Who was it that said that Australia was the best place to get out of he'd ever been in? Christopher Robbins quoted it when I asked him to explain his journey from Queensland, where he studied plant physiology, to the UK, where he now practises as a medical herbalist. His present occupation synthesises in a very neat way the two interests that have been with him, one way or another, for the whole of his working life: plants and medicine.
At first, at the Institute for Development Studies and the Centre for Agricultural Strategy, plants dominated. Then, working with the Coronary Prevention Group, medicine came to the fore. Robbins' own father had been a GP in Brisbane and, only recently, he has discovered that his grandfather, also a doctor, had a pharmacy in Brisbane, specialising in herbal medicines that he imported from the US. "So, in a way, you could say I've come full circle."
I went to see Robbins because I wanted him to suggest a living medicine chest that anybody could grow (or gather). Obviously, the plants had to be easy to identify and in no way similar to anything that might be dangerous. The difficulty lay in restricting the list to 10. Once started, Robbins couldn't stop: meadowsweet – excellent in treating gastritis; lavender – relaxes the nerves; comfrey – one of the best poultices for a pulled muscle; English marigold – anti-fungal action against simple problems such as athlete's foot.
Unsurprisingly, Robbins' list included some plants, such as dandelion, that we gardeners are inclined to eliminate rather than cultivate. "The point about dandelion is that it is bitter," explains Robbins. "Bitters are brilliant. When that taste hits the receptors at the back of the tongue, it stimulates saliva, so we can chew more easily." It also stimulates peristalsis, the churning of the muscles in the alimentary tract, and that helps to shift food through the digestive system. Essential gastric juices are secreted, all because of those bitters. We have not helped ourselves, says Robbins, by increasingly choosing foods that are not bitter.
"Bitterness has been bred out of most lettuce now," he points out. "And we peel cucumbers to get rid of the slightly bitter skin." The French manage things better. Their chicories and endives still have that bitter kick that starts off useful responses in the gut. So, top of the Robbins list are:
Dandelion The French name (pis-en-lit) is the best clue to its usefulness in the home-grown medicine chest: the leaves are a strong, safe and very effective diuretic, for anyone suffering from water retention. The bitterness aids digestion and acts also as a liver tonic. In some country areas, the milky sap that oozes out when you pick a leaf is still used to banish warts. The easiest way to use dandelion leaf is raw, in a salad. The common weedy ones are fine to eat, now, while they are young. But if you are in the extraordinary position of having no dandelions pushing up in your flower beds, you can grow the fancy French variety 'Pissenlit a Coeur plein' (Suffolk Herbs £1).
Nettle Stinging nettle is packed with vitamin A and vitamin C, and has almost twice as much iron in it as spinach, so it's not surprising that it makes a brilliant spring tonic. We perhaps are not so keen now on flailing around in nettle beds to ease rheumatism. The sting inflames and warms and that process eases the ache in rheumaticky joints.
The simplest way to prepare nettle is in a soup and now is a great time to make it, before the leaves get dark and tough. The recipe I use is from Cooking Weeds by Vivien Weise. You need 500g potatoes peeled and cubed, 2 chopped onions, some butter, 1 litre good stock, 100g stinging nettle leaves stripped from the stems, 2tsp lemon juice, salt, pepper, 200ml double cream, 50g roasted, flaked almonds, 1 grated carrot. Fry the potatoes and onions until translucent. Add the stock and simmer for 10 mins. Add the nettle leaves and simmer for another 10 mins. Liquidise and add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Reheat and stir in half the cream. Serve with the rest of the cream, the almonds and the carrot ready to garnish the soup.
Chickweed This is a very common annual weed, sprouting now on disturbed ground with pale green leaves. The starry white flowers come later. It's the best of all plants, says Robbins, for treating itchy or inflamed skin. The simplest way to use it is as a poultice. You can pick a bunch of the stuff, wring it slightly to release the sap, then bind the poultice to whatever part of the skin needs it. If you suffer from mild eczema or dermatitis, try it. It won't be hard to find, as each plant carries about 15,000 seeds and they germinate in almost every month of the year.
Elder "A medicine chest all on its own," says Robbins. You can use bark, leaf, flower and berry. The flowers, which dry up mucus, are used for colds and flu, the leaves and bark, infused, provide an effective balm for minor burns and the berries, cooked, act as a laxative. They shouldn't be eaten raw. Elderflower cordial is easy to make and freezes brilliantly, if you pour it into plastic water bottles (the 50cl size is best). To make it, put 2 pints of boiled, cooled water, 25 heads of elderflower, 1 sliced orange, 1 sliced lemon, 60g citric acid and 1.4kg of sugar in a bowl. Stir it every time you go past it. After 48 hours, strain the mixture and bottle it. If you are not freezing it, keep it in the fridge.
Lime Much used in France, as a daily tisane, though not so much in the UK. Robbins quotes research showing that children with flu recover more quickly when treated with an infusion of lime flowers than they do with antibiotics. A tisane of lime flowers helps reduce blood pressure, anxiety, irritability. Pick them in late June or early July.
Hawthorn Nobody I know would bring hawthorn flowers into the house – round where I live they are still considered very unlucky. Robbins, though, recommends the fruit, produced in autumn, to be taken as a tea. The small round haws, used fresh or dried, provide a valuable tonic, especially for the heart.
Mahonia Medical herbalists use the bark of mahonia, steeped to make an infusion, as a treatment for psoriasis. Now is the perfect time to prune overgrown mahonias, taking out a few of the tallest stems down to within 30-45cm of the ground. So don't waste the bark. Strip it to reveal the surprising yellow stem underneath, and get infusing.
Geranium Not the geranium that's properly a pelargonium, but the herbaceous plant, whose root or rhizome, dried and infused, makes an excellent wash for mouth ulcers. Medical herbalists also use these infusions to treat diarrhoea and enteritis.
Feverfew There's a golden version of this plant (Tanacetum parthenium 'Aureum') which is very pretty and no less effective against headache and migraine than the plain, green-leaved kind. I just pluck it and chew it, but it is very bitter. For a slightly more palatable dose, pour boiling water over a few leaves, strain and drink with a teaspoonful of honey.
Lemon balm This, as its name suggests, has long been used as a remedy by anyone feeling exhausted and run-down. It "strengthens the brain" says the 17th-century plantsman, John Evelyn. I rather regret hoofing it out from among the bearded iris. My brain could do with some strengthening.
For more information, track down a copy of Christopher Robbins' 'Household Herbal', splendidly comprehensive but currently out of print