Sunday 29 November 2015

Ginkgo biloba and herbs to treat migraine

Ginkgo biloba as a treatment for migraine 

Ginkgo biloba (Photo: Public Domain)

Ginkgo biloba is a tree dating back to prehistoric times that is used today in herbal medicine with one of its uses being as a herb to prevent migraines. I use it for this purpose and can vouch for its effectiveness because I take it as a daily supplement and on occasions when I have run out of a supply for some weeks I have ended up getting migraine attacks again.

Ginkgo has been the subject of clinical studies to show whether or not it is of any use in treating migraine and the results are promising.

It is a very popular herbal remedy and is widely available from health stores and counters, as well as from suppliers of herbal supplements via the Internet. It is available as tablets, capsules and tinctures, sometimes combined with other herbs. 

Ginkgo biloba is used to help the circulation by thinning the blood but this means that it can also cause excess bleeding and caution should be observed if you are taking anticoagulant drugs such as warfarin. 

Ginkgo is thought to help preserve a good memory and cognitive function, although clinical studies do not support this. Nevertheless, it is thought to help to guard against Alzheimer's Disease and dementia. 

Ginkgo biloba is sometimes referred to as the Maidenhair Tree because its fan-shaped leaves are similar in shape but a lot bigger than the fronds of the Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum spp.). The Ginkgo is native to China but grown around the world today in parks and gardens. The Ginkgo can grow into a very large tree, attaining heights of 20-35 metres. 

Ginkgo leaves (Photo: Public Domain)

The Ginkgo is deciduous and its leaves turn a glorious golden yellow in autumn.

Hiroshima survivor

As a matter of interest, he Ginkgo biloba tree stands up well to all sorts of conditions including atomic warfare. Six trees in Hiroshima in Japan survived the 1945 bomb explosion. Although nearly everything else in the area these trees were in was killed, the Ginkgo trees, although badly charred, soon regenerated and are still growing today. 


Feverfew (Photo: Public Domain)

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is also known as the Midsummer Daisy, and as its name suggests it flowers around this time with plenty of white daisy-like flowers and aromatic ferny foliage. It is a pretty plant and often grown in gardens where it will self-seed and establish itself. 

Feverfew has gained a good reputation for being a herb that can be taken as a preventative against migraine attacks. One large leaf or three smaller ones taken per day is the dosage, although the leaves taste very bitter and you may wish to find some way of masking the flavour. 

The easier way of taking this herb is to buy it from a health store or herbal supplier.

Feverfew is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, and whilst it has been used in treating migraines it will only work in preventing them and needs to be taken on a regular basis for several weeks before it can be expected to work.  Feverfew cannot halt a migraine once an attack is happening.


Butterbur (Photo: Public Domain)

The Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is a perennial herb that produces creeping rhizomes and spikes of pinkish flowers that are formed in early spring before the large rounded leaves that appear after flowering.  The Butterbur grows on riverbanks and along the edges of streams and is a fairly common plant in the UK and Europe. There are also a number of related species in the genus.

Butterbur has been used in herbal medicine as a treatment for migraine and is thought to have an effect on blood flow to the brain, as well as having anti-inflammatory properties. 

White Willow Bark

White Willow catkins (Photo: Public Domain)

The bark of the White Willow (Salix alba) has also been used in the treatment of migraine and for conventional headaches. This tree produces salicin in its bark which is a chemical substance very close to aspirin.  Like aspirin it has the proven ability to decrease pain and reduce inflammation. Willow bark has analgesic properties. 

Willow Bark has been a traditional herbal remedy for many other conditions besides migraines and headaches.  Willow bark should not be used by anyone who is allergic to aspirin, for obvious reasons.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Mamas from the Heart of the World - The Kogi

Who are the Kogi?

Perhaps you have never heard of the Kogi but if what these people say is true, then the future of this planet and our lives on it depends on their help. The Kogi are a mysterious tribe of people who live high on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain in Columbia, and who believe they are the guardians and caretakers for the whole world. 

