Neurtraceuticals: Plants with Benefits

Join Dr Nicolette Perry from Dilston Physic Garden who is giving a FREE talk on ‘Nutraceuticals – Plants with Benefits’ for Heritage Open Days Edible England. The dates are Sun 12th Sept at Hexham Old Gaol and Sat 18th Sept at Hexham’s Moot Hall at 11am on both dates. Tickets are free with limited numbers – collect from Cogito Books on St Mary’s Chare, Hexham (and check out their ‘Edible England- themed window while you are there!).

Junior Herbalist Club

Junior Herbalist Club is a brand new venture. It’s taking place with the support of the National Institute  of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). The aim of Junior Herbalist Club (JHC) is to let children learn about the healing and medicinal plants all around them in a safe and supervised environment – in this case, Dilston Physic Garden!

JHC meets at Dilston Physic Garden once a month from September to July and is led by NIMH medical herbalist Davina Hopkinson.

The children’s learning will include

  • Identification of common herbs growing all around them
  • Safety – which herbs are safe to use and which are poisonous
  • Folklore – taught through stories and songs
  • How to grow and harvest herbs
  • Medicinal uses of common herbs
  • How to use a variety of common herbs for first aid
  • How to make a variety of herbal preparations to keep and take home
  • Respect for all plants and their environment

By the end of the year, the children will be able to

  • Correctly identify many common medicinal plants growing in their gardens, parks, hedgerows and streets and distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous plants
  • Know the medicinal properties of many common plants
  • Understand how to use some of these plants in first aid and how to use some plants for making medicines
  • Enjoy listening to the stories and tales of folklore and history surrounding the plants and plant medicine
  • Know how to cultivate and harvest plants whilst respecting their environment and all of nature

Junior Herbalist Club meets once a month.

Ten lessons are delivered over a year from September to July. At the end of the year the children are given certificates of attendance and a badge.

Each month we focus on one particular healing plant. The children are taught how to correctly identify the plant, about the origins of the plant name (both common and botanical names) and about the plant’s habitat and life cycle. Next, we look at the history and folklore surrounding the plant. This may include storytelling, songs and funny anecdotes. We then discuss the medicinal qualities of the plant, the primary constituents responsible for the healing activity, and the uses for the plant, both internally and externally. Children are encouraged to participate in the discussion, adding their own ideas and thoughts.

The children are also given a worksheet after each session to be completed before the next meeting. This helps them to remember what we have learnt and acts as their own portfolio of medicinal plant learning. JHC has been planned so that each month the children build on their knowledge and skills. We start off with lavender – a well-known and easily identifiable plant and make lavender bags and lavender-scented sugar and progress on to making sun-teas, infused oils, poultices, cordials, bath-bombs and lip balms. In the second year, the tasks become a little more complex, building on the skill set developed in the first year and include making marshmallows, syrups, lozenges, salves, creams and hydrosols.

JHC is aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 12. However, older children are welcome and children aged 7 can come but will require a parent or guardian to stay with them during the class. Parents of children over the age of 8 are welcome to stay if they wish! Please note that we are not able to provide supervision or care for siblings not registered on the JHC course. Please make sure that your child wears clothes suitable to the activities – comfortable old clothes, and shoes or boots that can get muddy, and bring a raincoat to each session as we always try to go outside, even if it’s wet.

The cost for the year is £80.00 payable in advance to secure your child’s place. This cost covers all tuition and materials. Children who attend regularly will receive an award and certificate at the end of the year.

To book your child’s place just email Davina Hopkinson

Meet the Grey Lady

The Grey Lady has been seen visiting the physic garden. We are hoping she will come again most Saturdays this summer to give a Magic and Medicine tour of the physic garden. Please book a place by 1pm and meet at the garden gate at 1.30pm £2 per person.

