The Healing Wood

by frankbeswick

Herbalists Anne Stobart and Kay Foster have created a healing forest garden.

Forest gardens are multi-layered gardens where humans grow their needs. Normally there is a focus on food, and the gardens produce fruit, nuts and vegetables, but these gardens also cater for other needs as well, such as timber. But humans have medicinal needs and so the forest garden can go some way to catering for those as well. Anne Stobart and her business partner Kay Foster have taken forest gardening on a new path by developing a healing garden to source their herbal products.

Image courtesy of pezibear

Finding the Wood

What does a herbalist do when she sees that the herbs that she sources from abroad [as she cannot get enough suitable herbs at home] are of variable quality? The only answer is to get her own wood and grow her own herbs, but the process of developing the wood took a few years of hard work and planning.  

Who is Anne? She is an expert herbalist, and with her is her partner Kay Foster,  with whom she runs a herbal business selling a variety of products for minor ailments and skin care, Holt Wood Herbs. . The author of a scholarly book on herbs that you can see below, she was for some years  director of programmes in complementary health sciences at Middlesex University in the Greater London Area and is now an honorary research fellow at Exeter University in the South West of England, where she now  resides. 

Finding her own woodland was the hard bit in a country where land prices are often high; but woods do become available, and soon Kay spotted one for sale,Holts Wood in North Devon. But it needed attention. The wood was already planted with two and a half acres of commercially grown sitka spruce, which was ready for harvest. I do not know why the owner was selling, but maybe because in commercial forestry there is often a long lapse between planting and the profit that comes with reaping, and he did not fancy another long wait, he wanted to cash in on his asset.  Anne was very keen to purchase it from him. At last the two friends had their woodland. 

The sitka spruce had to be felled, which was why it had been planted anyway, and this felling went a little way to providing the investment for the necessary replanting, which involved a complete re-design of the woodland. The two women also managed to obtain a grant that went along with a management plan for the wood, because the grant came from Britain's Forestry Commission, our national body for managing the nation's woodlands, who are keen to replace the twentieth century commercial conifer monocultures with mixed woodland. These people are helpful, but they have strict requirements  that are the conditions  for their grants. Native trees where possible must be  planted as a condition of the grant, though this is not a hard and fast rule, for sometimes you need non-native species or varieties, some of which the women needed, such as American Witch Hazeland Prickly Ash, the first of which is excellent for relieving swelling and bruises. 

But in the meantime when the new wood was growing the women had to continue sourcing their herbs from other sources. 

The Healing Forest Garden

The forest garden was designed on permaculture principles, but it involved planting over twelve thousand trees, mainly natives, but some non-natives with herbal functions. When you think that a  young tree can cost about twelve pounds [about fourteen dollars] you see the scale of the investment that went into the  wood; and that's before paying for the trees to be planted, for they needed some help in this heavy physical task. You also need to add tree stakes and netting against rabbits.  Add to this the need for the site to be securely fenced against deer, which roam Britain and eat the bark of saplings. Deer fences need to be high enough to cope with the ability of large deer to leap.That is a large cost for a pair of individuals. 

Designing a forest garden from scratch is not easy, as you simply do not plant whatever is there, but must design the site,in this case all two and a half acres of it, siting each tree where you think it ought to be so as to allow some trees to be nurses to other slower growing ones, which will eventually become taller than their nurses. Furthermore, the site had to be designed with maximum "edge" for permaculture principles state that the edge between zones and features is generally very productive, so the two women had to design rides that cut through the wood, along the sides of which woodland plants thrive. 

The design of the forest garden is not like an orchard design, which only takes into account the fruiting layers of the trees, for a forest garden exists in several layers, from the roots through the climbers and  shrubs right up to the trees, and there are trees of differing sizes as well. Sophisticated forest gardens can have as many as nine layers

Forest gardens need a certain degree of maintenance, for they are not to be likened to the jungle or the wild wood, and so the two and  a half acres have to be tended. Harvesting fruits and other products at the right time is part of the management schedule, as is maintaining the rides and the deer fencing, for any small holes could allow in the muntjac, Britain's non-native barking deer, which is  the size of a dog and which can easily slip through fences and do much damage.Keeping out grey squirrels is important as well, for these American imports can cause havoc in places  

The Products

The best way to see the products is to access the website, but we can single out a few. The focus is on skin products  and treatments for minor conditions, but the women run healing courses that teach how to use herbal applications. They also sell  art work from the forest garden, which includes greetings cards. These are produced  by Kay, who is artistically talented. 

One kind of skin product with ecological significance is the range of soaps containing willow bark, which are an ecologically worthwhile alternative to defoliants containing plastic beads, which are causing so much harm to marine life. The willow powder not only exfoliates the skin, but also biodegrades and thus causes no harm to marine life. Willow bark powder is the future, plastic beads are the past.

The range of products might not on the surface do justice to the variety of herbs used, but in several products there is a range of herbs carefully blended for maximum medicinal effect. Juniper, lavender, rosemary, marigold  and witch hazel are important ingredients of the herbal products sold. Holtwood herbs does offer some courses in woodland herbalism, there being two in all,each of which is a day long, which demonstrate how to use trees for herbal medicine. No wood can be exclusively for herbs, for it is not in the nature of a woodland that it should not produce only nutrients,  so Holt Wood produces nuts, fruits, fungi and some timber as well as nourishment and fuel. 

The healing wood is a development of the concept of the forest garden, for it takes forest gardening in  a newer, more specialized direction and adds to the possibilities of permaculture farming, in which the concept of the forest garden is of great significance.  

Updated: 12/12/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/29/2020

Derdriu, all traditional British healing herbs are still available. We use witch hazel,but while specimens of prickly ash are grown in Britain, there are too few of them for significant herbal use, and anyway ash die back is devastating ash tree in Britain.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/29/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and products, particularly the household medicine publication.
Nurse trees are such companionable practices. Oak trees can be such effective nurses except in chestnut-oak forests where they host the chestnut blight. Ink disease (Phytophthora cinnamomi) killed all of President Jefferson's lowland-growing chestnut trees in his chestnut-oak woods and then, in the following century, blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) killed all of President Roosevelt's highland-growing chestnut trees in his chestnut-oak woods. President Roosevelt said that three major, tragic disappointments in his life were the death of his first wife, the failure of his Bull Moose Party and the loss of his chestnut trees.
Is it that traditional British Isle treatments for bruises and swelling relied upon plants less effective than American prickly ash and witch hazel or that those sources are endangered or no longer accessible or in existence?

blackspanielgallery on 12/12/2017

I have never before heard of tree nurses to other trees. Interesting.

frankbeswick on 12/12/2017

All healing comes from what is available in the natural world, but sometimes it takes sophisticated efforts to find it.

Veronica on 12/12/2017

I am a great believer in the power of natural things for healing. I think they should be used with modern medicine though, alongside it. Nature has given us what we need if we know what to look for and where to look.

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