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Photography Ren Hang

Welcome to Herbology 101

Get witchy green fingers with our starter pack for budding herbalists

Welcome to Witch Week, a campaign dedicated to exploring how witchcraft, magick and beauty intersect. Discover photo stories shot featuring real witches in NYC, a modern reimagining of the witch, and one witch’s mission to get a tan, as well as in-depth features exploring herbology, science and alchemy, and male witches. Elsewhere, we’ve created four special covers to celebrate the campaign and our one year anniversary – something wicked this way comes.

I’ve always felt a deep connection to nature, ever since I was a young girl. There is nothing I love more than being surrounded by wilderness and to be foraging wild plants. I’m always learning and experimenting when it comes to plants and it was a natural progression that I studied Horticulture and then went on to do a degree in Herbal Science. I quickly realised that I had found my passion, and set about establishing a career around those interests. 

I learnt more about the native plants that surrounded me, beyond their Latin names, I began to understand what constituents flowed through them, how they interacted with each other, and how they could benefit people. I have a strong affinity for Airmid the Celtic goddess of healing and herbs and feel her presence around me always.

Herbal medicine has a long and rich history in Ireland. We can trace it all the way back to our myths and legends and the famous Tuatha Dé Dannan, a supernatural race of people who represented the main deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. Among the Tuatha Dé Dannan was a famous physician called Dian Cécht. He had seven children and two of them Miach and Airmid were herbalists. To be a herbalist or a healer was an important role in society and it was a hereditary title from specific families of healers. But colonisation brought the penal laws and no Irish Catholic could practice a profession or study. The medical schools and hospitals closed and those who could leave fled to the continent. Herbal knowledge had to be passed down orally from here on. Complex compounds were passed down through families and fiercely protected right up to this day, never leaving the family. Whereas more simple folk cures were passed down through whole villages as local cures. Thankfully, a good deal of this knowledge was preserved and gathered in 1937 by the Irish Folklore Commission. 

All throughout the western world, the end of herbal or plant medicine being the mainstay of medicine came with a major development in the world of science in the early 19th century. In 1806, alkaloids were discovered and isolated from poppies and so pharmaceutical medicine where active ingredients are isolated or synthesised, began. A well-known example is the salicylates extracted from Willow bark to produce aspirin. The belief was that these pharmaceutical drugs were superior because they acted faster and there were no issues with processing unlike plant material where enzymes could cause fundamental changes during the drying process.

But why do herbalists still practice if modern medicine has isolated the best constituents? Mainly, because herbalists believe that the whole plant is sometimes a more balanced and beneficial way to take a medicine. Often there are synergies between plant constituents. A classic example is Dandelion as a diuretic. Conventional diuretics can seriously reduce potassium levels in the body which have to be restored using potassium supplements. Herbalists use dandelion leaves as a powerful diuretic as they contain potassium which naturally replaces that which is lost, thereby maintaining balance in the body and avoiding a negative side-effect.

Today herbal medicine in Ireland is alive and well. It’s a mix of those university-educated, those who served apprentices and even those who can trace a line of healers in their families back through the generations. The herbal scientists I studied with went on to do clinical training and become medical herbalists, went into research or carried on further study in the field. I chose to go into the world of natural skincare.

Natural beauty has been influenced to some extent by herbalism as we see certain oil infusions and extracts regularly being used like calendula, mallow, chamomile, but there is much more scope. Especially as we expect so much more from our natural products these days, we expect them to perform as well as conventional products. If we look to plants, there is still so much more to be discovered or rediscovered. We know that plant constituents can be hydrating, toning, antioxidant etc so they serve as the perfect materials for effective and natural skincare.

I love researching plants for new ingredients, its where most searches for new medicinal materials start too – we have a huge treasure trove of plants to search through. If there is something in synthetic skincare, there is usually an alternative in plant material – botanical silicones from millet, plant-derived hyaluronic acid, lupine peptides. But the big difference is plant materials are alive, non-inert materials which of course brings challenges, but it brings so much more too. 

As far as I have a scientific background, I’m still very much open to the magic and the alchemy that plants bring – there are many surprises when you work with natural materials, there’s still so much unknown and to be discovered. I know that I always commune with plants when I work with them, thanking them for their use. I often turn to the same plant regularly and see them as old friends! 

While I respect all that modern science has brought to the practice of herbal medicine – clinical trials, spectrophotometry, new extraction techniques I also highly regard the vast history of herbal medicine that has gone before me, I know that my ancestors carried a huge knowledge of plants based on a long history of use. It would be foolish to disregard this as being ‘unscientific’ when in fact, as my university lecturer used to say, they were running incredibly long clinical trials. 

For those who would like to enter into herbology and the use of plants themselves, here are some tips for beginners: 


Elderberries are chock full of antioxidants and vitamin C and can be taken as a syrup during the winter months to prevent colds and flu. Elderberries have been shown in research to have an anti-viral activity and its attributed to its anthocyanidin content. I like to harvest elderberries in autumn and make a syrup by boiling them down in water and adding the same weight of either sugar or syrup. My kids take a tablespoon a day during the winter. You can find elder trees lining most country roads but try not to harvest from trees that are exposed to heavy traffic.


In the winter months, I also make a thyme cough bottle by making a decoction of thyme by boiling sprigs of thyme in hot water and then mixing this strained liquid with either honey or sugar to form a syrup. Take a teaspoon of it two or three times a day if you have a cough or cold. The thyme can be picked from your garden or bought fresh in the supermarket.


Calendula-infused oil is very easy to make and it’s a wonderful soothing, anti-inflammatory oil to use on your skin. Harvest the whole flower head and add them to a kilner jar or jam jar. Fill the jar to the top with a carrier oil – sweet almond, sunflower, or olive. Forget about it for a few weeks and when you go back to it you will find the oil a wonderful rich orange colour. The oil has extracted all the fat-soluble constituents from the calendula flowers. Strain it carefully using a muslin cloth and store in a jar or bottle. Use the oil on sore, inflamed or dry skin. 


Nettle and horsetail are wonderful herbs for haircare. Both contain silica which can help maintain strong and healthy hair. I would boil both herbs in water for 5 to 10 mins, strain carefully and cool. I then use this infusion immediately as a hair rinse. It won’t store so it does have to be used on the same day as you make it. Nettles are easy to recognise and find, horsetail is abundant too just have a quick look through a plant ID book or website to familiarise yourself with it.


At this time of year with conkers everywhere, it’s the perfect time to make some eco-friendly clothes detergent! Conkers contain saponins which are the constituents responsible for lathering in water and cleaning. Crush them with a hammer and add to your laundry wash in a net bag as you would with soap nuts.