The ghost of the 3rd Countess of Derwentwater lives in the remains of Dilston Castle on the other side of the Devil’s Water river. She will appear to tell the magic stories about medicinal plants – the herbs she looked after before her castle was demolished 250 years ago. You will hear how the magic stories of old led us to today’s medicines and you will also meet:

Ellie the Mischievous Elf

The Plague Doctor

Belladonna the Witch


The Archangel Angelica

The Devil Chaser

Kitty in the Sky


See you at the physic garden!


Dilston Dispensary 2021

The Dilston of Plant Medicine is back 2021, open 5th May to 15th September – Wednesdays 12.30 to 3pm – just click the image above for more details.

Spring at Dilston Physic Garden

A spring morning at Dilston Physic Garden – a 3 minute video by photographer David Taylor

Thyme – Plant of the Day

What’s behind skullcap?

Can a plant really boost our mood ?
A number of plants have clinical science to show that they effectively lift mood, balance mood swings and relieve mild depression (severe depression should not be self-treated). The widely recognized anti-depressive St John’s wort leads the way, but other traditional mood-boosting plants, verfiied in clinical studies today, include turmeric from the Middle East, saffron from the Mediterranean and skullcap from Canada and the US. The list also includes other plants which are yet to be fully explored by science, like rose from the Middle East, chai hu from China and, for restoring hormonal balance, particularly for women, there’s black cohosh from the US and the less closely studied clary sage from Europe.
What the plant needs to do
A long-held notion surrounding depression is that it involves a response triggered by low brain serotonin, and that drugs which restore this mood-boosting brain signal will also help to restore good mood. Consequently, common anti-depressant drugs are those which are able to maintain high levels of serotonin in the space where nerve cells talk to each other (the synapse). These chemical drugs are collectively called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). They include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline and paroxetine and are the most widely prescribed drugs today in the US, overtaking blood pressure drug prescription. While some anti-depressants act on serotonin, others act on signals like noradrenaline and dopamine, for example the SNRIs (selective noadrenaline reuptake inhibitors), monoamine oxidase inhibitors and TCAs (tricyclic antidepressants used more for severe depression).
Mild anxiety and depression are the most common of all mental health issues today. So with 1 in 5 of us experiencing at least one episode of depression in our lifetime, do we fully understand what goes wrong in the brain-body-emotion axis during depression? And are the side-effects of SSRIs, which include nausea, dizziness and sexual problems, acceptable? Should we be aware of different treatments?

