I’ve just finished re-reading one of my favourite novels of all time – The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. It was a different experience this time since my knowledge of plants, flowers and herbal medicine has increased dramatically in the twenty-some years since reading it the first time. But I smile to think that if it weren’t for this book, it would have taken years for me to discover an interest in herbal medicine and foraging for wild food.
At the same time I cringe at some of the silly things I did after reading the book the first time. Well apart from some of the more adult themes in the book which I probably shouldn’t have been reading at age ten, I also thought I’d experiment with foraging for myself. After all, Ayla was the same age as me and if she could do it, so could I! I recall munching on different leaves I found in the forest behind our house and also talking my siblings into doing the same. It scares me to death to think of what could have happened since at this time I couldn’t have told you the difference between Digitalis and Clematis .
I think that I was probably not alone in my amateur exploits in wild food, and I’ll bet that I wasn’t even the youngest. In our modern world filled with supermarkets, pharmacies and industrial food production there seems to be a universal longing for a simpler and more natural life. And in 1980, The Clan of the Cave Bear was one of the first mass market novels that satisfied this attraction to a life of survivalism and existential purpose. It introduced a world before everything we now take for granted: no cars, refrigerators, houses or even matches. Yet somehow a world like that did once exist and the people who lived there survived…and thrived. No one truly knows what life 30,000 years ago was like but the picture that Auel paints for us is one that many people gravitate to. But though she alludes to back-breaking hard work and the inherent dangers of some of the herbal remedies I’d say that overall the romanticism of living at one with nature down-plays the peril.
Even so, safe and possibly effective herbal remedies are introduced in the book and I’m interested in experimenting with them. Long gone are the days of nibbling on random leaves but still I am very much aware that when experimenting with herbs, wild-food and mushrooms that you must do it with both care and knowledge. In Britain there are a handful of cases every year of accidental poisonings and even death from making mistakes with food – most of them will involve the consumption of a Death Cap mushroom but I recall stories of people who have died from eating rhubarb leaves as well. So with my experimentation I’m going to leave it at simple and safe remedies from plants and trees that are easy to recognise.
Hollyhock is a herbal remedy mentioned several times in The Clan of the Cave Bear. One of the excerpts is as follows:
“Hollyhocks are good for soothing irritations, sore throats, scrapes, scratches. The flowers make a drink that can ease pain, but it makes a person sleepy. The root is good for wounds. I used hollyhock roots on your leg, Ayla.”
Hollyhocks growing in my allotment
In looking through my herbal medicine books, including the Enclycolpedia of Herbal Medicine as well as online sources such as Medicinal Herb Info I found that the uses for Hollyhock today are much the same as described in The Clan of the Cave Bear. Though the leaves and roots seem not to be used as often as the petals anymore, the modern and historical use of Hollyhock to treat sore throats and coughs is well known. A flower that in the past was standard in most gardens, the Hollyhock is now less popular and seen more in ‘Cottage Garden’ plantings. I suppose I’m not a trendy gardener then because I love this flower and have had it around for years.
Both the fresh and dried flower petals can be used as an infusion or a decoction and it seems a very safe herbal remedy to use since it was once commonly enjoyed as ordinary tea. Hollyhock comes in an assortment of colours and it doesn’t really matter which one you use for your remedy. I chose to use white flowers so that I could more easily spot dirt and insects. To begin with, I thoroughly rinsed several flowers after letting them sit outdoors for a bit to give any beasties a chance to escape. Plucking the petals from the flower I ended up using two handfuls of them with a little more than a cup of boiling water, making an infusion. After allowing them to sit for about fifteen minutes I strained the liquid off and poured it into a mug.
Overall I can report no ill side affects and that I found the taste of the tea very refreshing. Though it’s mentioned in The Clan of the Cave Bear that the petals can have a sedative effect I didn’t find that to be the case with my own infusion. Instead it had a floral and soothing taste/feel and my energy level didn’t change after drinking it. And after having a cup, I can understand how it can relieve sore mouths and throats and sometimes even thirst.
I plan on drying some of the flowers and storing them away for when I’ve got a cold. If they’re successful in soothing my throat when I’m feeling miserable then I’d have to say that I’ll make regular use of Hollyhocks as a herbal remedy. I already have them growing as ornamentals and the idea of giving it a useful purpose is really pleasing!