail – trying to get to the nub of which plants were used. Actually, I think people were really poorly informed, even by word of mouth about plants in the past and they suffered, they suffered a lot because they couldn’t do much about illnesses in the like.

 

So to answer your question, yes! We do have lots of history around herbs and the like, but some of it’s pretty suspect because it’s wishful thinking, romanticism about herbs. While I was doing the research, I got together with other herbal practitioners because I’m a trained herbal practitioner, and we set up the herbal History Research Network to try and encourage more scholarly approaches to the research as it exists.

 

Morag:

So what are some of those main herbs that you found that actually were used commonly? And what are some of the myths that you busted?

 

Anne:

Okay, well, in the research, I found that the recipes were about 80% plants and then otherwise minerals and animal parts. I put it in the book, they weren’t the ones that came out as most popularly mentioned, but they weren’t really simples. There were occasional plants that became quite famous like elder because they had a particular interest in the households. There was one member of a household who had a swollen neck gland, scrofula, which was basically down to tuberculosis infection, and the elder was recommended by some people as a treatment for that. 

 

So recipes got spread around because they were thought to help. In this case, these were herbs that dried up the nasty secretions issuing from ulcers, and then there were other herbs that were spread around for example cures for rickets and such like. I don’t think I could really pick on any one particular except for possibly roses.

 

The reason being that one householder, Mary Clark – was a very interesting, forthright lady – she gave her children rose syrup, and it’s still not totally clear whether it’s rose leaves, which were rose petals (they call them leaves), or rose hips. But it’s likely that the vitamin C produced a laxative action. So it was thought that Rose was clearing for toxicity in children to reduce diarrhoea type problems. In that case, we don’t know the parts properly – we don’t know what problems, when they were given, why they were given, but they were very popular. They probably worked for reasons that were not clearly understood. Today, we would think of roses as stringent. Not as a laxative!

 

Morag:

We think about lots of things as being vitamin C though, don’t we? I mean, that’s true that roses have lots of vitamin C in them. So that the action may have been to do with the vitamin C? 

 

Anne:

Yeah, the action may have had something to do with vitamin C, especially if it was rose hips which are higher than oranges in vitamin C. So just investigating – it’s very difficult to find the evidence. But that’s what I was after, to find corroborative evidence. Of course, women who collected herbs and brought them to the household for sale at the front door, or probably the back door, were rarely recorded in accounts, but they occasionally pop up. So you do get other particularly flowers, as well.The folklore traditions don’t appear in the recipe books an awful lot.

 

Morag:

That’s fascinating, wow, that’s really interesting! Because there’s a lot of information out there and it’s hard to know what is actually useful and what is real. It’s really interesting to hear this work that you’ve been doing. You’ve recently, it’s about to come out, the title of the book is ‘Trees and Shrubs That Heal’. So in this book, you’re really focusing on looking at a forest garden approach. You also have a previous book, ‘The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook’. So you’re taking the research that you have and then blending it with transforming landscapes that heal the planet and heal people. What does that start to look like? What are the kinds of plants that you’re incorporating and encouraging people to grow as ways to help common conditions and help to keep people healthy?

 

Anne:

So as you’ve probably gathered, I’ve got a fairly rigorous approach. I’m a sort of an evidence seeker. But of course, sometimes the evidence is not easily found. My first book, the design book, was really all about the experience I gained in setting up the medicinal woodland Holtwood, which I can talk about more. But the experience of writing about the design, people wanted to know, like you’re asking, which tree is the one that you would recommend to plant? 

 

So I felt I had a lot of material about how these trees could be used. And I was very frustrated about the other herb books around – they’re mostly about sort of twee herb gardens. They’re wonderful in their own right, but I wanted to look up and see what else was available. We did a lot of pollarding and coppicing at Holtwood. So I learned about some of these trees that I was planting.

 

I wanted to write a book that told people about the magic of medicinal trees and shrubs, but I wanted to explain the magic. So in the book, I have not included a lot of history, folklore and so on. People write about that really well and it’s not really my place. Instead, what I’ve tried to focus on is what these plants really do. We’ve got a bit of an idea from tradition, Chinese traditional medicine, North American traditions, as well as European and UK traditions. I’ve tried to provide some introductory material which puts the plants in their place.