 The Kogi leaders are priests known as Mamas. Mama means "enlightened one." They believe that the mountain they live on is the "Heart of the World," and this was why the landmark BBC documentary made by Alan Ereira in 1990 was entitled From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers' Warning.

Indigenous Koguis Shaman at Ciudad Perdida (Photo: Uhkabu)

The Kogi are unique in having been able to preserve their culture intact and dating back before the Spanish Conquest 500 years ago. They are a surviving Pre-Colombian culture but they are in turn descendants of the Tairona culture that flourished before this. The Tairona were an advanced civilisation that built cities and pathways of stone in the jungles. These structures were built to last and have survived in good condition long after their builders had gone.

 Statue of the Tayronas in Santa Marta, Colombia (Photo: Public Domain)

The Elder Brother

The term "Elder Brother" is used by the Kogi to refer to themselves, while the rest of the world and the western civilisation they call the "Younger Brother." In their belief system the Younger Brother was sent away long ago, leaving the Kogi Mamas to do their work in caring for the world from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Kogi boys can be selected from birth to be trained for nine years to become Mamas. They are kept in semi-darkness in a cave for this time and attended only by their mothers and Mamas who care for them and teach them about their history and beliefs and about Aluna. Aluna is the "Great Mother" from which all life and all creation sprang. Aluna is the life force behind nature. 

Kogi village huts (Photo: Thomas Dahlberg)

The Kogi Mamas have a complete understanding of the ecosystem and can interpret signs from nature with precision. Their mountain home is like a microcosm of the rest of the world because it really does contain microclimates and varying habitats such as can be found elsewhere on the planet. There are highlands and tundra, there are cloud forests and jungles, there are rivers and lakes, there are desert areas and lowlands, there are coastal regions with mangrove forests and reefs. 

It is possible to predict the health of the planet elsewhere by interpreting how it is on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is why the Mamas had become very worried. They had seen that all was not well high on the mountain where snow and ice were not forming as they should, presumably due to Climate Change acerbated by how humans are treating the environment and wasting natural resources. No snow and ice high in the mountains and no clouds meant no water for streams and rivers to form from rainfall and meltwater, so no water for down below and without water nothing can live. 

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Photo: Public Domain)

The Kogi Mamas believe that because we are creating dams in the rivers, causing widespread deforestation, mining the land and mountains, polluting the seas, and otherwise destroying the environment and our home, that the world will come to an end, possibly as soon as in the next 50 years, unless we change course.

The Kogi tribe had kept itself away from the rest of the world until 1990 when the Mamas decided to break their silence in talking with Ereira and allowing him and his crew to film their secret homelands.

Kogi Warning

Sadly the Mamas have concluded that their message and warning to the Younger Brother was not heeded. This is why, 20 years later they decided to try another approach and have made a new film working with Ereira again. 


Aluna is the title of the new movie made by the Kogi Mamas working again with Alan Ereira.  The Kogi are very frightened by the way the Younger Brother is continuing to destroy the natural world but know that we do not understand the forces we are unleashing.  They believe that unless we change course and listen to what they have to say then the world will end.

The Kogi could see that the Younger Brother failed to listen to their words and spoken warning in From The Heart of The World so in Aluna they are trying another way to communicate to us. They want to visually show us what they are talking about.

Julian Lennon

Julian Lennon in a Recent Picture (Photo: Julian Lennon)

Singer-songwriter, musician and photographer +Julian Lennon, who is a son of the former Beatle John Lennon, has been actively involved in supporting the Kogi and the campaign to get their message in Aluna widely heard. 

Julian Lennon's ALUNA Support Message

Julian says: "They have the answers. This is a warning that should not be ignored."

Wednesday 25 November 2015

A Silent Spring for Seabirds

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

Rachel Carson (Photo: Public Domain)

Rachel Carson's best-selling book Silent Spring gave a grim warning about the dangers of pesticides when it was published in 1962. It correctly predicted that DDT and other pesticides would take a terrible toll on wildlife, and in particular birds. Without birds singing it would be a Silent Spring, and hence the title.  Her book spurred on the environmental movement in a massive way, caused many changes and became a modern classic but it couldn't predict the extreme danger from plastic pollution that was fast approaching. In the 1960s when Carson's book came out less than 5% of seabirds had plastic inside them but by the 1980s it had increased dramatically to 80%.

