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The Biodynamic Botanic Garden at Emerson College

by Kirsten Hartvig(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 254 - May 2019


“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”

So said Cicero – Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman statesman and philosopher who lived from 106BC to 43BC and is considered one of Rome’s greatest orators.


He had a huge influence on writing style for over a thousand years, and it is known that he spent many happy hours in libraries; but how he knew about the joys of gardening, I have often wondered…

Perhaps he treated gardens like libraries? A place where you can go and get inspired and informed, where you can relax, find peace and reconnect. For it is certainly true that there are few greater pleasures than reading a book in the shade of a tree.

Cicero’s quote has followed me around, and it has been my dream to create a garden and a library – a garden to grow and conserve wild and medicinal plants together, and a library to house and preserve the knowledge about them – plus some extra flowers and prose.


the herb garden


Last year my dream began to germinate – I was given the job of creating a botanic garden and a complementary medicine library at Emerson College in East Sussex where I live.

The Emerson garden is a celebration of all life. It has been biodynamic for 60 years, so it already has huge biodiversity as well as huge old trees. The Emerson gardeners are teaching me how to follow the biodynamic practices. It works like magic! Some of it I understand. Some of it I definitely don’t.

This is where the library serves its function – by sitting down with a book and a cup of herb tea, I began to realize that biodynamic philosophy is what it says on the packet: “bio” from the Greek word for life (bios), the Latin word for living (vĩvos) and the Sanskrit jĩvas, is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “connected with life and living things”. While the word “dynamic” is defined as “a force that stimulates change or progress within a system or process.”

Looking up “biodynamics”, I found “the branch of biology that deals with the energy production and activities of organisms”.  I am no expert on the matter, but as a trained observer I have seen plenty of living proof of the invisible forces that guide and guard all life and know that you can work with these forces or ignore them as you please. Working with them is much more fun and rewarding than ignoring them…

In a profession that makes use of plant power to promote health and heal disease, old and new herbals describe these powers, filled as they are with herbalists’ observations of disease and healing processes over hundreds and thousands of years. Observations that have since been confirmed by modern science working out exactly which chemical constituent has what effect, and many modern drugs have been developed by extracting active constituents from plants. The potential problem with the scientific approach is that diseases inhabit people who consist of much more than the afflicted part, and the reason for the disease tends to be part of a long biodynamic process rather than a sudden event.

As Hippocrates said: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease,
than to know what sort of disease a person has.”

Dis-ease gets hold when, for whatever reason, we block the stream, get out of tune and out of touch with those unseen forces that rule all life. I mean the forces that keep the moon in its orbit and the sea in its place, the forces that inspire seeds to germinate and hearts to beat. The life forces that dictate structure and function and know exactly how far to grow in any direction to form a leaf. How do children know how far to grow an arm to form a hand? How do plants know how to make flowers and when to bloom?

I believe we can connect to this knowledge by connecting to the life that surrounds us. By tuning in to the life force that is shared by all living beings, we can enjoy life wherever we are and feel better as a consequence, whatever challenges we face. Plants are constant reminders of the joy of living – they grow wherever they get a chance, making a home wherever they are, and they understand the importance of sharing and giving as a way of getting what they need while celebrating being as they are created.


hawthorn in May
hawthorn in May


Take the hawthorn, for example: It is also known as may-tree because it usually flowers in May. It is part of the rose family of flowering plants. Two native hawthorn species are common in the UK: Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata. It is easy to check which is which when the berries are out - monogyna has only one seed inside while laevigata has several.

The thorny presence of the hawthorn makes it a natural, almost impenetrable, barrier and fence that provides shelter from the wind and protection from predators for birds and small animals, a safe place to build a nest or dig a burrow.

The flowers give nectar to bees and other insects who, in return, pollinate the flowers enabling them to turn into berries over the summer. The berries are important winter food for birds who swallow the seeds whole and dump them somewhere else, with a generous pile of fertiliser, providing space and opportunity for a new hawthorn to grow - in a new place, providing food and shelter to more birds and animals, and for people too! The young shoots, leaves and flower buds are nice to eat raw. They have a pleasant nutty flavour and can be a welcome snack, known traditionally as “bread and cheese”, or added to a salad. Tasty and full of health. The flowers also make a fine syrup and the berries make a good jelly (easier to make than jam because of the stones they contain).

The flowers, leaves and berries are all used in herbal medicine for their heart-restorative properties. They are also used by athletes as they provide extra durability and help increase blood flow through the coronary arteries and strengthen the heart muscle without raising blood pressure. They also have a blood pressure and cholesterol lowering effect.  For this reason, people taking digoxin should avoid taking hawthorn and it is also worth noting that overdosing can cause low blood pressure and arrhythmia.

Taken in small doses (max 3 cups of tea per day), hawthorn works slowly and safely. It has a gentle sedative effect that can help relieve the nervous tension, stress and insomnia that often accompanies heart problems.

To make a tea of hawthorn flowers and leaves, take 1-2 tsp of the fresh or dried flowers per cup of boiling water. Infuse for 5-10 minutes, and drink 3 cups per day.

To make a tea of hawthorn berries, take 1-2 tsp berries per cup of water in a small pot, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Drink 1-3 cups per day.

To harvest the flowering tops and keep them for later use, find a hedgerow not too near a road to avoid the pollution, and pick the flowers with their accompanying leaves, preferably on a dry day and while they are still in bud. They tend to keep on opening and lose their petals after they are picked. Dry them in a thin layer in the shade. A piece of wire netting, or a box with a slatted base, covered with a piece of thin cotton works well. Hang the box up in an airy place. The flowers only take a few days to be dry enough to place in a paper bag for further drying the cupboard before storing them in a jar (when they are completely dry) to avoid them going mouldy. I store most of my dried herbs in glass jars in my herb tea cupboard. They look really nice and are easy to identify.

We have plenty of hawthorn in the hedges in the Emerson garden. They are easily recognizable at this time of year with their thousands of white flowers and green leaves. They attract wildlife and love sunny edges, dappled shade and hedges. If you can face the thorns, hawthorn makes a good firewood and kindling: easy to burn and giving off lots of heat.


Garden May opening poster


The Biodynamic Botanic Garden at Emerson College is opening to the public for the first time on Saturday the 11th of May 2019, 1:30-5:30pm. The library is open to all Emerson and Heartwood Students, and to others on request. Herb walks, workshops and lectures on botany, herbal medicine, biodynamic gardening and anthroposophic medicine happen throughout the year. You can contact Kirsten at or on Mob: 07477 220707 to find out more.


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About Kirsten Hartvig

Kirsten Hartvig ND MNIMH DipPhyt is a Medical Herbalist and Registered Naturopath. She is Director of the Healing Garden and the Rachel Carson Centre at Emerson College UK in Sussex, comprising a complementary medicine library and a medicinal herb garden. You may contact Kirsten for private consultations, to join one of the monthly herb walks, sign up for workshops, or if you would like to visit the gardens:  The Healing Garden, Emerson College, Forest Row, East Sussex RH18 5JX; Tel: 07477 220707; If you want to support the Healing Garden, please visit Patreon: You can find out more about the Heartwood professional and foundation courses in Herbal Medicine on   Instagram @heartwoodbotanic  Watch Herb Hunters on YouTube;  Listen to the Herbal Medicine Show on UKHealthRadio. Watch Herb Hunters on YouTube. Kirsten may be contacted on Tel: 07477 220707;

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