 

I did it by herbal action – the astringent properties of the trees and shrubs, their leaves, and all the antioxidant properties from the fruits and so on and I tried to write about how they can benefit health. So I suppose my answer to the question, which tree? ‘You could use this one, for example.’ For an astringent you could use oak for wonderful body washes and all sorts of external uses. But what about this lovely ornamental Asian forsythia plant the flowers are fantastic – they’re astringent and antiseptic, they can be used for soothing a sore throat or for a face wash and the like. It’s a bit of a melting pot book – I’ve got 80 trees and shrubs that I’ve managed to get into that framework of different herbal actions.

 

Morag:

Fantastic. I wonder if there’s also a recommendation for some that would go well in tiny gardens where people can create. Like mini medicinal forest gardens if they don’t have the space. Are there some that you think are really good for that kind of urban context?

 

Anne:

Yeah, I’ll probably start doing some blogging later in the year once the book is out to draw attention to different site requirements. But the smallest plant in the book, which is technically a shrub is Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) – a wonderful North American, a sort of ground covering, it’s just a few inches tall. It was traditionally used, partly for its astringent and antiseptic effects in childbirth, and related to women’s complaints. There are a number of other plants, like eucalyptus trees, which are huge. So I’ve been trying to find cultivars or varieties or species that are somewhat smaller and I latched onto the Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora), which is a smaller eucalyptus. We started to grow it at Holtwood to try it out.

 

Morag:

How’d that go? Did it grow alright there?

 

Anne:

Well, it’s very slow growing! It doesn’t produce a huge amount of material. But all of the eucalyptus trees are so wonderful in the leaf matter that it produces. The eucalyptus are part of the myrtle family and there are other trees in the myrtle family that are fantastic. And in fact, common Myrtle, it does really well here in southwest England, and it’ll do well in sheltered sites. So as global warming, unfortunately, hits us, it’s one of those that I would be looking to. It has wonderful aromatic leaves, beautiful flowers, which are great for celebrations, and berries as well which are edible.

 

But it is the aromatics that interests me because it can be distilled and it can be clipped like a hedge into any shape you like. So, one of the things that I tried to do in the book is to identify some of the variations of families that have particular characteristics that can be used in different contexts. I’m aware that smaller gardens are a bit of an issue for people that don’t have that much space here.

 

Morag:

Yeah! Have you come across any that are good as soap? I keep getting this question because I talk about soap and actuaries, for example, and people say ‘yes, but they come from the Himalayas and they’re disrupting that.’ And I’m always looking for plants that were used as soap. It’s not medicine, but I just wondered if you’d come across any on your way.

 

Anne:

So it’s quite interesting because of course, when you make soap you use sodium hydroxide for alkali and then you add oils – it’s the whole process of combination. So you could infuse any plant matter, leaves and whatnot in the starting material, but the chemicals are so powerful that they tend to denature everything. We had masses of willow and we ended up stirring in dried powdered willow as an exfoliant into soap. So that’s because sometimes you get soap with oatmeal and other things like that. And that seemed to work quite well except some people find it a bit strange having little grains of brown in there. So not everybody likes that.

 

But in general I would avoid using citrus in soap because it denatures so much. It’s sort of looking for the less reactive essential oils, the lower key odoriferous smells that might be appropriate. After we sold Holtwood, we didn’t produce the products anymore, but I think that’s a really interesting area that you mentioned to explore more. There’s lots of potential.

 

One of the things I’d really like to do is work on how to use infused herbal waters in making shampoos – so that’s one of my bucket list of things to do! So because there’s lots of saponins in some plants like horse chestnut. I put a recipe with every one of the 80 trees and shrubs, I put a simple recipe and I can’t remember which one it is now, offhand. But you can make a soapy lather with something like horse chestnuts because of this saponin content.

 

Morag:

Great! I can’t wait to check out all those recipes, because it’s fascinating! And it’s there right in front of us. Talking about adding these medicinal and really fantastic household uses into our forest gardens – expanding it from the sense of chop and drop for the soil, food for us, food for the wildlife. There’s this other dimension that I think hasn’t been talked much about in the permaculture world, and I find it fascinating. It’s one of the things I love. I often go out and give talks in local community centres, libraries and garden groups. One of the things I love is the bit afterwards, when everyone comes up and says, ‘Ah, I use this plant for this and I use this plant!’ 

 

That’s when all this knowledge sharing happens. It’s just so fascinating that so much knowledge about plants is held within families. I think that bringing that into a book that we can share with recipes is great.

