Andrew’s Blog

Time for turmeric

November the time for turmeric? It is the time turmeric emerges from a long dormancy, it skips most of spring, and waits for the real heat to arrive – it is a tropical plant after all. In fact, almost 1/2 way through November and I only have one turmeric plant sprouting, I’m expecting many to emerge in coming days.

Last Autumn I dug them all up – see photo below. Sliced and dried they are being used for their culinary and medicinal qualities, while numerous rhizomes were put back for this summer’s crop.

Turmeric harvest

Meanwhile, I was fortunate to obtain some rhizomes of our native turmeric at one of our plant society meetings. Curcuma australasica is commonly known as the Cape York Lily, though it is no lily. The native species can be used in a similar way to the Asian species (Curcuma longa), the main difference being in the flowers, which appear when the plant first emerges from the soil, in my case in early November.

Curcuma australasica

Curcuma australasica. Native turmeric aka Cape York Lily.

Note that the pink “flowers”are actually bracts, concealing the much smaller true flowers. This plant can be easily cultivated, and it is available through several Queensland nurseries. It dodges winter by dying back, therefore it can survive non-tropical conditions. More information can be found here:

Flower harvest

I’m a bit too busy for blogging at the moment, but I thought I would share today’s flower harvest from the orchard garden on Southern Cross Farm.

Flower harvest Oct.2018

From top: Calendula, California poppy, red clover, chamomile.

These are dried for use in teas or tincturing. They look gorgeous in the garden, and retain their colour well when dried correctly.

Currently, I’m harvesting about this quantity about every second day. It looks like we are in for a hot dry spell as we move towards summer, having had some really good spring rains. Some of these flowers may be gone within a couple of weeks.

Happy gardening, and don’t overlook the flowers.


After the rain

Following an extremely dry spring and summer further compounded by regular heatwaves, the autumn finally brought some good rain to the lower Hunter, and with the ongoing warm temperatures it was like having summer all over again, but without the heatwave.

Second sunflower crop for the summer

While the crops were responding to the boost of rain, not to be forgotten are the weeds, just lying around dormant waiting for their moment. The most likely suspects, fireweed and capeweed (both daisies) however were usurped by a less likely but nonetheless quite common weed, known by many names including American wormseed and Mexican tea – the names giving some clue as to the origin.

Dysphania ambrosioides – American wormseed

This plant has a new botanical name since I last looked it up. Previously it was Chenopodium ambrosoides, sister to the common fat hen or lambs quarters, Chenopodium album and the popular health food quinoa (C. quinoa). However a quick check of the Plantnet site informs me it now has a new name, Dysphania ambrosoides, and that it is a cosmopolitan weed found throughout Eastern Australia and beyond.

While this plant isn’t particularly striking in appearance, it does have a quite distinctive smell, some may say stink! This is due to the volatile oil which is high in the monoterpene oxide ascaridole, a rare anthelmintic compound also found in the medicinal plant boldo (Peumus boldo). For over 100 years the essential oil (known then as Baltimore oil) was used as a household remedy in North America for treatment of intestinal parasites, however it became less popular due to its extreme toxicity.   According to “Ëssential Oil Safety” a safe dose for children was 1 drop per year of age, but 2-3 times that dose could be fatal. In a study by  Monzote et al. (2009), cytotoxicity via inhibition of mitochondrial respiration by three different components of the essential oil (ascaridole, carvacrol and caryophyllene oxide) was demonstrated.

So how does such a toxic substance become a food ingredient? Travel to Mexico and epozate as it is known is a much-loved culinary spice, added to beans and other dishes to assist digestion and add an aromatic flavour. The trick is to use the leaf only, not the seeds, and avoid the essential oil altogether. According to Mother Earth Living, you can add epazote to soups and stews, bean and squash dishes, corn, pork and fish, mushrooms with onions and to complement other popular spices like cilantro and chiles.

So there you have it – a weed, medicinal herb and essential oil, food and poison all in one. Do you have any weeds to match that in your garden?


Monzote, L., et al., (2009). Toxic effects of carvacrol, caryophyllene oxide, and ascaridole from essential oil of Chenopodium ambrosioides on mitochondria. Toxicol. Appl. Pharmaco. doi:10.1016/j.taap.2009.08.001
Tisserand & Balacs (1995). Essential Oil Safety. Churchill Livingstone.




Distillation days

One of the great pleasures  for me is getting together with friends and spend an afternoon distilling some freshly harvested aromatic plant species. This week I was fortunate to have two such days in a row.

