Botanical Brain Balms

Over the summer I was reading Botanical Brain Balms, a book by Nicolette Perry and Elaine Perry on ‘medicinal plants for memory, mood and mind’. It brings together a wealth of information on plants that can help us sleep or stay calm, ease our pain, improve our memory, and even provide us with mind-altering experiences. Some of the plants are exotic, in that they won’t grow in the UK climate, but which you can find on the shelves of the health food shop, but many are familiar garden plants. Each entry contains a description of the plant and its habitat, a round-up of history and folklore, and the results of modern scientific research proving its effectiveness. You will also find the key ingredients (chemicals) that provide the effect, how to use the plant and any relevant safety notes. There are even some recipes, including a sage, pine and mint cleaning spray to improve memory and concentration, a happy face cream, and teas, biscuits and cocktails.

At the back of the book there’s a glossary explaining the scientific/medical terms, a section on how to find further information, the all-important scientific references and a proper index.

Nicolette Perry has a PhD in pharmacognosy [I looked it up – it’s the study of medicinal drugs obtained from plants or other natural sources] and has spent considerable time researching plants that benefit the brain. Elaine Perry is an Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience, and again has spent a long time researching and working with medicinal plants for the brain. Both authors are connected to Dilston Physic Garden, which began as a place to research and grow plants related to memory loss and dementia. Dilston Physic Garden has expanded over time, and now contains a wealth of plants, and welcomes students of all ages who want to learn about medicines from plants, or members of the public who simply want to visit the unique tranquil space that Dilston has become.

Dilston is Northumberland, not too far from Newcastle upon Tyne, and a long way from my garden. However, Ryan and I took a trip to Alnwick in September, and we called in at Dilston on the way home. (The garden isn’t open to the public every day; check the website for the current opening times before you set off to visit.)

The garden is up a little track, and you walk up from the car park. When you turn in at the gate you’re presented with your first view of the garden, which gives you an idea of what it’s going to be like:


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Dilston describes itself as a modern physic garden, and it’s certainly not laid out in a traditional way! Instead it is a wonderful, whimsical space in which you can wander. Visitors arrive at a little cabin which serves as shop, ticket office and information centre – and there’s a handbell to ring to summon a member of staff, who will be working in the garden nearby. Once you’ve bought your ticket you can choose a themed walk through the garden (Calming is the most popular!) which guides you to some of the most suitable plants, and offers information on their use.


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Each plant has an informative sign, and many are also home to quirky visual cues.


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The garden is also full of art.


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And there are obvious Eastern/Buddhist vibes:


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Dilston isn’t manicured, and its quirky and somewhat chaotic nature won’t appeal to everyone. However, I loved it, and although we didn’t have much time to linger, I could see that it was a very calming and much-loved space, as well as providing a wealth of useful and interesting information. The shop sells lots of lovely herbal products (including botanical hot chocolate mix) and intriguing potions, as well as some local crafts. Since I already had a copy of Botanical Brain Balms, I bought a pair of hand painted mandala stones:


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I wish we lived closer, so that I could explore the garden some more, but at least I have the book and can make myself some memory-boosting blueberry muffins to help me remember!