 

Anne:

Yes, I’ve particularly tried to use simpler recipes. Some people might think they’re almost too simple, but I want to get people started. Yeah, one of the online courses that I’ve been running, I got a bit of feedback from someone saying ‘Your course got me started on making things and I’m really looking forward to making many more.’ That’s just the sort of feedback that I like to see that once people try out a few things, they get hooked. For example, who knew apple leaves can be made into tea! Once you start to harvest tree leaves, then the world is endless!

 

Morag:

We need to talk about tree leaves a bit more, because this is something that I absolutely love. I mean, here in my garden, I have mulberry leaves, and I use them as a tea. Also the olive leaves, I use them too. There’s a lot of leaves all through my garden. I actually did a whole series of little YouTube clips about them when the pandemic was in full flight and people found it hard to get out and get food. I was just saying just have a look in your garden and walk around. So we did that. But I didn’t know about the apple trees! So for your climate, I wonder what other edible leaves there are? Because then all of a sudden, your mind just goes ‘poof! there is so much food around us all the time that we just walk past!’

 

Anne:

So there’s two things: one is it’s great to be able to preserve some of these leaves. So it’s quite important to think about a drying facility somewhere in your house, whether it’s drawers, a loft or hanging baskets or whatever. Because it’s very frustrating just to try things fresh and very often. Drying seems to concentrate the flavour. For example, I’ve just ordered a dryer and it’s supposed to arrive today. So I’m really kind of yay!

 

Morag:

Is that one of the multiple stacked cabinet ones?

 

Anne:

Well I made my own when we had Holtwood – a big thing based on baking trays, which worked brilliantly. I used a fan from a computer to get air into it and a puppy blanket warmer to warm the air. This homemade version worked really well but it’s too big now, because I’m sort of semi-retired – just writing and doing talks and such like that. So that’s one thing that I think people don’t always have, and it’s good to think about.

 

The second is: I really love tree leaf combinations. This is where the trees and shrubs come in because of course, every single rose family member – raspberries, blackberries, right up to the apples and cherries – all of those leaves are quite astringent. So I love combinations. I like to combine an astringent with something that’s a bit more aromatic. So that’s where the myrtle comes in. And then mint for the aroma, rosemary, those sorts of things, although they can be a bit overpowering. And then I like to add something a bit medicinal. For example, there’s always the ground level herbs like yarrow, great for urinary problems. Then plants that can be somewhat more digestive, so quite bitter plants. I may add three herbs together to make a tea. 

 

When we were running courses in Holtwood we would walk about with people and just literally pull leaves off trees and, and then come back and put them in a pot to brew them up. People would be sitting there saying, ‘Gosh, I never knew tree leaves could taste this good!’ I think sometimes it’s an acquired taste and I would never want people to drink stuff they don’t like, but you’ve probably experienced this, that bitterness is a very individual thing. Some people do like the bitter taste.

 

Morag:

So can we just talk about bitters? Because it’s something that I think in our society we’ve pushed, quite aside to the detriment of their health. What’s your take on that? What are some of those ways that we can reintroduce the bitters into our system?

 

Anne:

This is a bit of a hobby horse for me too, because there’s so much bitter potential in bark. I’m a bit mad about bark as well, because trees and shrubs are so productive, especially if you’ve coppiced and pollarded. It’s very, very straightforward. If you’re able to manage them in a garden or other sites to get large quantities of bark. I’ve always been very interested in buckthorns.

 

We have two native buckthorns in the UK – the purging buckthorn which gives you an idea of what it does, it’s so bitter that it’s probably not safe to take. It causes a lot of griping and stuff. The other buckthorn is the alder buckthorn, which is the most beautiful little tree. We have one in our cottage garden and it’s just buzzing at the moment with bees and other insects. It seems to be full of tiny nectar full flowers.

 

The bark of the alder buckthorn (which is Frangula alnus) is supposed to be aged for a year and then it is an excellent laxative. So that’s the kind of thick end of the wedge if you like the laxative, detoxing action. But then at the other end, there’s the bitterness of all of the daisy family, which is excellent for stimulating digestion. So if you over brew chamomile wildflowers, that bitterness is great, because it gets your digestion going at that slight edge. Yarrow, I always think of as a supercharged chamomile. So from the bark through to the ground level. We’ve got bitters to suit every situation. And I think in a world where detoxing is sold as a commercial possibility, we could do much more just for our self help and improve our health by clearing the body from these regularly produced wastes just from everyday living.