Rosemary distillation

At Stephen and Julies’ home near Laguna, there is a rosemary hedge that has a strong aroma of rosemary. That may come as no surprise, however rosemary comes with different chemotypes, some of which are not conducive to cooking with and using for medicine. For example the plants I have growing at home turned out to be CT camphor, while CT verbenone is popular among aromatherapists. But for flavour and medicinal use I prefer the 1,8 cineole type, which we distilled on this occasion. I made sure that I took some stem cuttings from non-flowering stems, to propagate them later at home.

Rosemary harvest
Well-pruned rosemary

The rosemary bushes were overdue for a prune, we helped provide a good trim, there were enough leaves to fill the 40 liter distillation pot. Fortunately we got started in the morning, it turned into a hot day. The leaves are stripped off the main stems and added to the distillation pot.

Rosemary and me

The pot sits on a three ring gas burner, and the condenser is kept cool by running water from a tank connected to a pressure pump. This water wasn’t wasted, it run down via a hose to some young cypress specimens that were looking a bit dry.

After a couple of hours and a delicious mushroom quiche lunch in between, we called a stop though less than one litre distillate had been collected. However there appeared to be a decent amount of oil sitting on top, to be separated out from the hydrosol later.

Rosemary distillate
Distillate with essential oil layer

In the end we made about 20mL of essential oil, along with the hydrosol. Typically the oil has a fresh aroma featuring the high notes. It will oxidise a little and should turn into a good quality rosemary oil in a month or two.

Callistemon distillation

The following day I visited my friend Terry on his bush surrounded residence near Elderslie. I had in mind to distill the Melaleuca decora I had observed growing there, but decided there weren’t enough trees for harvesting. However nearby was a large stand of red-flowering bottlebrush, Callistemon linearis.

Image result for callistemon linearis tree

Some authorities, including the Queensland Herbarium, now place all Callistemons in the Melaleuca genus, in which case this species would be Melaleuca linearis. The NSW Herbarium has yet to adopt this switch so I’m keeping with the old familiar name – along with most native plant lovers I still refer to these as Callistemons.

It turned into another hot afternoon, and an hour or so of harvesting the rather prickly leaves left us rather thirsty. Fortunately we had a six-pack of Coopers Pale Ale on hand, which we imbibed while the still boiled away and distillate poured out copiously for a couple of hours. This turns out to be a low yielding species, and no appreciable amount of oil was separated in the aftermath. However we obtained plenty of hydrosol, which is useful for all kinds of household and cleaning uses, and Terry likes to heat it in an oil burner to keep the air pure indoors.

According to an authoritative text (Brophy, Craven & Doran, 2013), essential oil produced from this species contains over 60% cineole, along with terpenes such as pinene and limonene. Hence it is a Eucalyptus-style oil with notes of pine and lemon. Traces of these chemicals are retained in the hydrosol providing the characteristic aroma. According to the text yields are as low as 0.1% hence it is little surprise that we failed to obtain any under the circumstances. However we shared a most enjoyable afternoon, and our hydrosol stocks received a timely boost.

Brophy, Craven & Doran (2013). Melaleucas. Their Botany, Essential Oil and Uses. ACAIR, Canberra.







The summer garden

I am fortunate to have inherited a slightly run down orchard, with high fencing to keep out the kangaroos and other critters, and plenty of open space for gardens.

Sunflower and garden


Sunflowers, sage, sweet peas, comfrey and chicory along the fence line.

The beds in these photos were formed last year from composted weeds dumped along the fence line. Wait a year and you have ready made garden beds, they work especially well for pumpkins and melons. A  little added compost or organic fertilizer help to get things moving.

The citrus trees were previously being choked with perennial grasses, notably kikuyu. It took plenty of manual labour to remove a strip of grass roots from around each tree and replace with mulch. I found the trees are now quite happy to accommodate having gardens around them as the picture below reveals. In this case echinacea, yarrow and lemon balm are growing profusely, while under the bird netting is a lush crop of red clover just beginning to flower.

Echinacea and other herbs sharing space with citrus tree

The bird netting was installed to keep the wood ducks at bay, our local ducks just love to eat back the clover! If using this method ensure the trees and herbs are being provided with adequate nutrients and fertilizers. The red clover is a fertilizer in itself, it will be cut back for mulch and/or turned in as a green manure crop. I also grow buckwheat in a similar way,  and it doesn’t need protection from the ducks. It can be cut back for using as mulch, and if left to seed you can harvest them for the kitchen, or leave them to self germinate and produce another crop of mulch.

At this time of year the garden is supplying our kitchen with potatoes, carrots, zucchinis, cucumbers, tomatoes, asparagus, hot chillis, beans (5 varieties), strawberries, greens and more. In November I harvested the garlic patch, and it looks like we could have a years supply!

