el beso de la aguamala

the nettle’s healing kiss

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I’ve always been puzzled by the “what’s your favourite” question. How can one choose? That said, the Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, could well be my favourite plant. It is probably the one I eat the most, at least in leaf count: some tree-cabbage and kale leaves around here are big enough to cover several hundreds of nettle leaves.

And what’s not to like? Oh, yes, the sting. I kind of like it, or have got used to it.

The mechanism behind this somewhat painful experience is within the trichomes—tiny hollow bottle-like tubes filled with irritating substances. A nettle trichome may not sound like much, but it is quite a complex structure: the base, which is made of a bunch of cells, supports a single cell, thin and long—sometimes as long as a centimetre—and stiffened with calcium carbonate at its base and silica at its closed tip. This makes the cell very brittle towards the tip, so that it breaks off on contact, whereas the sturdier calcified neck becomes a very sharp point that pierces the skin. Through its own chemistry, the bottle becomes a needle!

nettle's weapon

The long and beautiful trichome of a stinging nettle.
Note the multicellular base, and the still-unbroken ampoule-like tip.
Photo by the talented Charles Krebs.

The cell is filled with a cocktail of substances—all in all up to around 5 nanolitres—that are pressure-injected and help deter many herbivores—not me! Although formic acid was believed to be the main component, it is now thought that the sting is partly due to histamines, acetylcholine, and serotonin, which are all neurotransmitters. The long-lasting pain and itch, however, seem to be due to the presence of tartaric and oxalic acid. We still know very little about the chemical nettle “weaponry”. Somehow, I hope it will long remain a mistery.

One thing I know first hand—and foot, and arm, and knee—is that the stinging power can bring relief to aching joints, and accelerate the healing of deep bruises and strains—I sometimes think the pain from the sting simply acts as a distraction, but hey, its chemicals do seem to help against joint pain. Yeah, the scientific evidence is not mindboggling, but it’s not really a simple experiment (how to apply a placebo or control so that it feels like a sting but it isn’t?). All I can tell you is, it works for me. Given all the neurotransmitters transferred, it’s not very surprising. For instance, acetylcholine is important in the functioning of neuro-muscular junctions, muscles and motor neurons.

It’s often been claimed that Roman soldiers used the “nettle-kiss” method—called urtication—to keep themselves warm and awake, and that it was they who brought nettles to Great Britain—”yeah, that nasty weed? Can’t be native.. probably the Romans brought it”. Nettles lived indeed in most of the Northern hemisphere way before the Romans strolled about. The urtication part may be true, though.

If you get a nasty sting, there is apparently nothing like the juice of—ironically—nettle leaf to cure the rash! And here’s how to handle it: to apply nettle to a nettle rash without causing further rashes, you can simply—haha—”grasp the nettle” from below, with an upwards motion of the hand. Hold the stem bravely—don’t forget to smile—and use the other hand to swipe the leaves and stem in top-wards direction. This should flatten and break the stinging hairs. After a few swipes, roll the leaves either between your fingers or in the safety of a thick cloth. This shouldshould, I’m not responsible for injuries caused—render the leaves stingless. Now you can crush them and apply them as a poultice. Or eat them, to the delight of children and amazement of adults…

The stinging hairs are just the tip of the iceberg… all of the nettle plant is useful. But I promised myself I would keep this short. So there will be more nettleness coming this way!


Written by ditaviz

01/10/2017 at 15:41

docking the burrs

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Arctium lappa

Burdock, by the expert hand of scottish illustrator
Elizabeth Blackwell

Ah, thistles…  such beautiful plants.  Stubborn, humble and loud.  Their punk-like flowers come in all sizes, and remind me of that most coveted of lands…

I came across burdock—specifically the “Greater Burdock”, Arctium lappa—very soon after arriving in Europe, when I looked into my first european herbal in search of a natural hair tonic.  Unfortunately, the book had a very poor picture, and it took me a long time to recognise it live.  This is also due to its ability to change quite drastically from teenage- to adulthood.