Improve our mood, alter our outlook
Change is a good as a holiday right? Changing our perspective can help us overcome mood problems, but what is difficult is keeping that perspective changed. Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) is an Amazonian plant and is the main constituent of a tea used in traditional rituals to enhance consciousness and alter perspective. It’s usually taken as a tea mixed with another plant (such as chacruna Psycotria viridia). Though this tea mix (also called Ayahuasca) is only to be taken under supervision, it works by acting on mood-boosting brain signals. Chacruna contains the hallucinogenic DMT (dimethyltryptamine) which activates the brain’s mood-boosting serotonin signal; and ayahuasca’s harmine alkaloids boost the presence of chacruna’s DMT by blocking the enzyme (monoamine oxidase) that inactivates it. Got that?
Lab tests and clinical trials on the Ayahuasca tea mix (taken in a clinical setting under supervision and including therapy) have so far confirmed it is well-tolerated as a rapid-onset antidepressant, which reduces anxiety too, and, interestingly confirmed by science to alter and improve the outlook of those who have taken it.
The point here is that skullcap is another plant, but a safe and much milder alternative to the south American ayahuasca. Taken also as a tea, you can grow it in your garden or in a pot for mood-boosting and also possible perspective-altering effects.
History and folklore
People bathed in skullcap leaves, or used them to cast spells to remove disharmony. Its other name of mad-dog herb relates to it being used in the treatment of rabies in the 19th century, it was probably it’s sedative and antispasmodic properties that eased the pains of this fatal condition. Discovered in the 19th century as a nervous system tonic, it has been used through history to treat depression, panic attacks, ‘hysteria’ and nervous heart conditions. One of the most popular botanicals in North America (the Cherokee use it for menstrual nervous problems), in herbal medicine today it’s used for depression, as a relaxant, mild sedative, sleep promoter and to help in withdrawal of benzodiazepines. A mood modifier not only for humans, it’s used by vets to help calm dogs suffering from excitability, apprehension and phobias such as fear of thunderstorms and gunfire (and there’s no drowsiness or reductions in performance – perfect for training and obedience).
What the scientists say
In humans
In one ‘gold-standard’ randomised controlled crossover clinical trial, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) showed significant effects on mood in healthy volunteers. After two weeks, mood was significantly enhanced, without reduction in energy or cognition. Its main ingredient baicalein has been tested in volunteers (with a view to treating people with Parkinson’s disease) and found to be safe and well-tolerated.
In the lab
Whole extracts and its key ingredient baicalein are anti-depressive and anti-inflammatory in a number of different lab models and affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (responsible for neuroendocrine adaptation to the stress response). Acts on the mood-llifting serotonin signal (stops LSD binding) and prevents an Alzheimer’s marker. Also acts on calming (GABA benzodiazepine) brain signals and is anti-anxiety and anti-convulsant.
Key ingredients
Flavonoids baicalin, baicalein and scutellarin are key to anti-depressive effects and keeping inflammation at bay in a wide range of lab tests and are also key antioxidants, scavenging free radicals. Ingredient wogonin is neuroregenerative and baicalein is neuroprotective. Also contains melatonin and serotonin.
How to take it
(See also herbal tissane recipes below from La Reine Margot). Tea of fresh (4-6g) or dried (2-3g) aeriel parts per 240ml boiled water, take 50ml 3x daily. Tincture, capsules or tablets (standarised or of its key ingredient baicalein) are also used.
CAUTION Always consult an affiliated medical herbalist before taking any plant at a medicinal level, inform your health care provider if you are taking medication or have any medical condition and do not stop taking prescribed medication. Be sure of the identity of your plant and take only at the recommended dose.
Generally regarded as safe. Side-effects may be drowsiness, giddiness, confusion, but overdose may cause convulsions. Always buy from a reputable source – there are disturbing reports in the 1980s that many commercial skullcap products were adulterated with other plants (many not containing any skullcap) such as germander Teucrium chamaedrys and other Teucrium species which can cause hepatotoxicity. Not advised in pregnancy and lactation (although in the past it has been used safely in these conditions). Sedative effects on nervous system mean it may interact with other anti-depressants, sedatives or anaesthetics.
Dos Santos, Rafael G.; Osório, Flávia L.; Crippa, José Alexandre S.; Hallak, Jaime E. C. (2016): ‘Antidepressive and anxiolytic effects of ayahuasca: a systematic literature review of animal and human studies.’ In Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999[A1] [A2] ) 38 (1), pp.65–72. DOI: 10.1590/1516-4446-2015-1701

Brock, Christine; Whitehouse, Julie; Tewfik, Ihab; Towell, Tony (2014): ‘American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): a randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of its effects on mood in healthy volunteers.’ In Phytotherapy Research : PTR 28 (5), pp.692–8. DOI: 10.1002/ptr.5044.
Gasiorowski, Kazimierz; Lamer-Zarawska, Eliza; Leszek, Jerzy; Parvathaneni, Kalpana; Yendluri, Bharat Bhushan; Blach-Olszewska, Zofia; Aliev, Gjumrakch (2011): ‘Flavones from root of Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi: drugs of the future in neurodegeneration?’ In CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets 10 (2), pp.184–191.

This is an extract taken from Botanical Brain Balms, Filbert Press 2018 – available to buy at the Physic Garden and bookshops. Look out for our new book out soon GROW YOUR OWN PHYSIC GARDEN Use the Power of Medicinal Plants Grounded in Science. 

What is it about Liquorice?

