The members of my family have developed a skill; it might be more accurate to say, they have perfected ‘a look’, reserved for those moments when I rummage around inside my cauldron to find something to fix whatever ails them. It’s where they keep a straight face and look me in the eye with just a glint of amusement – they daren’t laugh or roll their eyes because that would be hurtful, but at the same time, they want to let me know that really, they’re humouring me. Of course I don’t actually have a cauldron as such – I use it as a blanket term for my life long belief in the magic of plants and the power of intention. So it was a joy for me when my daughter recently remarked, “By the way, that stuff actually works.”
‘That stuff’, in this case, was plantain oil. I’ve been trying to force it on them for years, whenever anyone complains of a bite or a sting or even a cut, but they usually reach for something with a brand name. Somehow I managed to get her to use plantain and she was impressed. I was thrilled. I mean, I’m not a fool; I wouldn’t make potions and lotions if they didn’t work. So it was a kind of acknowledgement that I’m not mad.
Some humans find divinity in the great and powerful; I find it in the grass. Roving weeds and garden pests connect me to Mother Earth because almost everything under our feet offers healing and wellbeing. Plantain, so common and so overlooked, was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, or the Nine Herb Charm (along with mugwort, nettle, chamomile, lamb’s cress, betony, crab apple, chervil and fennel, since you ask) but it could not be simpler to use it, even in an emergency – just crush a plantain leaf to bring instant relief to an insect bite. I chop the leaves and cram them into a clean jar, top it up with olive oil and let it sit for a month or two on a shelf, then strain it. In her wonderful book Health Through God’s Pharmacy, Maria Treben recommends it for open wounds, blisters, dog bites and disorders of the lungs. It can be drunk as a tea for allergies including hayfever and combines well with mint and elderflower according to my well loved book Hedgerow Medicine (Bruton Seal & Seal) where I also found this adorable 17th century quote from Abbe Kneipp :
“plantain closes the gaping wound with a seam of golden thread;
for, just as gold will not admit of rust,
so the plantain will not admit of rotting and gangreneous flesh.”
My rescue hens will eat the leaves on occasion – they’re picky enough about what greenery they enjoy (they’ll go for dandelion leaves and the leaves of clover too). The seed heads can be eaten raw and it seems they’re quite tasty dipped in oil and fried but I haven’t tried that. Yet!
Anyway, you’ve no excuse – it grows literally everywhere. The Native Americans called it ‘white man’s footprint’, springing up all over the place in the footsteps of the settlers. If you mow it down, it’ll just grow back – folks; Plantain wants to be used!
When Sam died, our hearts broke. I still expect to see him sitting patiently by the kitchen door, waiting for me to get up and let him out. No barking or whining, just Sphinx-like mindful watching the great outdoors while the magpies get away with murder. I don't even doubt that he could have been trusted around our chickens, and he certainly would have protected Wendy and Syd from the fox but he left us before they came along. I didn't want another dog - how could he possibly be replaced? Even my sisters, who are definitely not doggie people, say he was the very best boy there ever was. And handsome! Out of a litter of golden tan puppies, he was the only black one with tan markings and the eyes of an Arabian prince. He picked me out, not the other way around, and we kept his arrival a secret until the DSPCA had checked us out and gave us the go-ahead. The staff told us they'd had quite the battle with a very irate Italian lady who also wanted him - a story that grew legs over the years, turning her into a kind of Cruella Deville who might come back and take him away if he got sick on the carpet ever again. Days could pass and he might not get a walk and still he would not complain, although those brown eyes bore into my soul and whispered 'for shame, mother'. No, Sam could not be replaced, but I did yearn to rescue something. And that's how Sam, even from his new home in heaven, stood guard and guided us towards a new adventure, rescuing chickens.
We literally did not have a clue about chickens when we arrived home with six battered and balding highly strung and stressed out girls. But we had an unused shed and we were compassionate, so we bumbled along and very soon fell head over heels in love. Chickens are the original crazy chicks; they really do have traits and personalities, some are clever, some are barmey, some get attached to us, some plot to kill and eat us. Before we built a run, we sat with them while they free-ranged and marvelled at their antics and the sheer amount of poo they produce; my own theory is that the food they eat (almost anything) travels at a steady pace right through them and is instantly digested. The fights they might have over a worm are less frightful - the poor creature will dissolve in seconds.
My daughters once saw Eleanor eat a mouse whole, while the others screamed to get a piece of it. Is it any wonder that they're the closest living relatives of the T-Rex? Mind you, Eleanor was a particularly bas-ass girl, who brought trouble on herself; she wasn't very high in the pecking order yet she continuously annoyed the others and we'd often find her bleeding with half her feathers plucked out. We called her Ellie Bellie when we were delighted with her and Smellanore when she was bold, which was all the time. When she got slower and fell asleep forever, it was in the food box, all the better to piss the others off.
When the chickies' laying days are over, I like to think of them running around with Sam, somewhere green and free; them annoying him for sport, him enduring it because that's the way of his lovely nature. At the end of the day, they sit together as the sun goes down and think what a fine thing the afterlife is.