Garlic Nov18
Garlic “curing” in a shady spot

We’re most concious of growing food for medicine, other examples are turmeric and ginger, we also have the native turmeric (Curcuma australasica) not to overlook the native ginger (Alpinia spp.)

Baikal scullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) and summer savoury


Then there are the strictly medicinal herbs finding spaces around the citrus trees and fenceline beds, these include Calendula, ashwaganda and baikal scullcap – all currently flowering profusely.

Other summer garden crops we are waiting to mature are corn, okra, melons, pumpkin and eggplant. We started harvesting tomatillas, they make the best green salsa and so easy to grow.

The spring lettuce have self sown, lets wait to see whether they can make it in the anticipated January heat (40C+ forcast for the weekend).

As I mentioned I am able to grow a lot of my own mulch (including grass clippings), however some animal manure is also necessary for adding to the compost. The four resident cows were just moved on to greener pastures, fortunately I can harvest their droppings for a while yet.

For anyone reading this, I wish you a happy new year, and I hope you have plenty of good produce to enjoy and share this summer.













Herb wildcrafting at Hill End.

Hill End is a semi-ghost town west of the Blue Mountains, remnants of a thriving 19th century mining settlement whose population once reached 40,000. Today the remnant buildings are preserved as a designated historic site, with many hectares of open commons and surrounded  by abandoned gold digging mounds and gullies.


My first visit to Hill End was in Nov. 1989, as part of an excursion with the National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA) – archivists may locate the excursion report in Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism vol.2, 1990. There is plenty of herbal history at Hill End, but even more enticing, the old diggings and neighbouring Common host a variety of naturalized and largely undisturbed European herbs, in particular hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) (in full flower back in ’89), covered in unripe “berries” during this December’s visit. More relevant to the current visit, St. Johns’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is flowering and abundant.

Kangaroos and St. John’s wort on the Common.

Camping at the Village Campground, there was abundant wort withing a few minutes walk, along with other herbs right for the picking, such as centaury (Centaurium erythrina – see earlier blog), self heal (Prunella vulgaris) the invasive Scotch broom (Sarothamnus scoparius) and periwinkle (Vinca major).

StJwortcentaury  SelfhealStJw

Self-heal among  the St. John’s wort

PeriwinkleVinca major – a uterine astringent


As usual I had some good extra virgin olive oil with me, and made up the Hypericum oil as I harvested, with enough spare to dry at home and make up the tincture. This is one of the most rewarding of herbs, providing a rich dark red coloured oil within days, and an equally dark red within minutes of making the tincture, the ethanol being a good solvent for hypericin, the characteristic pigment responsible for the characteristic colour – and some but by no meals all – of the therapeutic activity in the herbs.

Hypericum oil
Hypericum oil and tincture macerating


Its worth spending a little time looking around the old town, some impressive buildings remain, along with occasional signs of life.


Rambling rose outside shack
Well preserved

Farwell from Hill End, well worth a visit.












Memories of Dr. Duke

 Jim and Peggy at home.

One of the world’s leading authorities in the field of herbal medicine and ethnobotany, Dr. James Duke, passed away on 10th December, 2017. Eulogies and reminiscences of Jim, as everyone knew him, no doubt abound on the Internet, however I would like to share my own memories from my period of seven years living in Maryland USA, and teaching at the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH)  – the campus situated just a couple of miles from Jim’s Green Pharmacy Garden home.

I had met Jim during a lecture tour he made down under some years previously, however on my first day working for MUIH I was taken over to the Green Pharmacy Garden, which I was to learn was a defacto extension of the campus, a living outdoor classroom. As the photos below depict,  the MUIH herbal program could boast not only the best outdoors classroom and guest instructor, but the prettiest faculty as well!

Duke & me                            Duke with Bevin, Claudia, Camille
Meeting with Dr. Duke on day 1.

It wasn’t only the outdoor classes that had me visiting Jim’s home on a regular basis, there were regular social occasions, most of which involved music. In previous lives Jim has been a jazz bass player and a singer/songwriter guitarist with a great repertoire of folk and herbal ditties, along with some traditional bluegrass, in which he was usually accompanied by his son John. Often I would visit him for “happy hour” on Friday afternoons, usually with some other MUIH herbies in tow, as in the photo below (apologies for picture quality). The downstairs gallery was always a big hit, with Peggy’s botanical art on display and for sale, along with a selection of Jim’s books.