 

Morag:

Yeah. I was gonna ask you, as you were talking about the buckthorn – how do you get the bark off those in a way that’s not damaging the plant? Do you take off the cuttings when you’re coppicing it? What’s the process of collecting bark?

 

Anne:

So bark on mature trees is thick, rigid, grooved and brown and not much use. So we want the bark from younger trees or branches, maybe two or three years old. In the case of willow, one or two years old. Other trees, maybe a few more years. So they’re ideal for coppicing cycles, and just pruning branches. I’ve got a beautiful fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, which is a member of the olive family in the garden and I know that the roots are great as gallbladder remedy and I’m thinking, aha, perhaps the bark! So I’ve just been pruning it because it fell on my Chasteberry and greenhouse!

 

So quite often, branches need to be taken down for all sorts of reasons, safety or otherwise. What’s needed is a knife which has a bit of a curve on it. I designed one, which I called the Stobi, which I’m huge on. It was handmade so it’s quite pricey, but it was actually based on a carving knife, which had a sort of a curve to it.

 

Morag:

Where did you get that made? That fascinates me that you designed a knife and got it made! Is there a local knifemaker you went to?

 

Anne:

It’s kind of a no. I think the networking here applies. I was doing a stall for the Medicinal Forest Garden Trust somewhere and came across a person who made knives. So I drew it on the back of an envelope and about six months later, came back with a beautiful knife. I mean, there are alternative ways, but maybe we can get the Stobi into mass production.

 

Morag:

Yeah, that’d be great!

 

Anne:

So a bit of a curve is ideal for thin thinner branches. Always cutting away, for health and safety. In the spring is the best time when a lot of pruning is done. But it can be done at other times of year. If you’re cutting two to three year old or younger branch bark, you can strip it off and put the strips in a paper or cloth bag, give them a shake every now and then and then they’ll dry really well just indoors and they’ll keep for years.

 

Getting the bark off in strips in that way, it means that then you’ve got just a ready-made bark for making teas and the like. So for example, I harvest ash bark. We have this awful problem with the disease of ash here, but there are some ash trees that are okay and its bark is brilliant for arthritis. It grows really well as a coppice, so I save ash bark peelings, and I put them into a mixture with nettle and rose as a way of getting rid of joint pains tea.

 

Morag:

I was wondering, I live in a subtropical environment and one of the things that I battle with when I’m saving anything is mould. I wonder whether in a moister environment like yours if that’s an issue? How do you make sure that you dry things properly so that they store for a long time?

 

Anne:

Drying is a big issue. Actually, it’s an issue for larger scale producers, smallholders and the like, who want to produce herbs for sale, because they’ve got to have somewhere where they can dry and store effectively for safety’s sake. But our cottage is made of manure and straw and it’s quite old. The moisture level is quite high, I think it’s often 60%, easily everyday. And so getting things to dry, because you want moisture to get down to about 10-15%, it’s very difficult. It’s also quite difficult to find something that measures that moisture accurately. Apart from the snap test as well, that’s always quite good.

 

There is a way forward, which is that if you dry things until they seem to snap, and gentle warm air is the best that I found. Then, once those things are dry, you can package them in paper and then put them in a big plastic barrel. That is a way to keep things properly dry or otherwise they have to be processed because they won’t last. But in general, dry things don’t last for more than 12 months really.

 

Morag:

I wanted to ask you, you mentioned before about when you dry things that it concentrates the active ingredients. I’d always wanted to ask someone who had knowledge about this, something in my brain says ‘When you dry things, you actually lose some of the living qualities of it. Where does that sit? Like do you lose something but concentrate something else? Do you understand what my question is? I’m not sure what I’m asking.

 

Anne:

Again, I think a lot of the tradition is around dried herbs because that’s one of the best ways people in the past had to preserve. Things like freezing and so on are quite new possibilities and we don’t really know how that works. But my interest is really good drying. So good practice in drying then preserves the most active ingredients. When you see herbs for sale in a shop and they look a bit brown in the bottles and jars you know, don’t buy them.