90% of seabirds have eaten plastic

National Geographic has recently revealed in a shocking report by Laura Parker that today as many as 90% of marine birds have eaten plastic. That means most seagulls, gannets, shearwaters, terns, albatrosses, frigate birds, petrels, kittiwakes, razorbills, boobies, penguins and puffins are likely to have swallowed plastic. The birds mistake plastic for sea creatures and fish with dire results. They are unable to digest plastic, unable to excrete it and so the toxic material accumulates somewhere inside them. As the plastic builds up with each plastic item swallowed so the room for real food gets less. Plastic also contains toxins that can gradually poison a bird to various degrees and lead to its reproductive failure. Sharp-edged plastic items can puncture internal organs and lead to bleeding and death.

Washed up plastic trash (Photo: Public Domain)

This is happening worldwide because waste plastic is being carried down rivers, streams and sewers into the oceans, in addition to the discarded plastic rubbish from ships and left carelessly littering beaches and coastlines. Plastic is washing up on beaches and looks almost like dead fish. Plastic items including bottles, bottle-caps, cups, bags, straws, lighters, spoons, toys and pieces of plastic packaging are floating around or washed onto beaches and look like food to a hungry seabird. 

It is not just at sea because gulls that are so well-suited as scavengers, and which are increasingly colonising our cities and feeding from rubbish dumps are mistaking plastic for food too with disastrous results as can be seen in this video.

Seagull eating a plastic bag

It is estimated that by 2050 every seabird will have eaten plastic!


Remains of a Laysan albatross chick (Photo: Forest & Kim Starr)

The magnificent albatross, in all of the species, is a type of seabird in which plastic pollution is causing widespread fatalities among the chicks. Parent birds are feeding all sorts of plastic items to their hungry babies not knowing that they are actually killing their young ones. The baby birds cannot regurgitate the plastic trash and cannot digest it either. The rubbish accumulates inside them and they become undernourished, stressed and eventually die.  The helpless parent birds can only look on in horror!

The following video shows how bad the situation really is:

Plastic in albatross chicks at Midway Atoll

All types of albatross are recognised as endangered species. Can you imagine a world without these birds? Can you imagine a world without seabirds where we can no longer hear the cry of the seagull?

Seagulls in flight (Photo: Public Domain)

 Can you picture rocky cliffs and islands no longer used as breeding sites for seabird colonies?  Plastic is one of the many serious threats to seabirds of all types and, the way things are going, it looks as if these birds are heading for extinction unless something can be done to halt their decline. 

Whales and turtles

Footage of whale who died after eating plastic bags

And it is not just the seabirds that are in danger because of plastic trash that they eat. Whales and turtles, as well as many other types of marine life are eating the material. Beached and dead whales are being found with masses of plastic bags and other rubbish inside them and turtles too are suffering the same fate of dying after consuming plastic. These marine reptiles eat the material after mistaking it for jellyfish.

Sea turtle eating plastic

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Butterflies in November and British Butterflies that hibernate

The Red Admiral

The only butterfly you are likely to see flying in November in the UK is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). Conspicuous, not only because it is the only butterfly you are likely to see at the time of year, but also because of its bold colours of red, black and white.

Red Admiral (Photo: Public Domain)

The Red Admiral can still be seen flying on sunny days late in the autumn and will feed from rotting fruit, such as windfall apples and pears, and on ivy blossoms. It is the last butterfly to be seen in many parts of northern Europe too. It is also found in Asia and North America.

The Red Admiral is actually a migrant butterfly that arrives in Britain in varying numbers each year but it also hibernates and thus maintains a resident population.  Hibernating individuals emerge in spring and start the cycle again by laying eggs on the food-plants, which for this species, is mainly the Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica).