Jim loved his chardonnay and I loved to share a bottle with him. He no longer ventured to the far away Amazon as in his younger years, in fact there were few occasions when he was drawn outside his home in recent years. So it was a great pleasure to share in some reminiscences over that period.

Much of the time was spent in the garden itself, often showing students or other visitors around. One of my favourite beds was the anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) which was invariably covered in butterflies – quite a sight!.


The garden is a repository for some of the lesser-known and rare medicinal plants, from all around the USA and the globe. Below is a photo of culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) one of the best cholagogue and liver remedies used by physiomedical herbalists of old, but which has lost favour among modern practitioners.


Culver’s root, photo is on an angle

The Green Pharmacy Garden was uniqely designed, with various garden beds arranged according to their therapeutic use. Hence there was a leukemia garden (plenty of Madagascar periwinkle), Alzheimer’s (with snowdrops, small-leaved periwinkle), PMS with Vitex and a depression with St. John’s wort, lemon balm etc. You can see what I mean by an outdoors classroom!

Claudia & hypericum oil

Claudia with some Hypericum oil made in the depression garden.

Other features of the garden were the rampant passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata) and giant butterburs (Petasites spp.)

Passionflower                Petastites

During my tenure at MUIH, the herb program switched from a face-to-face delivery to a predominantly online format, this became a challenge for holding events at the gardens, with students becoming increasingly online – many from outside the region. This concerned Jim, as a hand-on teacher himself he despaired that students would no longer visit and the gardens may become, in a way, redundant. I continued to hold classes or events at the Green Pharmacy Garden whevever the opportunity arrived, so that new generations of students got to meet Jim and see the gardens – even if there weren’t always official classes. Of course the Garden does have an existance outside the MUIH world, and regular functions and courses are conducted there, much of it co-ordinated with assistance from the garden intership programme, under the long term directorship of Helen Metzman.

Other fine memories include the annual new years eve parties featuring various guest musicians – from classical to bluegrass –  and my own going away party that Jim and Peggy kindly hosted for me.

The Duke family and associates have put together an announcment, including reference to a memorial event for 2018. I don’t have a link for that, but here is a news report:

Plant collecting Mount Royal

Recently I and a small group from the Hunter Regional Botanic Gardens Herbarium spent a couple of days observing and collecting plant specimens from the Mount Royal area, situated in the ranges that border the north-western portion of the Hunter Valley, NSW. The range is an extension of the Barriginton Tops region, and includes world heritage rainforest among other botanical attractions.


       View of Mt. Royal from walking track to Pieries Peak.

We didn’t actually make it to Mt. Royal itself, but did find a dazzling array of plant life all around. Pieries Peak track is a spectacular walk, near the top one side of the ridge is clothed in rainforest, the track takes you to the edge of the canopy where tops of flowering trees, vines and mistletoe can be spotted. One of the more spectacular and most highly scented specimen is the native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum), in the Pittosporaceae family – not related to the true frangipani.


At the main picnic area numerous dwarf herbs could be seen emerging from the peaty soil, including native violets and lobelias. From a herbalists perspective there was quite a bit of centaury (Centaurium erythraea ) growing in the grassy areas. It wasn’t quite in flower, however this is still a good time to harvest the plant and make medicine. Back in the Southern Cross Farm, North Rothbury, the plants are in full flower, however this is a slightly different species, C. tenuifolium – the difference will be explained in the following herbal profile.

Common centaury, lesser centaury.  Centaurium erythraea Rafn.


Centaury is an annual herb, growing to a height of 50cm, starting off as a basal rosette. Thin stems then appear bearing simple opposite leaves with a shiny surface, displaying pink flowers arranged in terminal flat-topped compound cymes. The similar species C. tenuifolium is more common at lower altitude in New South Wales. This species loses the basal rosette leaves at the flowering stage, these basal leaves are retained on C. erythraea. (Harden, 1992)


Centaury is a naturalized weed in Australia, commonly seen in fields and pastures during the summer months.


Secoiridoid glycosides: centapicrin, swertiamarin, sweroside, gentiopicroside, centauroside.

Xanthones, flavonoids, triterpenes (Bisset, 1989; Aberham et al, 2011)

Centrapicrin                                                                       Centapicrin (C25H28O12)


Therapeutic indications are based around centaury’s bitter principles (the secoiridoids), which stimulate appetite, increase secretion of gastric juices and are beneficial in chronic dyspepsia.

Centaury is closely related to gentian (Gentiana lutea and other species) however it is a milder bitter than gentian. In Europe it is included in over 40 proprietary medicines, mainly in digestive and cholagogue blends, and some urological remedies.