 

What you want to do is dry gently – so heat is not the key. If you heat herbs then they will start to denature. You tend to lose the active, particularly the aromatic ingredients. But if you can blow air across them, I like to use pillowcases. I bundle everything into a case and pillowcases have this really useful. I don’t know if they do this the world round but they have this really useful flap. You can hook them up or on a stick and then as I go past I give them a whack, which bundles up all the heavy stuff inside and they’re cotton so they can be washed. That’s a really great way to dry just at room temperature and then pack up in glass or paper. Always add a label! The number of times I’ve dried things and forgot to add the label…

 

Morag:

Before we go and talk about design, I wanted to ask you another question that I get asked a lot when I’m talking to different groups about the safety of different things, because we’ve become so disconnected from plants. As kids, a lot of people say ‘don’t eat little berries, don’t eat this, don’t eat that.’ And there’s this fear there. How do you know? When you’re making your home herbal remedies, what’s a safe thing? Can we harm ourselves as well? In? How do you educate around that?

 

Anne:

I mean, I think we need to avoid experimenting when we don’t know what we’re doing. Just recently, there’s been newspaper articles in the UK about hemlock being found on the road on the way to school that children walk past and shock horror! Of course, this hemlock’s been there for years! And it’s everywhere. It’s a beautiful looking plant, it’s very ferny. I would absolutely go with the view that we need to educate people so they can identify plants. The carrot family is a particularly good example because there are some toxic members alongside the sort of edible versions. When I’m doing talks and walks, I always warn people about that particular family, because it seems particularly problematic.

 

But the thing is that in the past, there’s been a lot of observations of what are safe herbs. So generally speaking, traditional recommendations that survived today are pretty safe, because just by experience, we know that they’re safe. We also know that herbs are very difficult to measure exactly in terms of their ingredients, there’s a lot of variation through seasons and the way they’re prepared. But in general, they’re very weak. If in doubt, many of the recipes in the past for things like wrist plasters would be used externally on the body. So maybe only 10% of the active ingredients would have been absorbed. And so using externally is a good way to go. 

 

I have quite a lot of thoughts about health and safety. But essentially, they boil down to education that people need to learn about plants. We have these lovely forest schools here in the UK, and I think they’re quite widespread now. And I’m really quite keen. One of the things we did at Holtwood was to have a training session for forest school leaders, where we could talk about health and safety in relation to health and medicine ideas. Because what we don’t want is to have children going out, not knowing what’s safe and what isn’t.

 

Morag:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you for clarifying that. There’s one other question on health and safety. What’s your take on comfrey?

 

Anne:

Okay, so comfrey is full of pyrrolizidine alkaloids and particularly in the root. When I was first training as a medical herbalist, we used to use the root to make an ointment and some herbalists still do, because used externally it’s relatively safe. Generally, they’re pretty bad for the liver and I would only use comfrey leaf nowadays to make the ointment. I would only recommend it for use externally. But since comfrey is also a wonderful fertiliser plant, there’s lots of other uses for it so we don’t need to completely chuck it out.

 

Morag:

Yeah, it’s fantastic! I have a lot in my garden, but there’s always lots of questions about it. Thank you for clarifying that too. So Holtwood! You transformed a conifer forest into an edible and medicinal forest garden. Can you tell us a little bit about what it looked like and your process? What was your motivation for taking a piece of land like that and how long did it take? Lots of questions all bundled up in one, sorry!

 

Anne:

So, I was trained as a medical herbalist, so I had a bit of a career in adult and further education, managing programmes and meanwhile, I trained as a medical herbalist. As I went along, I found it really odd that so many of the herbs that I was buying from my dispensary like Hawthorn, Berry tincture? I mean Hawthorn hedges? There’s millions of them in the UK. And yet the Hawthorn berries were coming from Eastern Europe. I just couldn’t kind of put it together so I started to learn to make a lot of my own tinctures and I thought, ‘Well, can’t I grow them as well?’

 

I got in my head that I wanted to be able to harvest particularly trees and shrubs. Then my partner Kay and I discovered that there’s a lot of small woodlands for sale in the UK, which are broken up from larger woodlands that have been sold off. We discovered this hectare of Sitka spruce in North Devon, and it had been up for sale for five years, nobody was interested in it!

 

When we actually went to look at it, we walked down a hill through the spruce and we discovered that the bottom was a meadow leading onto the River Torridge. Just straight away we went ‘great! Let’s buy it!’ So we grabbed the money somehow and bought it with the idea that we would gradually fell all these conifers. There were about 1000 Sitka spruce, they were all very neatly planted in rows. I think it had been an insurance company investment in the 1960s so they were about 40 years old.