British butterflies that overwinter by hibernating

There are four more butterflies found in the UK, that although they are not seen flying as butterflies in November,  hibernate as adult butterflies. They are the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), the Peacock (Aglais io), the Comma (Polygonia c-album) and the Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni).  Actually, of these, the Comma can still be seen in early November in very mild autumns but usually it will be tucked away somewhere hibernating.

Small Tortoiseshell

Small Tortoiseshell (Photo: Public Domain)

The Small Tortoiseshell was once one of the most common British butterflies but has sadly been in serious decline in recent years, although the exact cause remains unknown.  It is thought to be susceptible to Climate Change, though pesticides and parasites are likely to have killed many as well. This pretty butterfly has caterpillars that, like the Red Admiral, feed on Stinging Nettles. 

Adult Small Tortoiseshells hibernate under cover and often enter buildings, including sheds and outhouses. If you find one in your house it is best to gently move it into a shed if you have one because the temperature inside a house is likely to waken the butterfly from its sleep too early, and it will waste its stored energy fluttering about.

This species, the Red Admiral, Peacock and Comma are all often seen feeding from the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) in late summer.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock (Photo: Public Domain)

The unmistakeable Peacock butterfly is one of the most beautiful insects in the world with its four eye-spots displayed against its dark red wings. This common butterfly has caterpillars that also feed on nettles. Like the Small Tortoiseshell it will enter buildings to hibernate and also go into hollows in trees to pass the winter months in a dormant state.

The Comma

Comma (Photo: Public Domain)

The Comma has a ragged edge to its wings and from the underside, which is a mottled brown, it can look like a dead leaf.  There is a white comma-shaped mark that gives the butterfly its name. It is a common species too and its caterpillar feeds on nettles, Gooseberry (Ribes grossularia) and Hops (Humulus lupulus).  When it is small the caterpillar of this species is dark grey and whitish and looks like a bird-dropping. 

The Brimstone

Brimstone (Photo: Public Domain)

The Brimstone male is a bright yellow and the female is a paler creamy yellow with a greenish tinge.  This insect was once known as the "Butter-coloured fly" and is said to have been the origin of the term butterfly.  It has a very long life for a butterfly, though much of its time alive is spent in hibernation. 

The caterpillar will only feed on the two types of buckthorn - Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and the Alder Buckthorn (R. frangula). This limits the distribution of the species to areas in which the females can find these shrubs. 

The adult butterflies hibernate in ivy and evergreen vegetation and are usually the first species to emerge in spring, and can be seen flying as early as January in mild winters. 

The other species of butterflies found in Britain all spend the winter months as eggs, chrysalises or as larvae. 

Sunday 22 November 2015

November Moths fly in November

The November Moth

The November Moth (Epirrita dilutata), as its name aptly suggests, flies in November, although it can also be found earlier on in September and October. It is a species in the Geometrid moth family, the family that gets its name because of the "looper" caterpillars that are also known as "inch-worms" because of their habit of extending their bodies in a loop as if they are measuring a short distance.

November Moth (Epirrita dilutata) Photo: ©entomart

The November Moth is still flying in the dark and colder days of late autumn when many other species of butterfly or moth have disappeared into hibernation or a stage that gets them through the winter. The forewings of the November Moth are mottled in dark and light grey. as well as brownish shades and this variable colouration pattern blends in well with the background afforded by tree bark or an old stone wall making the insects well camouflaged. 

The Pale November Moth (E. christyi) and the Autumnal Moth (E. autumnata) are in the same genus and so similar in appearance to the November Moth that it can be hard to tell one from the other.  The last-named species is the most common and widely distributed of the three moths though, and it occurs in a wide range of habitats, including our gardens where it can be a pest. 

Pale November Moth Epirrita christyi, Davos-Sertig, Switzerland Photo: Dumi

The November Moth has a green and red caterpillar that feeds on a variety of trees and shrubs, including apple, hawthorn, hazel, ash, birch and oak. The eggs overwinter and hatch in the next spring. 

