Hampstead Heath: Nature's inspirational apothecary

The green leaves and stem of Galium aparine, also known as cleavers

The green leaves and stem of Galium aparine, also known as cleavers - Credit: Imladris01/iStock/Getty Images Plus

For the past couple of years Lynda Cook and I have led a guided walk across the Heath pointing out the abundance of plants that can be used for medicinal or culinary purposes. 

But for now, let’s take a virtual walk along that path – and perhaps in the following weeks you can make your own exploration of this wonderful world of healing. 

We start at the Well Walk entrance to the Heath. Here, and throughout the Heath is the ubiquitous stinging nettle. It is interesting to note that from its Latin name, urtica dioica, comes the medical condition known as urticaria or hives. The hollow hairs contain formic acid and histamines which are a strong irritant when touched. However, when cooked they are rendered harmless.

The young spring leaves can be made into an iron-rich and deliciously bright green soup, or spinach substitute. Infused in hot water, it can relieve symptoms of rheumatism and sciatica, may lower blood pressure and improve circulation.

Stinging nettles

Stinging nettles - Credit: Denise Bradley

One of the many marvels of nature is that close by the stinging nettle will also grow the dock leaf.  Whether it is the cooling effect of the crushed leaf that relieves the pain of a nettle sting, or the fact that it may contain antihistamines is unknown – but it does indeed seem to help.

Dock leaves

Dock leaves - Credit: Denise Bradley

On either side of this path is also a sticky tangle of cleavers. This serves as a wonderful detox and lymphatic flush when infused in water with a slice of lemon.

On our right we see an elder tree, sambucus nigra. It is easy and satisfying to make your own elderflower cordial in June when the creamy flower heads are in full and fragrant bloom. The flowers also make a deliciously potent wine, which rather mysteriously starts to bubble and ferment each year at the same time that the trees are in flower.

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The berries that follow are rich in vitamin C and give a wonderful support to the immune system and soother of coughs if taken as a syrup throughout the winter. 

Next we notice the great white flowered stalks of cow parsley. Here, a special word of caution. Although this plant has medicinal uses, it is best left alone as it closely resembles many highly poisonous plants, the most famous of which is hemlock.

Socrates met his end by downing a draft of hemlock, and our local poet John Keats writes: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…”  

Perhaps he walked these very paths whilst composing his Ode to a Nightingale.  

To our left is the first of many hawthorns. Hawthorn is steeped in mythology with many believing the trees were inhabited by fairy folk. One of the oldest medicinal plants, hawthorne was prescribed by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century AD as a remedy for heart problems. Today modern medicine still uses it for diseases of the heart and blood vessels, and for hypertension and circulatory troubles. 

A female blackbird enjoying the plentiful supply of Hawthorn berries

A female blackbird enjoying the plentiful supply of Hawthorn berries - Credit: Richard Brunton

Now we enter the majestic avenue of lime trees. Infusions of these leaves are used for relaxation, insomnia, lowering high blood pressure and reducing cholesterol.

Along the edge of the path we see the delicate pink flowers of Herb Robert. Once known as Saint Robert’s Herb and named after a French monk living around 1000AD, he affected many cures with this plant. As an instant first aid, the leaves can be crushed and used to stop bleeding and encourage healing. 

Also abundant on the Heath are willow trees. Hippocrates in 400BC advised chewing on the bark to reduce fever and inflammation. and it continues to be used today for the treatment of pain. The bark of white willow contains salicin, which was used to develop aspirin. 

Similar to the daisy is feverfew, often used for the treatment of migraine headaches.

Look out for comfrey also, noted as a healing herb since at least 400BC. The Greeks and Romans commonly used comfrey to stop heavy bleeding, treat bronchial problems and mend broken bones.

A comfrey plant

A comfrey plant - Credit: Chris Bishop

The yellow flowers of St John’s wort can be seen near the new dam works. Well known as a dietary supplement for depression, ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

On warm days the aromatic smell of wormwood wafts in the air. Historically, Anglo-Saxon tribes revered it as a sacred herb gifted to them by their chief deity, Woden. Romans planted it along roadsides to help travellers rest their feet from long walks.  It is also used in Chinese acupuncture, with a history going back over 3,000 years. 

I have chosen only a few of the dozens of plants we came across – there is still plantain, clover, dandelion, ramsons, brambles and many more then there is space to tell on this page.

  • Melissa Fairbanks is from the Heath and Hampstead Society

And so to finish – an important word of caution for the reader and the Heath – always consult a trained medical professional. Let this information rather be an inspiration to grow your own plants. And please do not pick wild plants from the Heath or anywhere else where nature is preserved for the good of all. The Heath supplies vital food and habitat for birds and wildlife and as such it must be left intact for their wellbeing.

  • To mark the 150th anniversary of the Hampstead Heath Act, the Heath and Hampstead Society is selling tote bags for £10 and p+p. Email info@heathandhampstead.org.uk to order one.
The Heath and Hampstead Society tote bag

The Heath and Hampstead Society tote bag - Credit: The Heath and Hampstead Society