In its first year, burdock grows as a rosette of very large (half a metre long) heart-shaped leaves that remain close to the ground. In winter the top growth dies back at temperatures a little above freezing, but the roots tolerate much lower temperatures. So, in early spring, burdock goes through a metamorphosis, growing a mighty stem (apparently up to three metres!) with smaller, alternating oval leaves that decrease in size towards the top. The purple flower-heads grow on long stalks at the base of the leaf-stalks. Each flower head consists of numerous florets that protrude from the bristly bur-to-be. As they mature and dry, burs stick on basically anything passing by, allowing the brown crescent-shaped seeds to be dispersed far and wide.



Uprooting burdocks at Leewood. The second-year roots are straight and thick (and most broke), with long stems with smaller leaves, already wizened (eleven plants in total). The one one-year plant has a forked root, almost no stem and bright green leaves.

Although somewhat forgotten in the modern european kitchen, burdock is a very succulent plant. The long, crispy roots are the most commonly eaten part, either raw—when young—or cooked—roasted, sautéed, stir-fried, pickled, steamed… yumm!. The outer layer is bitter and stinky, so it is usually peeled off. The roots have a nutty, sweet flavour before the flower stalks appear in the plants’ second year. Roasted, they are often used in coffee substitutes. And, alone or in the company of dandelion, a stout ingredient of refreshing bevs.

Digging them will certainly leave you wanting a refreshment, as the roots tend to be very long, whish is how the plant reaches nutrients deep down, bringing them up in what is called bio-dynamic accumulation.

They are worth digging, as suggested in the Okinawa-Diet report by Willcox & al:

Burdock root is low in caloric density and is high in two kinds of fiber: inulin and a spongy fiber called mucilage, which is a thick, glutinous substance related to the natural gums and used in medicine as an emollient. Inulin extracted from edible burdock has also shown probiotic properties that could promote health by increasing beneficial bacteria in the gut. These properties may help explain burdock’s purported soothing effects on the gastrointestinal tract.



Very alive soils… earthworms—and many of the too-small-for-this-shot critters—do like dynamic accumulators.

Usually there will be quite an accumulation of earthworms and other smaller critters around the burdock roots—yes, we’re not the only wise creatures around here. They’re after all those nutrients brought up from the deep soil. In order to avoid killing them, I started uprooting the burdocks using my fingers and a small trowel. But after the third plant I came to the conclusion that I was producing a huge disturbance. A garden fork with long tines proved a less damaging tool.

But the root is not the only edible part. The flower stalks, harvested just as the flowers are forming, can be eaten as celery and tastes like artichoke hearts. And same with the peeled leaf stalks. The young leaves make tasty greens, although many people find them too bitter. And the seeds can be collected—even from your trousers and socks—and sprouted!

Burdock is also a great medicinal plant, and one of the most poweful detoxifying herbs in herbal medicine. The dried root of one year old plants is the part commonly used, but the leaves and fruits are also benficial, if less potent. Burdock is used to treat conditions caused by an ‘overload’ of toxins, such as throat and other infections, boils, rashes and other skin problems. The root is thought to be particularly good at helping to eliminate heavy metals from the body. The plant is antibacterial, antifungal, carminative—probably my favourite—and has soothing, mucilaginous properties. It is widely used against many skin diseases (herpes, eczema, acne, impetigo, ringworm, boils, bites), burns, bruises, and much more. Like Dandelion, Chicory and Elecampane, Burdock has a lot of inulin, and is used as a sweetener for diabetics. The roots of one-year old plants are harvested in mid-summer and dried. The seed is harvested in the summer and dried for later use. The crushed seed is poulticed onto bruises. The leaves are poulticed onto burns, ulcers and sores.Arctium_lappa_Great_Burdock_ოროვანდი_(2)

Again, a native, much neglected plant that is apar with any exotic superfood, and can keep you healthy and good-lookin’ goes by as a weed.  For my part, I’ll be looking at it with new, hungrier, more grateful eyes. And will be cooking some of those roots!

