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The Willow Journal

Ancestral Herbs of the British Isles

Ancestral Herbs of the British Isles

Written by Elliott Brinkley, Clinical Herbalist & Owner of Dancing Willow Herbs

The memory of our body is stronger than the memory of our mind.

10 years ago, I read a mystical book centered in the British Isles and felt a deep pull toward visiting the landscape. Sure, I knew that I had ancestors from this area, but I didn’t understand at that point that my deep unwavering gravitation toward this place was rooted from a woven and kindled memory. The memory of mossy earth under foot, of cool sea mist on flushed skin, of the smell of Hawthorn in the spring. The memory encoded in my DNA of the land my ancestors are from.

As time passed and my interest grew, I started learning more about my ancestors- the foods they ate, the practices they held and the plants that they were in relationship with. Because we have evolved around these particular plants, I find that these are often some of the herbs/foods which work best with our physiology.

Many of us living in the United States are disconnected from our personal history. Especially if our ancestors have lived here for several generations, the stories from the land that came before are often lost. I believe that by understanding where we came from, we can better understand ourselves, our tendencies and ways to connect with our purpose here on Earth.

In addition to engaging with ancestral herbs, foods and practices, I have long been pulled to visit these lands and see what I discover in greeting the ecosystem, historical and sacred places myself. This May, one of my dreams is coming true.

After a week of solo travel around Scotland, I will be teaching at a week long retreat in Cornwall, England- Into the Mists. The retreat will be an immersive experience of deep healing and land connection. I will be introducing the group to some of my favorite herbal allies on the land (such as Hawthorn, Oak, Nettle & many others), and facilitating space for learning how to make deep emotional connections with plants. We are going to be connecting to the land through plant walks in the old grove forest, ocean time, breathwork, creative expression, dance, stargazing, and ceremony in the sacred stone circle or tor on the land.

This retreat will be an excellent experience for you to connect to the land, the plants, and yourself.

In feeling into the energy of this retreat, I wanted to share with you some of my closest ancestral herbal allies of the British Isles: aka Scotland, England, Wales & Ireland. This way, you too can start developing relationships with the plants of this land and maybe decide to join us for this healing retreat experience. 


Nettle- Urtica dioica

Upon their initial learning that Nettle is used as food and medicine, many people gasp- “But nettle? That’s the thing that stings you!?”

I have grown to love this plant for much more than its abundance of medicinal applications, but for the many emotional/spiritual lessons it grants us as well- many of which center around the poetry of its sting.

One of the stories that has always stuck with me about my ancestral lands is the practice of intentional stinging, or Urtication, conducted by Irish fishermen. The fishermen experienced horrible arthritis, aches and pains after being long away at sea. As soon as they would reach land, the fishermen would strip off all of their clothes and roll around in a field of nettle. They did this to remedy the aches of their arthritis and overworked muscles. But I can’t help but giggle at the image of this scene!

The age-old practice of whacking or gently rubbing an area with fresh Nettle is called Urtication. The stinging hairs contain a mixture of histamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine- organic acids that are neurotransmitters and inflammatory modulators in the body. When applied, the acids cause local superficial inflammation which encourages deeper healing and extended anti-inflammatory effect (possibly through stimulating the release of and localizing endogenous cortisol). With dermal application of the sting from nettle hairs, joint flexibility and pain perception can be helped dramatically- helping with symptoms of sore muscles, aches, pains, arthritis or other musculoskeletal issues. It will be uncomfortable at first, but it lends to an alleviation of symptoms in the long term.

While most people would intentionally avoid getting stung by Nettle, those who seek it out find deeper healing. This teaches us that sometimes in order to find the most profound healing and growth, we have to get uncomfortable.

Internally, Nettle concentrates trace minerals to a greater extent than almost any other herb. This is why when you taste a strong overnight Nettle infusion, it has a salty taste due to the comprehensive density of nutrients. In order for the body to properly detoxify through the liver, we need to be replete in certain vitamin and mineral co-factors. Nettle provides these necessary nutrients, essentially feeding the enzymes that transform toxins in your liver so they can be excreted by the body. In addition to replenishing minerals needed for the detoxification process, Nettle builds the blood. It is helpful for replenishing necessary nutrients for anyone who is deficient or in need of nutritional support- during pregnancy, postpartum, vegetarians/vegans, or those eating a standard American diet.

Nettle has anti-inflammatory and antihistamine qualities that can assist in allergic reactions that present with profuse mucous discharges, and/or sensations of heat and itching; such as is often the case in seasonal allergies/hay fever.

A dependable diuretic, it can be helpful for cleansing and reducing inflammation in the urinary tract. I could go on and on, but this herb provides deep nourishment on many levels. Nettle is a very drying botanical. If someone has a dry constitution (tendencies toward dry skin, feeling parched, constipation, etc.) or lives in a dry environment, it is important that the moisture of Nettle is balanced by demulcent herbs, such as Marshmallow or an herbal formula.

Nettle is in our Nutri-Mix, Aller Relief & our Nourish-mint Tea


Hawthorn- Crataegus spp.