In vivo studies indicate it has benefits as an antidiabetic and hepatoprotective agent with potential for treatment of non-alcoholic liver steatosis (Hamza et al., 2015).

According to British medical herbalist William Smith in his famous “Wonders in Weeds”, an infusion of the flowering tops is beneficial for languid digestion, heartburn after food or lack of appetite. He further recommends it for liver, gallbladder and spleen disorders, where he combines it with barberry bark and ginger or cayenne. For a general tonic he combines it with raspberry leaves and cayenne pepper in a tea, sweetened with honey while for gastric ulcers he combines it with astringents, cranesbill, raspberry leaves, agrimony and avens (Smith, 1977). While some authorities such as the German Commission E monographs contraindicate bitters such as centaury for stomach ulcers, physiomedical-style herbalists such as Smith promote the use of bitters and astringents, even cayenne has its adherents for treatment of ulcers.

20171129_095424 Centaury, just harvested for tincture making.

Centaury is commonly taken as an infusion, and can be made into a simple tincture. A medicinal wine preparation recipe can be found here

There are few if any safety issues with this herb, however as with all bitters, low dose is best.


Aberham, A. et al. (2011). Analysis of iridoids, secoiridoids and xanthones in Centaurium erythraeaFrasera caroliniensis and Gentiana lutea using LC–MS and RP-HPLC. J. Pharm & Biomed Analysis 54(3), 517-525.

Bisset, NG. (ed.) (1989). Max Wilchtl Herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals. Medpharm, CRC Press.

Hamza, N. et al. (2015). Effect of Centaurium erythraea Rafn, Artemisia herba-alba Asso and Trigonella foenumgraecum L. on liver fat accumulation in C57BL/6J mice with high-fat diet-induced type 2 diabetes. J. Ethnopharmacology, 171, 4-11.

Harden, G. (ed.) (1992). Flora of New South Wales Vol. 3. Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.

Smith, W. (1977). Wonders in weeds. CW Daniel, UK.




Plant medicine from the Hunter Valley

There is increasing awareness that Australian plants provide a unique source of materials and ingredients for medicinal purposes, foods, skin care and cosmetics. Indeed I recently reviewed a book that demonstrates how far we have come towards developing successful industries around some of our native food species.

Australian Native Plants Cultivation and Uses in the Health and Food Industries book cover

At a suggested retail cost of over $200 I would be recommending it for libraries across Australia, so that we can all get access to this excellent resource.

One of the edible natives that has always fascinated me is the geebung (Persoonia spp.) Living at North Rothbury I have Australia’s most highly endangered plant species, Persoonia pauciflora growing nearby, and I am cultivating several specimens here on the Southern Cross Farm. Another species, P. linearis, grows prolifically on the farm, the only problem is never finding any ripe fruit, I think the birds always beat me to it!

Today I visited some people over Laguna  way who have Persoonia pinifolia growing on thier property, a species of limited distribution. The tall shrub with attractive bark and a weeping habit has purple, and apparently delicious fruit.

File:Persoonia pinifolia fruit (6087202920).jpg

Persoonia pinifolia, image from Wikimedia Commons

In 1997 the Australian National University investigated the fruit of a hybrid specimen between P. pinifolia and P. linearis, and isolated a previously unknown chemical (a phenolic glycoside ester) with potent antibacterial activity, and anecdotally the plant has been used to clear up skin infections attributed to Staph. aureus (golden staph). Given the issues with MRSA (resistant staph infections) this seems like a lead worth following up on, however to my knowledge there has been no follow up. Anyone who is interesting in testing out topical applications based on P. pinifolia should contact me at

Here endeth my first ever blog, hopefully there will be more to follow, especially if I find that anyone is reading it.

Ref. MacLeod, JK, Rasmussen, HB & Willis, AC. (1997). A new glycoside antimicrobial agent from Persoonia linearis x pinifolia.  Journal of Natural Products 60, 620-622

It’s springtime in Eastern Australia

While all seasons have their good points, for me the month of October is just about perfect in this part of the world. The proviso is that some spring rain has arrived to follow on from the normally dry winter. This year it has been particularly dry, and with really no rain of note since early June it was turning into the worst kind of spring – a brown one. Fortunately the latter part of October brought widespread rains, making for green pastures and blossoming trees, shrubs and vines. The silky oaks and jacarandas are  as vividly colourful as usual, and as I travel north from the Hunter various Melaleucas are displaying their creamy white blossoms in great profusion – the most notable being what is often referred to as “snow-in-summefilemelaleuca_linariifolia_-_leaning_pine_arboretum_-_dsc05487r”, Melaleuca linariifolia.