Love it or hate it liquorice has a range of health benefits. The ingredient of one of the world’s favourite sweets, including the North’s famous Pontefract Cakes, it is used in plant medicine for fatigue, particularly adrenal stress, but it also has memory boosting and protective effects on brain cells. Scroll down to find liquorice recipes and the science behind the root’s energising effects.

Can a plant really increase energy?

Plants have been shown to be energisers that reduce fatigue, tonics that strengthen relevant body systems or adaptogens that restore stress systems that go out of kilter. Certain plants are also nerve tonics that can combat mental fatigue and increase mental clarity. Few plants have been tested in human trials for mental fatigue, because apart from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or myalgic encephalopathy, ME), multiple sclerosis (MS) and to a lesser extent depression, mental fatigue is not recognized as a symptom in Western mainstream medicine. Lab-based scientific studies however, do show the impact of energiser plants, or their chemical ingredients, on the brain and nervous system.
Core energisers include two traditional medicinal plants, astragalus and ginkgo, which have origins in China, two European plants, one sweet and the other with a sting (liquorice and nettle), a Chinese and Indian spice (ginger) and then a fiery Asian vegetable (garlic) and the celebrated ‘superfood’ green tea. Other botanical brain balms that improve energy and mental fatigue include ashwaghanda an adaptogen which clinically boosts mood, memory, stamina and much more, and cocoa which lowers fatigue and relieves symptoms of CFS. And other traditional energising plants which have attracted scientific attention are European oak (Quercus robur) and bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), the Chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis) and the famous but endangered snow lotus (Saussurea involucrata) from the Himalayas and Mongolia.

Traditional Chinese medicinal plants and energy
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) continues to be practised on an equal basis alongside orthodox medicines in China today. TCM sees the concept of “vitality” as an essential component of health and healing. Chinese people understand good health as being critically dependent on what they term qi, or energy. They describe qi as a natural life force which, if not flowing freely due to obstruction or block results in a weaker body.
Ginseng and astragalus are used in traditional Chinese medicine to maintain or restore qi, and traditional ideas on the difference between the two plants are fascinating. Ginseng is said to “nourish vitality” and rescue energy collapse by restoring “yang” and is often used to treat shock. Men in particular recognize it as an energiser and as an aphrodisiac too. Astragalus, on the other hand, is said to reinforce loss of vitality in what is referred to as “insecurity of the exterior” and is used to help patients counter signs of weakness and debilitating physical conditions. Sometimes called female ginseng, it is used to help fight stress and disease too.
Trying to understand how these plants work in terms of conventional Western medicine, especially biological mechanisms is challenging! Ideas range from the mopping up of tissue-damaging free radicals (antioxidants) and increasing blood flow to countering the adrenal stress response or strengthening brain functions. We have no research of our own to back up reports on the revitalising qualities of energising plants, but love the seasonal plants in the physic garden which act as tonics. Nettle tea or soup, made in spring with added wild garlic, seems to be both energising and restorative, while combating mental fatigue and sharpening mental clarity too – but these are our subjective, not scientific, observations.



Today we look at the use of liquorice as an energiser, though the root has many other medicinal uses from liver complaints to as an anti-inflammatory, spasmolytic, laxative, anti-ulcer, anti-diabetic and anti-depressive.

Historical medicinal use

Used in Europe since prehistoric times, the botanical name comes from the Greek for sweet and root. Around 2000BC the Egyptian pharaohs chewed sticks and took it as a sweet drink. It was used in the 1st century by physician Dioscorides, who told Roman soldiers to chew the root to allay thirst. Also known as gan cao in traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed to harmonize other ingredients in a formula.

Used in traditional Japanese medicine and in Ayurvedic medicine for rejuvenation and by Western medical herbalists for adrenal insufficiency and as a restorative tonic – being immunostimulant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Researched since the 1950s for its major clinical efficacy in gastric and duodenal ulceration.

