Getting to know a plant is a continuing joy. It doesn’t happen quickly, but over a period of several years, circumstances enable you to meet them in many different guises.
Last year, nettle was the herb which really showed me a wealth of different perspectives. Nettle has always been the first fresh herb tea I make each year. When March arrives it is the only green growth with sufficient profusion to gather for tea. It tastes wonderful, freshly brewed and hot, to be sipped and savoured with your hands cupped around the mug to gather warmth into yourself.
Nettle soup is always a favourite and this year I experimented with adding it to sweet potatoes and cardamom pods which was a great hit with everyone.
1 large sweet potato (peeled and sliced)
One colander full of fresh nettle tops
1 onion (peeled and chopped)
2 leeks (washed and sliced)
3 carrots (scraped and sliced)
6 green cardamom seeds
1 inch of root ginger (peeled and chopped) (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sweat the onion and leeks in the butter in a large (5pint) saucepan until soft. Add the rest of the vegetables and cover with either cold or boiling water. Season. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. When the vegetables are soft, remove the cardamom seeds and liquidise. Serve with fresh, granary bread.
So far this year I have put up nettle tincture and nettle vinegar which are awaiting decanting. On Saturday night I picked a whole basket of nettles from the bottom of the garden and tonight I shall put them into a paper bag to sit in the hot cupboard in the kitchen until they are dry. I’m looking forward to the summer when I shall try tincturing some fresh nettle seeds and drying others, to add to my porridge and yoghurt when I feel especially run down.
In the autumn I shall dig more nettle roots to make tincture for Chris.
Dandelion is another plant which has thrust itself into my notice over the past few months. I have always eaten the leaves in salads and sandwiches during the spring and summer, but I’ve not prepared a great deal of dried root or fresh leaf tincture.
In January, I braved the biting winds to dig plump roots to make tincture. It had a definite, sweet aftertaste. Easter saw me picking young, fresh leaves for drying in the bitter winds and snow. I’m now using these in my daily work tea alongside other, nourishing and soothing herbs. I shall need to pick more to both dry and tincture, to add to the jar which is already macerating in the larder.
Eating dandelion flowers has been another first for me this year. I’ve also made a beautiful, yellow mixed flower and leaf oil and salve and a subtle flower, sweet Cecily and cardomon syrup which is great on my morning porridge. I want to repeat both oil and syrup using just dandelion flowers which will mean a significant picking foray in the field this weekend.
Dandelion Flower Salve
4oz fresh dandelion flowers
Enough sunflower oil to cover 2oz of flowers (around 8 fluid ounces)
Either a double saucepan or a stainless steel pot with a lid small enough to place inside another saucepan.
1.25oz beeswax (sufficient to thicken 8 fl ozs of infused herbal oil)
Place half of the flowers in the inner pan and cover with sunflower oil. Replace the lid firmly and place inside the other saucepan which is about half filled with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for two hours. Do not let the pan boil dry! Remove the inner pan and strain off the oil through a sieve, squeezing the flowers with a wooden spoon to remove as much oil as possible. Place the remainder of the dandelion flowers in the inner pan and pour over the oil from the first infusion. Replace the lid firmly and heat the oil in the outer pan for a further two hours. Strain the oil into a clean glass jar and cap with a screw top lid. Label and date. Let the infused oil sit for about three days to make sure any water content separates out. Decant oil, discarding the oil/water mixture at the bottom of the jar. If water drops are left in the infused oil it will go off more quickly.
To make the oil into a salve, pour 8 oz oil into the inner pan of the double saucepan. and heat. Grate the beeswax into the hot infused oil and stir with a wooden spoon until it melts. Test the thickness of the salve by dropping a few drops into a small cup of cold water then rubbing it between your thumb and fingers. If it is not thick enough, add more wax. When it reaches a suitable consistency, pour into small jars and seal. The salve will thicken and change colour on cooling. Use dandelion flower salve to nourish breast tissue.
The third herb which has been attracting my attention this year has been bramble. I’ve known for some time that bramble leaves could help stomach upsets, but apart from the odd tea with leaves or blackberries, I’ve never paid the plant much heed. Bramble briars have been something to attack and remove from my gardens before they take over any available space. I leave any briars which flower in the hope I’ll benefit from the resulting blackberries in the autumn.
It was Joyce Wardwell’s book, “The Herbal Home Remedy Book: Simple Recipes for Tinctures, Teas, Salves, Wines and Syrups” which gave me confidence to get to know bramble at a deeper level. She has a recipe for bramble root vinegar, which is apparently a well-known American home recipe for diarrhoea. Someone else on Henriette’s herblist recently posted that she tried the vinegar for her IBS flare up and found immediate relief from the pain.
It seemed strange making a root tincture at the Spring Equinox, when it is an activity I usually keep for the Autumn Equinox. Studying roots always seems to me to provide an opportunity for considering wholeness and balance because you are considering the entire plant, not just the aerial parts, which is often the case during the rest of the year.
It was such a privilege handling the spring roots of bramble. You could see the old, hard wood of the previous year and the new, red-tinged shoots of new growth. It gave me a totally new perspective on Spring and on this plant.
The original jar of vinegar was ready to decant on Sunday. I’d added the shell of a hard boiled egg to increase the mineral content. It completely disappeared and I forgot I’d added it to the roots until I read the label! The vinegar is very dark and earthy. I strained it carefully because there was still soil on the roots despite all my scrubbing! It tasted rich with a sweet afternote which was not unpleasant. Normally, tasting neat herbal vinegar makes your mouth pucker, but this one didn’t, which surprised me, especially as I was expecting a degree of astringency!
There were more stray brambles in the garden, so I decided to dig them up and make another vinegar using both the new leaves and the roots. Again, it was an amazing experience sitting on the warm patio in the sunshine stroking the velvet softness of the new leaves and combing my fingers through the root hairs before I scrubbed them.
Dig up at least six bramble roots. Cut the new leaves from any briars before discarding. Remove excess soil from roots then scrub in cold water until all soil is removed. Rinse roots in fresh water and chop into small, 1 inch pieces with secuteurs. Place bramble leaves in a large glass jar (2lbs) and snip with long scissors. Add the root pieces and cover with cider vinegar. Poke well with a chopstick to remove air bubbles and fill the jar again so no part of the root or leaf is exposed to the air. Label and date. Place in a warm, dark place for three weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain off all the roots and leaves, squeezing leaves to remove excess vinegar. Strain the vinegar again through a fine sieve or kitchen paper to remove any soil. Pour into clean bottle with screw top lid. Label and date. Use in salad dressings or with honey and boiling water to make a soothing drink.
Someone on the Herbwifery Forum recently said they believed brambles to be vicious and unforgiving. I know that’s true, but on Sunday I was able to experience a more gentle side to the plant which David Attenborough highlighted in his “Secret life of plants” as the most efficient and aggressive coloniser of any free space.