The November Moth is found throughout the UK and in Europe from Scandinavia down to the Mediterranean. 

Actually there are a good number of moth species that can still be seen flying in November, moths that can withstand the colder temperatures. Many of these insects will feed from the last flowers growing in our gardens and also from the blooms of the ivy. Look out too for the attractive and rather aptly named Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) moth  and the Silver Y (Autographa gamma).

Angle Shades Photo: ©entomart

The Angle Shades is a migratory species that is very common in some years with a green or brown caterpillar that feeds on many garden plants and weeds. 

Silver Y (Autographa gamma) Photo: Olaf Leillinger)

The Silver Y has a Y-shaped letter on its wings and is another migrant that has a larva that accepts a wide variety of food-plants. This latter species feeds by day as an adult too and can be seen flying in the late autumn sunshine. Both the Angle Shades and Silver Y are Noctuid moths and are not related to the November Moths in any way, apart from still flying at this time!  

But why not get a great book about British moths and find out what species you can find in any season, and yes, there is a December Moth and a Winter Moth?

Monday 9 November 2015

Edible wild mushrooms found in November

November fungi

In a mild autumn there are still plenty of edible wild mushrooms and fungi that can be foraged for in November, as long as there are no hard frosts. Even after frost some species are still to be found and persist into December. It is surprising how many good edible fungi can be gathered in November so let us take a look at some of the best species.


Chanterelle mushrooms (Public Domain)

The Chanterelle (Canthrellus cibarius)  is one of the most popular edible fungi and is quite common in some areas of woodland, especially in beech forests. It is a characteristic orange-yellow in colour, funnel0shaped and smells of apricots.  It grows from July until December and is very popular as an edible wild mushroom that is often sold in delicatessens and markets in Europe. Be careful not to confuse it with the toxic False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) which is a darker orange colour and tends to grow under pines and on heaths.

Wood Hedgehog or Hedgehog Fungus

The Hedgehog Fungus (Hydnum repandum) gets its name from the downward pointing tiny spines or teeth that are found under its buff-coloured caps in the place of gills. Like its alternative name of Wood Hedgehog implies, it is found in woodland from August to November. It tastes bitter and needs to be boiled in water for a few minutes before further cooking or eating to remove the bitterness. 

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol mushroom (Public Domain)

The Parasol Mushroom (Lepiota procera) is really one of the best edible fungi you can find when foraging. It is large, easy to identify and tastes great after cooking. It grows in fields, often near trees and in the margins of woods. Discard the woody stems and fry the caps or cook as ordinary mushrooms.

Fairy Ring Champignon

Fairy Ring Champignons in a French garden (Photo: Strobilomyces

The Fairy Ring Champignon (Marasmius oreades)  is an edible mushroom that grows as its name suggests in rings. It can be found on lawns and on short grassland. There are often many of these fungi in a "fairy ring."  This wild mushroom dries well and is good for storing.  It has a slight almond fragrance. 

Ceps and other Boletus species

Cep (Public Domain)

The Cep or Edible Boletus (Boletus edulis) is a very well-known and popular edible fungus. It is distinctive with its "penny bun" cap and spongy gills. It is quite common in mixed woodland and also grows in grass near trees.  It can be found from August to November on good years. There are many other smaller boletus species, many of which are edible but, as with all wild fungi. you need to be sure of identification. This is where a good fungus guidebook, such as Peter Jordan's Field Guide to Edible Mushrooms of Britain and Europe comes in handy. 


Lepista personata near Sofia, Bulgaria (Photo: Paffka)

The Field Blewit (Lepista personata) is a fairly large edible wild mushroom that grows in fields and pastures where its brownish caps can be hard to see if they are among fallen leaves. The stout stems underneath the caps give the fungus its name though because they have a bluish shade to them.  It can be found from October to December and was a very popular wild mushroom in the Midlands area of Britain at one time. These fungi are reminiscent of tripe when cooked. Although generally regarded as good to eat this fungus has been known to cause allergic reactions in some people. 