Some references:






More about Leewood, the magic edible garden:




Written by ditaviz

20/09/2017 at 22:39

Posted in Uncategorized

In praise of Rubus, or a ramble on brambles

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In an old-ish Farming Today podcast from the BBC, I recently heard—with some measure of dismay—that farmers (or at least the one interviewed) in the UK are removing their raspberries to plant the new-ish superberry in the block, chokeberries. Recently renamed with its less threatening latin name, Aronia.

I’m not necessarily against cultivating new, imported crops—well, actually, I probably am, but that’s another story—, or celebrating the powers of superfood—well, actually, I find that too often it is just a hype—, but why would one replace the most delicious berry, which can just be plucked and enjoyed, for something that needs to be processed to taste nice? Yes, you got it: the reason some people are planting them in Europe is because chokeberries sport a long list of health-promoting properties, and are considered by the experts—or so we are told—as the new miracle food (sorry, can’t avoid being a bit sarcastic). Of course, another new superberry is just around the corner—what came first, goji or choke?.

Anyhow, I disgress.


Köhler’s beautiful drawing, 1887

Raspberry, Rubus idaeus, is a plant of the very diverse and generally delicious Rosacea family, something one can clearly see in the beautiful flowers, which look much like a wild rose. The flavour of a ripe raspberry is amazingly delicious—next time you eat one, just take a moment to savour it and tell me if you disagree. It is a relatively delicate fruit, so it doesn’t keep well for too long, and, once harvested, it is prone to moulding. But if you cannot eat them all at once, it can be preserved as an excellent jam.

Raspberry may once have been itself a superfood—and thus a bit like its distant cousin the chokeberry (another Rosacea)—, and was coveted by the Romans, who probably distributed it all accross Europe. The name Idaeus means “from Ida”, a Mountain in Greece where it is believed Romans first found them.

Raspberry is one of those funny “berries” that are actually not a berry in the botanical sense, but an agregate of drupelets—drupe being the fancy name for stone fruit. This merely means that a raspberry is a bunch of tiny plum-like fruits, in which the seeds are separated from the flesh by a relatively thick and hard layer—the endocarp.

Raspberries also sport quite a long and heavy list of healthy substances. In a superficial head-to-head comparison with chokeberries, based on the relatively poor information in the USDA, I find that raspberries have substantially larger amounts (more than 20%) of, amongst other substances: alpha-carotene, vitamin C (26 to 3 mg per 100g raw fruit), folates, manganese, zinc, and iron; whereas raw chokeberries win in beta-carotene (58 to 12 µg), total sugars (11 to 4 g), total fat, vitamins B6, K and A, calcium, potassium and phosphorus. In this study, the authors compare the antioxidant activity or chokeberry against that of many other fruits. It is indeed amazing: 160 against 29 ORAC (a controversial unit of antioxidant activity) in raspberry.

Note, however, that raspberries still do very well, and that, importantly, the values for chokeberries are in raw fruits. A lot of substances will precipitate (in the case of salts) or denaturate (in the case of some vitamins) when cooking.  Which one generally does with chokeberries. Also, the antioxidant values used by most Aronia lobbyists are measured in a way that is recently considered “not physiologically relevant”.

But what I find crucial is, that, unlike in chokeberries, the whole raspberry plant could be quite useful.

Raspberry leaves are rich in tannins and flavonoids, and have been used as an antihemorragic since time immemorial. Tea from the leaves is thought to help against diarrhea and inflamation of the gut, as a blood-detoxifier and heart-fortifier. It may also help regulate menstruation and reduce menorrhagia. Their slightly sedative properties could help against anxiety—especially when mixed with linden. Fresh crushed leaves have a cicatrising effect thanks to the tannins, zinc, and ascorbic, benzoic  and caffeic acids, and are used to treat skin diseases such as eczemas, dermatitis and acne. The flavour is nice and bitter, and they are sometimes used as a coffee substitute. I write this while enjoying a nice brew of raspberry leaves…

Although there are not many studies on the medical propertied of raspberry leaves, I have succesfully used them myself to reduce menorrhagia, regulate heart rate, reduce anxiety and heal superficial wounds.

