We use herbs for their flavour all the time, but as Sam East explains, their uses and benefits go far beyond their taste…
Herbs have been used by man since the dawn of civilisation and more people are becoming aware of the positive benefits of integrating them into their diet. Vegans are no exception and three areas of our lives which can be hugely benefited by introducing herbs are: food and nutrition, home healing, and cruelty-free cloth craft dyeing.
Most vegans will use fresh or dried herbs in their meal creations, purely for flavour, but another way of using herbs is in health-packed smoothies for their nutritional contribution. I came across the author Victoria Boutenko recently and was amazed by the inclusion of everyday wild herbs, plants and shop bought herbs in her smoothies. Now, although the book is not vegan, most of the recipes are and those that are not can easily be converted. Who would have thought of using chickweed in a smoothie?
Chickweed is an excellent supplier of calcium, iron and other necessary vitamins and minerals, and, as well as often being used in natural skin care products, it seems logical to feed our insides with such healing foods as chickweed, as well as putting it onto our skin. Although chickweed hasn’t a strong flavour, herbal smoothies are always enhanced with old favourites such as apple, banana or pear juice.
Versatile herbs for health
I thought about herbs in a new light when I started to study the subject in earnest 20 years ago – what if we could include them, as nutritional additions, in our diet and not just as flavour? The concept is hardly new, but even vegans can become disconnected from seasonal eating and the natural fruits of the land, with more convenience food being invented all the time.
Heavy periods? Try adding beetroot greens to your normal smoothie. Too much alcohol? Peppermint leaves made into a tea may help calm down waves of nausea and dandelion root may help to support your poor overworked liver! A lovely coffee substitute can be made from roasted dandelion root, so next time you see those yellow, sunshine heads bobbing in your garden, think ‘hmm… coffee’ or ‘wow… a cleansing juice’!
Herbs are versatile and more of us are taking charge of our health, using preventative measures such as regular juices, smoothies and salads. Those dandelion leaves, if young, make a cleansing salad green, and don’t forget flowering herbs – most of the flowers are not only edible, but look amazing in salads too.
Making your own herb teas is deeply satisfying when you have just picked the leaves in the sunshine and you don’t even need a garden. Small pots of herbs can easily be grown on a windowsill or in a yard, and what could be more refreshing than a pot of iced lemon balm tea on a hot, sticky day? Lemon balm is known as a natural anti-anxiety herb and can also help with minor digestive problems. Plus, it is an absolute joy to grow in your garden, attracting bees and butterflies.
If you have absolutely no space to grow herbs, then check out local community projects – my local tourist information centre has a garden attached and free herbs for community use. Collecting from the wild is an option, but be aware of local bye-laws regarding picking plants, correct identification and the local habitat need.
Most people have sage in their cupboards and a lovely home remedy is to make a simple tea with it. Add some salt, ginger and gargle away when cooled a little if you have a sore throat. Sage is very much an understated and under used herb, often seen married to onion in stuffing or in stews, the most simple way to use it beneficially is as a tea. Sage is a stimulant, a diuretic and an expectorant, has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. What more do you need?
Bring colour to the mix
The final way in which vegans can benefit from herbs is through their use as natural dyes. Years ago there were only a handful of commercial dyes available for cloth, chemical-laced and sadly tested on animals. Thankfully, the knowledge surrounding natural dyes has become more readily available over the years and it is not unusual to find suitable herbs available either at your local supermarket or health shop. Mordants are natural or chemical additives used to fix or change colour, but here, just the basic colour change will be addressed. After all, dyeing fabric for arts, crafts or the home is fun in itself!
Tea is the easiest one to start with. A handful of strong tea bags, steeped in hot water from 5 minutes to several hours will provide an amazing array of shades from light beige to a light tan brown. I have successfully dyed crocheted doilies for artwork and cardmaking, and tie-dyed an old skirt for fancy dress this way! Turmeric from the store cupboard produced a fabulous bright yellow and kitchen scraps from fruit and vegetables, such as avocado skins, berries, spinach and beet leaves, produce unexpected results (I won’t spoil the surprise, have a go!) Best fabric to use is cotton for us vegans – you may have old cotton men’s shirts, tea towels or an old bed sheet that you could use.
Now for the dyeing herbs in your garden. Nettle, calendula (pot marigold), lavender and dandelion root are just a few of the commonly found garden herbs (or ask a nice neighbour) that produce colour changes, and best of all? No animal testing, recycling, conscious parenting potential and in line with vegan philosophy. The natural world is on your doorstep and with the help of a good herbal identification book, all this fun is at your berry-stained fingertips.