 

Anyway, the idea was to gradually fell those trees and replant. As it turned out, it’s not that easy to just fell a few trees – it’s actually easier to have help from a friendly contractor to clear the lot. We ended up with a bomb site for Sitka Spruce stumps and the story unfolded from there. A lot of this experience is in the book, The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook. Somewhere I have an archive about that process. So now, which bit of the question has not been answered yet? 

 

Morag:

From the bomb site, how long did it take for you to create the forest garden? What were the starting points in that transformation?

 

Anne:

By that time, I was living in Devon and I had done some permaculture training. So I was fascinated with the idea of edges. I did a back of the envelope design, splitting this hectare up into about a dozen rectangular spaces with the idea that around the edges of all these little planted tree plots, would be introduced trees – I was very interested in North American trees particularly – then I could harvest them for use in my practice! There’s a wonderful organisation in the United States, United Plant Savers, and I did a six week placement with them when I retired from the university job and learnt a lot more about those beautiful North American trees where the United Plant Savers are trying to make sure that they are sustainably harvested.

 

I was able to look for trees, not just native trees, Oak and Ash and Willow and Birch and so on, but also introduced trees, ranging from a Snow Gum that I was talking about earlier, the smaller eucalyptus to Virginian Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which is North American, Prickly Ash (zanthoxylum americanum) – zanthoxylum species from North America and so on. We had some wonderful volunteer help and we started to plant up the bomb site area. We have got it fenced to stop deer coming in, which is just about feasible to fence a hectare. I’m not sure if you could do it for larger areas. So it grew like topsy.

 

Morag:

How high did you have to create the fencing system to keep the deer out?

 

Anne:

Two metres high is the minimum in the UK because we’ve got three types or more. We’ve got red deer, we’ve got fallow deer, we’ve got Muntjac, we’ve got so many. They all nibble everything. So the idea was that these sections would be coppiced and pollarded bit by bit and we could move around harvesting the produce. As it turned out, the trees just grew so rapidly, particularly at the lower parts where there was a lot of moisture from the meadow and river – the Willow and Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) – they just grew like topsy. So in the end, there was no way of keeping up with the coppicing regime.

 

Morag:

Can you say a little bit of the difference between coppicing and pollarding?

 

Anne:

Coppicing is cutting at the base, and pollarding is cutting it. Usually willows here would be meadowside willows, we pollard it quite low, maybe a metre high. A lot of pollarding in Europe is done more at five/six foot high.

 

Morag:

Have you tried any hedging as well on your site? Do you work with hedging methods or any other more traditional ways of managing trees?

 

Anne:

So I didn’t try it at Holtwood. But I have been talking with other organic growers about ways that medicinal trees and shrubs could be cultivated for commercial use here. For example, there’s so many miles and mock ups of Hawthorn as a hedge – it seems madness that they can’t be harvested. In this country, there’s no tradition and also other plants could be readily used in this way. But there’s an issue about how hedges are managed here. Because many hedges are cut sometimes by flail, which is quite violent, most years. Of course, Hawthorn only produces flowers and fruit on one year or older shoots. So it would be necessary to look at the way that hedges are managed. It seems to me that there’s lots of potential!

Hawthorn is used here because it’s very easy to grow and its stock proof because it’s quite thorny. It’s like a miniarchy type of forest. But it would need a bit of a study, I think to look at maybe with some sympathetic farmers who are smallholders? Why couldn’t they cut each side in alternate years so they could get the fruit? That sort of potential. We don’t have to rely on traditional methods, we could be looking ahead and thinking about what do the plants actually need to produce?

 

Morag:

I understand there’s quite a rewilding movement going on in the UK. How does what you’re doing and advocating for here fit with that rewilding context of turning UK’s land back to wild spaces for biodiversity? I don’t know if I fully understand the controversy around the rewilding that’s going on as well. So I don’t know whether I’ve misunderstood anything, but you could hopefully clear up my understanding of what’s going on!

 

Anne:

So I think that there’s a bit of a myth about rewilding that you just leave land to regenerate naturally. But in the original rewilding projects that have sparked off interests, like Isabella Tree and her farming set up in Southern England, they actually manage that process – they cordoned off areas, they stopped animals from going into certain areas, and so on. They had to negotiate with neighbours and walkers. I think rewilding is slightly a bit of a misnomer.