Raspberry shoots are a traditional Eastern-European remedy against bacterial infections of the respiratory tract.  Moreover, they can apparently be eaten very much like asparagus!  I have no experience with that, but I will surely go foraging for raspberry shoots and try.

I’ve found several sources claiming that raspberry roots can also be eaten, but they all have the same text, so I will wait with that…  However, why not?

Although the Aronia plant does not seem to be poisonous to animals—a rumour has spread around due to the toxicity of the very similarly named chokecherries—, I am still to find any source stating that anything but the fruits is edible or useful in the chokeberry.

In summary, given that raspberry is more or less a native species, we have not much nutritional information yet on the processed chokeberry, and the raspberry is very useful as a whole, and a classic of European natural medicine, please don’t replace your raspberries!  Explore and exploit their many uses and posibilities instead.

The most common bramble around these parts, the blackberry, shares many of the raspberry’s properties. The information is quite messy, though, as there are several Rubus species called blackberry. They deserve a ramble on their own…


Some references:










Written by ditaviz

12/06/2016 at 20:09

Posted in Uncategorized

comeflor – capers (but not the frolicking type)

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Capparis spinosa. Algerie

not only yummy, also pretty

I’ve been called a comeflor. Often. It’s a venezuelan word –which you probably won’t find in many dictionaries- literally translatable as “flower-eater”, and meaning naïve or idealist. I guess it comes from believing -probably quite naïvely- that idealists sit in contemplation while munching on the sexual organs of plants. In any case, I was rightly called comeflor due to idealism naïvety some years ago. Now, however, I may have become too cynic to be considered naïve—although one never knows. But comeflor still describes me. I do like eating flowers.

I’ll start with the one I probably eat most often. Capparis spinosa, the Caper.

This tipically mediterranean ingredient was already used in ancient greece (and probably before that…). It may have started its way into our modern palates due to its mainly digestive properties (real or traditional). Probably as a carminative (that which prevents the windy shame and is thus very welcome when sharing food with friends). The plant seems to have originated, however, in the dry areas of Central or Western Asia. It is a perennial shrub, very resistant to drought and changes in temperature, and produces gorgeous showy flowers with a mild sweet scent.

The name caper comes via latin from the greek kapparis, caper (how interesting…). Etymologists are divided as to whether kapparis comes from some asian word (thus hinting at a historical import of the plant) or refers to Cyprus, that controversial island where capers appear to abound massively.

Maybe it is the sun they accumulate, or that tangy, slightly fishy (good fishy) taste from sea-sprayed airs, but they do bring a flavour of holidays and summer to anything I dress with them.


capers in salt

To be precise, it is not the flower-flower (that’s a botanical term) we eat, but the un-opened flower buds. As they are supposedly too bitter to be eaten directly, they are processed in a vinegar or vinegar/salt solution. This apparently brings out the distinctive pungent flavour of good capers (the bad ones just taste of salty vinegar), which is mainly produced by a mustard oil (methyl isothiocyanate) and a flavoniod (rutin). It has been claimed that the umami (I call it fishy) flavour comes from the presence of capric fatty acid (but see discussion here).  I hope this remains true, because, although one may have thought otherwise, the name “capric” in the fatty acid has nothing to do with “caper”. It comes from the Latin capris, goat. What if “caper” actually comes from “goat”?  And why not?  Both inhabit arid, tough environments, are stubborn, somewhat cute, delicious, and I would like to have them in my balcony.

The flavour of capers vary greatly not only with the preparation, but also with the region they’re grown in. Those from the far island of Pantelleria seem to be exquisite.

Although not pertinent to this floral post, the caper berry (a true berry, even) is also eaten pickled (and yummy too), and the young leaves are used (at least in some Mediterranean islands) in salads. It looks like the plant could grow in my very dry and plant-loathing balcony, so maybe in a couple of years I will be able to have a caper salad!