What scientists say
In humans Studied in clinical trials for many for its effects (including aiding treatment of Helicobacter pylori), as an energiser, part of a traditional Chinese medicine formula (baoyuan dahuang), liquorice extracts relieve fatigue in patients with kidney disease. In controlled trials it is more effective than HRT in reducing hot flushes in menopausal women. Was successful in a case study for chronic fatigue syndrome.

In the lab Inhibits fatigue and enhances memory in lab models as well as protecting against oxidative stress and inflammation. Neuroprotective in cultured cells and in models of brain injury (such as restricted blood flow). Reduces oxidative stress in the hippocampus (a key memory area in the brain). Also active as an antidepressant and in generating new nerve cells (neurogenesis).

Key chemicals The major bioactive ingredients are the triterpene glycosides (saponins) like glycyrrhizin acid which also account for its sweet flavour – said to be 50 times sweeter than sugar. Also contains active flavonoids such as liquiritin, responsible for the root’s yellow colour, as well as sterols, coumarins and an essential oil.

How to take it Note the safety precautions below. Decoction (which is just a way to extract chemicals from tougher plant material like bark and roots) of peeled or unpeeled root (20g per 750ml water, simmered to 500ml) is commonly taken daily for short-term effects. Fresh root is also made into a paste or dried juice stick and dried root can be chewed, and fresh or dried root made into a tincture or liqueur and other recipes – scroll down. Also taken as capsules and tablets (see product for dose and duration).

As an ingredient of confectionery, its sweetness is less harsh and longer-lasting than sugar and it doesn’t damage teeth (liquorice lollipops actually protect children’s teeth!) or raise blood glucose.

Safety Considered safe within upper dose limit of 400mg active ingredient glycyorrhizin per day. Caution in long-term use when taken at a medicinal level since glycyrrhetic acid can accumulate. Contraindicated heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disorders, hypokalemia, fluid retention, with oral and topical corticosteroids and, in theory, with anticoagulants and with oral contraceptives in a high dose or with long term use (glycyrrhetic acid can accumulate). An awareness of steroid effects (elevated blood cortisol) is advised. Caution at a medicinal level in pregnancy and breast feeding. Side-effects at higher doses include hypertension and hypokalemic-induced secondary disorders.

CAUTION Always consult an NIMH affiliated medical herbalist before taking any plant at a medicinal level, inform your health care provider if you are taking medication or have any medical condition and do not stop taking prescribed medication. Be sure of the identity of your plant and take only at the recommended dose.


Guo, Jie; Yang, Chunxiao; Yang, Jiajia; Yao, Yang (2016): ‘Glycyrrhizic acid ameliorates cognitive impairment in a rat model of vascular dementia associated with oxidative damage and inhibition of voltage-gated sodium channels.’ In CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets 15 (8), pp.1001–8.
Singh, Paramdeep; Singh, Damanpreet; Goel, Rajesh K. (2016): ‘Protective effect on phenytoin-induced cognition deficit in pentylenetetrazol kindled mice: a repertoire of Glycyrrhiza glabra flavonoid antioxidants.’ In Pharmaceutical Biology 54 (7), pp.1209–18. DOI: 10.3109/13880209.2015.1063673.
Baschetti, R. (1995): ‘Liquorice and chronic fatigue syndrome.’ In The New Zealand Medical Journal 108 (1002), p.259.

Bredin CP. (2019) Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): the journey of the sweet root from Mesopotamia to England. J R Coll Physicians Edinb. Jun;49(2):171-174.

Harding V, Stebbing J. (2017) Liquorice: a treatment for all sorts? Lancet Oncol. 2017 Sep;18(9):1155. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(17)30628-9.

This is taken from Botanical Brain Balms, Filbert Press 2018. Available buy at Dilston Physic Garden and bookshops. Look out for our new book out soon! GROW YOUR OWN PHYSIC GARDEN Use the Power of Medicinal Plants Grounded in Science.