 

The other problem, of course, is when I’ve approached members of the Woodland Trust and other tree planting initiatives, that there’s been very much a focus on native trees and shrubs. Quite rightly, there is an interest in making sure that the sort of flora and fauna match up here. So I suppose my view would be, well it’s great to see rewilding, but well-established forests here have a fairly limited array of medicinal possibilities. So what interests me more is recognising that we do interfere with the landscape. We do want to manage our growing areas.

 

Also some plants can be quite invasive. For example, I’ve just written a blog on my website for the Medicinal Forest Garden Trust about Buddleia and I discovered that one flower spike of Buddleia may contain 40,000 seeds. Although it’s called the butterfly bush and very welcoming nectar wise for bees and butterflies, it’s actually not a good plant because the caterpillars can’t eat it here. So it doesn’t help the wildlife in the way that people might think it does. The important thing is to deadhead that plant. You can have it, so long as you deadhead it and don’t let the seed spread. That’s the kind of management that I’m talking about, is within sort of fenced or limited areas that we can grow medicinals that we really want to see and are just the right products.

 

Morag:

I was going to say I imagined though that by doing the plantings the way that you’re doing them, and bringing in that diversity of layers, niches and all different foods, that the biodiversity is naturally increasing on your site. Did you map that at all or notice the shift and change from the Spruce to when you left the site?

 

Anne:

Well, the problem is, it’s difficult to measure because as this global catastrophe of climate change has come upon us, it’s been so noticeable that there’s been a massive drop in diversity out there in terms of birds and insects. Our garden is a miniature permaculture project here. We do have birds, insects and butterflies, but still the numbers have dropped. I think one of the reasons is that the plant material, the habitats are very piecemeal. So the garden next door’s garden is quite bare and the same with fields. I think you mentioned hedges earlier and if we could start looking at ways to join up those habitats, then we might begin to reverse some of this decline. If we could join up more habitats, then we actually give the insects and wildlife a bit more of a chance to prosper.

 

Morag:

I was just asking about as well, do you find that the general movement in your country is tending more towards regenerative approaches? Do you find his more support for that? Has there been a shift? Because I know there’s been different agricultural bills come in and different support for expanding that approach? Are you seeing that on the ground yet? Do you get a sense that there’s a cultural shift happening?

 

Anne:

Yes, yes, there is. You know, we’ve had sort of ecological arguments on the Arches, and Farming Today, Countryfile – our TV programme on Sundays visits places that are doing good things. But it’s pretty hard going even though there are changes afoot in terms of funding, which will hopefully help pay farmers for what they call public goods.

 

It’s kind of difficult to get the messages across, because people want to know exactly how to do it. They want to be told what to grow, how to grow it. There’s still a lot of experience and experimentation to be gathered about what are the best ways. I think that it’s an evolving process and we do have a really good band of organic growers in this country. But there seems to be, not silos, but some separation between being organic, being agro-ecological and being permaculture. They do have a lot in common but they’re not all totally at one.

 

Morag:

You do have the Food and Farming Festival which seems to me like a great idea because all those different groups are coming together, at least there’s conversation going on!

 

Anne:

But notice that it runs at the same time as the official Oxford Farming Conference, which is where all the big landowners are.

 

Morag:

I didn’t know that, ok!

 

Anne:

There’s probably a lot more that could be said about how the economics of farming works here. But I discovered this up close when I tried to work with organic growers and colleagues in promoting a herb market. Because there was a huge amount of interest and people saying, ‘What should I grow? What should I grow? How do I dry it?’ and so on.

The problem arose that we couldn’t get buyers in the firms that use these plants to commit. Some of them would say, ‘Oh, well, we’ll buy any if you’ve got some leftovers after harvest!’ But no grower can commit land on the off chance that they might. So it was like a lottery! People can’t plant trees on the off chance that they might be a value at some point. We need some more well-funded projects to prove that some of these approaches could be used in a more commercially sustainable way.

 

Morag:

Yeah, great, Tell us more about the trust and what you’re working on with the trust.

 

Anne:

Okay, so it’s very much the Medicinal Forest Garden Trust is a bit of a fledgling organisation. During the pandemic, we decided that we needed to move on from Holtwood and it was sold at the time, so I went online. There’s a website, and because Holtwood had become very popular, we were running courses and they all had to be cancelled and money was refunded.

I went online, and tried to recreate those courses. So the Medicinal Forest Garden Trust is is kind of a focus, if you like. I try to do a monthly blog about particular trees, and how they might be used or places I’ve visited, and such like. What I want to do is to highlight examples of where medicinal forest gardening is going on. The idea really is just to spread the word of the possibilities. We’ve also got a little shop where we can sell a few things.