The closely related and very similar Wood Blewit (L. nuda)  has a slimmer stem and more of a blue or violet-purplish colour. Like its name suggests it is found in woods. It grows at the same time of year and is also edible

Wood Ears

Dried Wood Ears (Public Domain)

The Wood Ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) used to be known as the Jew's Ear but in these days of political correctness its name has been changed to Judas Ear or Wood Ear.  And it is aptly named because these weird fungi really do looks like ears. They are fleshy, clammy to the touch and pinkish-brown and shaped like ears.  They grow on the old branches of elder.  This fungus survives freezing temperatures and can be found all year around, though it is at its best in October and November. It dries well and can be used in soups and stews. They are very popular in Chinese cuisine.

There are actually many more edible fungi that can be found in November so why not get a good book about foraging or edible fungi, a book such as Richard Mabey's Food For Free, and go out and see what you can find? 

Monday 2 November 2015

Magic Mushrooms and the magic of mushrooms in autumn

Why are mushrooms so magical? 

Mushrooms have something magical about them whether they are the hallucinogenic varieties or simply because of their weird forms. The way they appear so quickly after rains is just like magic. And mushrooms have always been associated with fairy tales.  Gnomes, pixies, elves and fairies are often depicted along with toadstools, with the red and white spotted fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) being one of the most popular mushrooms associated with the fairy folk.  How many times have you seen pictures of gnomes or fairies sat on these fungi or even living in them?

Alice in Wonderland in Public Domain

And the hookah smoking caterpillar in Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is depicted sitting on a mushroom!

Wild mushrooms in the Fall

Autumn is the time when all sorts of wild mushrooms appear, seemingly overnight in many instances. This is the time of year when it is easiest to discover fungi growing in the countryside, in parks and gardens.  Some species are, of course, edible and many people go out foraging for these edible species, species like the Edible Boletus or Cep (Boletus edulis).

Cep in Public Domain

There is something exciting about discovering wild mushrooms. It is like feeling we are in touch with our hunter-gatherer ancestors of long long ago. 

Every year the mushrooms and toadstools start to appear not long after the autumn rains have soaked the ground.  We find clumps of fungi popping up in grassland, in the forests and even in our flower-beds and garden plots. 

The Fly Agaric

Fly Agaric Photo: larsjuh

The fly agaric is one of the most colourful toadstools we can find in autumn. It mainly grows under birch trees and pines and is so easy to spot because of its brightly coloured caps. This fungus is hallucinogenic and has been thought to be connected with the origins of Santa Claus. This is because its effects when consumed can include feelings of floating, also because it is used as an entheogen by tribal people and shamans in Lapland and Siberia where there are reindeer, which are the animals that help pull Santa's sleigh at Christmas.

The Liberty Cap

Liberty Cap Magic Mushroom Photo: John Johnston

The liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) is probably the most well-known "magic mushroom" because of the psilocybin and psilocin it contains, which substances cause intoxication and hallucinations when consumed. This has caused it to become considered as a drug and it is illegal to possess these mushrooms in the UK now. 

The liberty cap grows in fields, on grassy hillsides and on large lawns in parks. It is very common in some areas and continues growing until the first real frosts. 

You can read more about the fly agaric and the liberty cap in my book Herbs of the Northern Shaman

Weird fungi like the Earthstar

Earthstar Photo: Orangeaurochs)

Earthstars are some of the weirdest fungi you can find in autumn, and they can persist right through the winter months. They look like some sort of strange alien life-form with arms like a starfish and an inflated sac in the centre that can puff out clouds of spores.  These fungi can actually move but this depends on weather conditions which enable the arms to move the body of the fungus up from the surrounding earth. Often they will break away completely but this does not matter because the fungus is still able to disperse its tiny spores that are blown away in the wind.

One of the most well-known earthstars is Geastrum triplex.  It is mainly found growing under beeches, although I had a colony of this weird fungus growing for many years under a large privet bush at the bottom of my garden.  It was like magic, how they arrived there, like a mini invasion of alien beings from the stars and looking like stars.

The Private Life of Plants: Earthstars