And what about the frolicking type? I believe the name comes from the effect culinary capers have on people: they make one happy and prone to foolish behaviour.  No, seriously, in this case we go back to goats again. The frolicking capers come from capriolare, which in turns comes from capris, goat.

Here a funny (probably) and very long discourse on the Caper Berry of ancient science.

Here an article (in German) about the capers of Pantelleria.



Written by ditaviz

23/05/2015 at 11:43

Dear Fat Spider, have some orange…

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not the spider in my room...

not the spider in my room…

…and then go away with lavender scent!

The useful bit of this post: orange oil didn’t keep spiders away.  But since I applied lavender oil to the rim of the door, no spider has been sighted in the room!


Spiders are generally good. They eat a lot of our pests (albeit in smallish numbers), and can help keep your plants and yourself healthy without the need of synthetic poison (which is bad, hence the name and the skull on the containers). They are amazing, having interesting predatory and sexual behaviours. They can be cute, such as the jumping spider that lives in the balcony fence, or those blue-ish thin-legged ones that have battles in the bathroom. They can be cool, like those building nests on the railing of the Dreirosenbrücke. Annoyingly, they can be scary. Like the big black fat spider that haunted me last autumn. Or worse, its even fatter cousin (or itself?) that paid me a visit about a month ago. Hiding under my bath towel. Not doing me any harm, just jumping to the floor (in fright, I’m sure) while I scuttled about in my newborn attire. Too large to fit our standard glasses, it unfortunately suffered a “platyfying by broom” after hanging out above the bed. I hate killing spiders, I do! Not because I find it disgusting or scary (maybe excepting this case), but because I do believe they are actually good and harmless—but tell that to my four-in-the-morning self. I didn’t used to be scared of spiders, but these ones kind of tipped me over the edge.

Living in a modern flat designed by people with some strange ideas about actually inhabiting doesn’t help keeping spiders outside. The bedroom has no windows, just a glass pane with a balcony door. Which you need to open if you want (as I do) some fresh air in the night. And has quite a perimeter for anything crawling to get the idea of coming in. I used to have some plants there, which would hopefully provide a quieter residence than the very naked walls and the often-moved items indoors. But the overexposure to heat almost killed everything (it’s also a very narrow and naked balcony). So I moved the sorry lads to the north-facing entrance.

Anyway.  A big, naked door. So, I looked around for spider deterrants. And found oranges! Yes, citrus oil is apparently a good spider repellent, and it even smells delicious. So I simply applied it all around the door (see recipe below). On the same evening, a new spider was comfortably looking for a place to make its house, just beside the door (inside, of course!). I applied some more, but to no effect. So, I resorted to my go-to essential oil. Lavender.  It’s now been three months, and I have not seen any spider yet (although the weather was rather spiderly). I guess tea-tree oil would work equally well.

Recipe: half a cup of water with about 10 drops of essential oil, plus a drop of soap—to break the oil droplets and actually dilute them. Stirred well with a kitchen brush and brushed generously all along the frame. Insects and spiders use chemoreception a lot, and are thus particularly sensitive to scents. Orange or lavender oil, in these quantities, should not actually harm any insects or spiders (except the mites and such that could have been crawling on the door frame, invisible to me), but just present them with a barrier of disgust, much like that over-perfumed person in the neighbouring table at the restaurant.

Essential oils evaporate in a few days, so one needs to re-apply often. Good side effect: it will also remove some grimy dust!

Other alternatives are: rubbing lemon or orange peel around the window (if you’re lucky) or door frame. Different essential oils have been claimed to deter spiders: Citrus, Lavender, Tea-tree, Peppermint. It is well possible that it depends on the species of spiders, so just try what you have on hand.  Don’t spray them on your bed, though (some websites reccommend that!), as they can be toxic to you if exposed for long periods of time.

Written by ditaviz

26/02/2015 at 17:15