 

Morag:

Fantastic. And, and there’s a book that you’ve got coming out later this year?

 

Anne:

It’s coming out in October 2023. It takes the previous 40 trees and shrubs that were in the medicinal forest garden design book and adds another 40 that I wasn’t able to squeeze in last time. There’s a bit of information about cultivation and other uses so that it may be useful for permaculture growers, to see how it would fit into the context of a forest garden or some sort of project. As I was saying earlier, there are recipes with each species.

 

The idea is that there’s plenty of information to select for different sites, if you want to grow, but also perhaps foragers and forest schoolers, might be able to use it looking at trees and shrubs, not just in local woodland, but also in gardens and parks. Because there are plenty of ornamentals in the UK, coming from Asia, Australasia, and North America, particularly which can be used. The introductory chapters are mainly about how these plants might be used, giving people the possibility of substitutes. Once you know what you’re looking for, for example, you’re looking for a stringent action, maybe there’s an alternative if you can’t find a particular species of plant.

 

Morag:

Oh, fantastic. And I love the way you know that it’s global, that people will be able to pick it up from lots of different places across that kind of climate zone and be able to see all those uses. There’s a lot of things that are in and around our gardens wherever we look that are possible. So having that is absolutely amazing.

 

Anne:

Well, they’re all temperate plants so they would all be suitable in a temperate context.

 

Morag:

Fantastic. I was gonna ask you a little bit about your writing process as a final question, because as part of this writer series on Sensemaking in a Changing World. I’m always fascinated by how writers actually structure their thinking and manifest books. I’m always curious personally, because I’ve got lots of little book ideas that keep on swirling around my head, but I never actually find the time to make the discipline of doing it. So what was your process of actually writing? You’re on your third book now!

 

Anne:

There’s two sides to this one: getting someone interested in publishing! And the other side is actually writing it! So my background is in sciences, I’m a report writer, I don’t have much artistic ability. For me, writing is very often a case of getting loads of notes, putting them together on the computer, then printing them out and looking at them and thinking, ‘oh my god, that doesn’t make much sense’, and scribbling all over it, and going back to the computer. It’s an evolving editing process. The key being that I ended up with far too many words, like I remember with my research thesis, I ended up with twice as many – usually producing about 100,000 words and I ended up with over twice as much. Trying to reduce that is a bit like cutting off arms and legs. 

 

But the key to that is, what am I trying to say? I talked about the historical research that I was doing earlier. Then the two things I wanted to say was, how you could consider researching recipes in context and actually, when you do, you find that surprising result! Maybe they weren’t used so widely, after all. Similarly, I’ve had to focus on ‘what I am really trying to say’, in a nutshell, and then that helps to prune and focus. I am very much in favour of the introduction – what I’m going to say is all about ‘this, this and this’, ‘here is this and this and this’, and then concluding, ‘what I’ve said is this and this.’ So it’s a bit kind of stylized, but I don’t really know any other way.

 

The first question is how you get something published, don’t just send it off into the ether! You need to network and get to know the publishers, ideally, the editors and their names, and try to speak to them about your idea of what you want to produce. Because they’ve got to be with you on the idea. The first time I tried to publish my research, I was a bit knocked back by other people’s comments and ‘what you should do is this, what you should do is that’. I tried those things, and it didn’t work. I needed to go back to my original nutshell idea.

 

You need to stick with it. And a network until you find the right people who want to publish your book, or self publish – which I didn’t have much experience of.

 

Morag:

So I was wondering about the topics of your book, did you unfold the topics as something that emerged from your passion and interest? Or are they things from all the education that you’ve done – common questions that people ask and that? Where did you find yourself landing?

 

Anne:

The topics are a bit like those spider diagrams. They do come up from what people ask about and problems particularly. I think they kind of start from what I think people ought to know and then they’re slightly modified by not just what people ought to know, but what people actually are interested in. That’s probably why this third book has been produced because not everybody – although everybody ought to design a forest garden – not everybody has the possibility. So this third book is intended to give a much wider set of people from gardeners to foresters, and foragers and therapists, ideas about what they could be harvesting or growing.

 

Morag:

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’ve learned so much and I really look forward to the release of your new book. I wish you all the best with the release and with all the things that you’re sharing through the Medicinal Forest Garden Trust!

 

Anne:

It’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you!

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