I have been working with medicinal herbs for many years, and not only do I find them endlessly fascinating, but I’m also intrigued by their as yet hidden properties. While they’ve been used every day for hundreds of years, and are wreathed in tradition, we can’t fully explain why they work: just that they definitely do.
When I’m working with plants, I like to observe every part very closely: leaves, stems, flowers – their colour, shape and form. I look at the soil and the environment in which the plants grow, the forces that contribute to their life – and the stages through which they have come to bloom, as well as their companionship with other plants or insects. All of these features need careful study to help me better understand their function.
Let’s look at some of my favourite plants.
Botanical (Latin) name: Stellaria media
The Latin name means ‘star’, referring to the tiny, five-pointed white flowers the plant produces. The flowers open when the sun comes up, and close at night or when the sky is overcast. These beautiful flowers know when to go to bed and get some rest, just like we do, in order to shine again in the morning.
I love this little plant, which is a common weed in most of Europe and North America. Although it thrives on wasteland, farmland and in gardens, one of the places I notice it most often is at the base of roadside trees in urban areas.
I strongly recommend serving chickweed in a salad (make sure to pick it from unpolluted areas!), as it is delicious and highly nutritious: it is rich in vitamin C, beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor), vitamins B (B1, B2, B3), bioflavonoids (rutin), omega-6 essential fatty acids and minerals calcium, copper, magnesium, potassium, iron, manganese, zinc, phosphorus and selenium. It also contains the plant actives triterpenes, saponins, phytosterols and mucilages.
Traditionally chickweed has been used to treat a variety of skin complaints such eczema, psoriasis, erysipelas, ulcers, nappy rash, contact dermatitis and minor skin wounds. I have chosen to use chickweed extract in some of my products for its demulcent (soothing) quality, owing to the presence of gelatinous mucilage, and more specifically in my Turmeric & Calendula Ointment for its ability to reduce itchiness and speed up the healing process, or ‘vulnerary action’, due to its saponin content.
Botanical (Latin) name: Calendula officinalis
I have always been attracted by the marigold’s simple shape and its radiant, powerful colour: a little joyful ‘sun’ hidden in the green of the meadows, like a drop of light stolen from the sky during sunset.
You cannot pass a beautiful orange calendula flower growing in the wild without doing a double take. It is one of those plants that simply can’t go unobserved.
Part of the Asteraceae family (from Latin aster, meaning ‘star’), the marigold originates from North Africa. Its botanical name, calendula, comes from the Latin calendae, or the first day of the month. In fact, marigolds flower nearly every month from spring to autumn. Some also think that the name calendula comes from the Greek kalàtos – ‘basket’ – due to the shape of its flower head.
Like the sunflower, the marigold is characterised by heliotropism: it follows the light, turning its head with the sun. It reminds me of the Egyptian god Ra, the sun god. In yoga, its colour is associated with the third chakra, called the solar plexus chakra, the centre of energy and power in the human body.
The plant is prolific, producing up to sixty flower heads every year.
From a phytochemical point of view, calendula is rich in carotenoids (yellow-orange pigments), which equate to 1.5% of its dry weight, among them beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and xanthophyll. All of them are liposoluble, meaning they are soluble in vegetable oils. All of the carotenoids are antioxidant and anti-free-radical active and therefore have anti-ageing properties. In addition, the carotenoids, together with the glycoside flavonoids and the essential oils, are key for calendula’s vulnerary (healing) action, especially on the skin.
Calendula has many other properties: it is antiviral, actively antibacterial (both its flavonoids and saponins) against Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus beta-haemolyticus, antifungal, immune-modulating, vaso-protective and anti-inflammatory.
Because of these proven healing benefits, calendula extract is excellent for easing skin inflammation and is used for many skin conditions including dermatitis, keratosis, acne, spots, burns and cuts, varicose veins, sunburn, acne rosacea, mosquito bites and fungal infections.
At Inlight, when we infuse calendula flowers in oil to make our plant extracts, we see the oil change colour rapidly, turning in just a few days from an intense yellow to deep orange. We are still amazed, after twenty years of watching this process, to witness such an alchemical transformation.
I use calendula extract in many of my products, and it’s high on the ingredients list in my Calendula & Damask Rose Balm for its moisturising qualities (oils) and the anti-inflammatory, cytophylactic (cell-regenerating) healing properties, a real gem for poorly skin.
There are hundreds of other plants I admire and use every day for my own well-being, with my patients and in my skincare line, and there are so many more to explore.
Be curious in life; next time you come across a beautiful plant or a new natural ingredient on the back of a packet, stop to observe it and learn more about it. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.