Hawthorn is deeply sacred to many people in the British Isles for being a gateway to the “otherworld” and the fairies. So sacred, that they have rerouted entire highway projects in Ireland to avoid cutting down a Hawthorn tree. During holy days or around holy wells, people tie strips of cloth on Hawthorn trees for their prayers to be carried into and heard by the "otherworld". 

This energy of being a “gateway” can be very supportive to us during times of transition. Hawthorn’s essence is extremely embodying, grounding and protective. Helping us remain grounded amongst tumultuous times. It is useful for those experiencing breakups, a loss, or general heart ache.

It is one of my favorite herbs for grounding me into my body and my heart. Before meditations, teaching experiences, or even social gatherings, I like to work with Hawthorn to settle me into myself in upmost authenticity.

On the internal/medicinal side, the berries of Hawthorn are incredibly high in antioxidants and flavonoids. These increase the passage of blood in the capillaries, removing congestion and increasing circulation. Hawthorn prevents and reverses blood vessel damage, and can help remedy varicose veins. Hawthorn also lowers unhealthy cholesterol and high blood pressure. It improves the deposition of lipids in the walls of capillaries, in order for blood to pass through them more quickly. By opening up circulation in the heart, Hawthorn strengthens the heart muscle- lessening cardiac arrhythmias and angina.

Hawthorn is in our Rooted Heart Elixir, and Heart Tonic.


Meadowsweet- Filipendula ulmaria

Meadowsweet is a romantic, lovely plant. The fresh plant and infusion smell like a sweet meadow- earthy, grassy and floral. This plant was one of the sacred herbs of the druids, and is said to have been used to enhance intuition and an ability to converse with the fairies.

While people often talk about Willow Bark being the “first asprin”, Meadowsweet was actually the original plant that Felix Hoffmann used in 1897 to extract salicin to make Asprin. In fact, the brand name Asprin, derived from the latin name for Meadowsweet during that time, Spirea ulmaria.

The compound that Hoffmann extracted from Meadowsweet, salicin has profound anti-inflammatory properties. It helps to modulate systemic inflammation as well as localized inflammation from an injury or infection. Meadowsweet is one of my favorite herbs to use for digestive inflammation. Its mildly bitter, floral flavor pairs well in gut healing tea blends where inflammation in the GI tract is present.

The anti-inflammatory nature of Meadowsweet makes it excellent for reducing a fever, quelling inflammatory skin conditions and addressing pain.

Meadowsweet is found in our Inflammation Moderation tincture.


Oats- Avena sativa

When you think of Scotland & Ireland, what is the second most common food you think of? I know the first is potatoes. The second may be a warm bowl of oat porridge.

While we typically use milky oat tops, or oat straw in herbal medicine, whole oats are also highly medicinal. They are demulcent and soothing to the digestive mucosa. Oats are also high in soluble and insoluble fiber which feeds the gut microbiome and promotes motility. Topically, a poultice of oatmeal is extremely soothing and anti-inflammatory to irritated skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. 

Milky oat tops are harvested during the stage when they are green and immature and exude a milky latex sap when squeezed. This sap is like food for replenishing the nervous system. Milky oats are considered nervous system trophorestorative- meaning they help restore a depleted nervous system. Because of this, they are perfect for people who have experienced long periods of stress and are burnt out.

Milky oats will only be effective in their profound nervous system action when used or processed fresh. This means you need to ensure that your tincture was made with the fresh plant during the milky stage (ours is). Tea made of dried milky oats will have the same medicinal qualities as Oatstraw, but not the same degree of nervous system trophorestorative action as fresh plant milky oat extractions. Milky Oats are in our best-selling formula, Peaceful Heart.

Oatstraw is high in nutrients, especially calcium and magnesium. It is neutral in flavor and can therefore be an excellent mineral addition to any tea blend. Oatstraw soothes the nervous system, and provides a sense of calm that can come from a replenishment of nutrients. 

Into the Mists- Retreat in Cornwall, England

This retreat is going to take place from May 8th-14th 2023 (a beautiful, vibrant time where the ecosystem should be blooming) at the Cabilla Retreat space.

The retreat includes:

  • Breathwork
  • Wild Swimming + Woodland Sauna
  • Creative writing and expression
  • Fire pits + Stargazing
  • Ocean visit with optional swim
  • Guided meditation connecting to local plants
  • Sacred dance and movement
  • Hike + Meditation on the Bodmin Moors
  • Sacred Ceremony in the Tor

    All with the purpose of connecting you to the land, local plants, your body, and your story. It will be a safe space for healing, transformation and personal growth. And an amazing adventure full of loving people! 

    For more information such as the full week itinerary, more info on accommodations, pricing and what is included in the retreat cost, and how to sign up, please visit Eliza's site here!

    I am extremely excited to participate in the retreat, to teach, but also just to experience all of the activities held by the other facilitators and to connect to this magical land! I really hope that some of this community will be called to join us!


    Sign up for the retreat, here!