“What’s been new for you this year?” Maddie asked during the August workshop. This post is a more considered response to the question than I was able to make at the time.
My first new loves must be mint honey and creating new elixirs. Mint is one of the two herbs which graced my childhood. On alternate Sundays we would have roast lamb. In summer this would be served with mint sauce, in winter with onion sauce.
Most people rave about mint tea when they first start trying herbal drinks. It is not my first choice, unless it is chocolate mint freshly picked from the Sanctuary. To me, mint tea belongs to the aftermath of a stomach bug when I can’t tolerate anything else.
I’ve grown several different varieties of mint for years – peppermint, applemint, spearmint, Swiss mint, pineapple mint, eau de cologne mint, lemon mint, lime mint, red mint, black mint and chocolate mint. The first three do battle for supremacy along the left hand border of my garden while others grow mournfully in tubs on the patio. The chocolate mint runs riot in the main Sanctuary bed, but I don’t try to cull it as everyone who goes there falls in love with it.
I love the smell of mint freshly crushed, but until this year I’ve never really engaged with the plant itself. Two months ago, Kiva Rose gave the recipe for her mint honey with lemon zest and juice. Lemon and honey is another comforting memory from childhood. A special drink my mother would make when we were ill with colds. The combination of lemon and mint with honey appears to have done something quite amazing to my taste buds. It is not often I sit and drool over something, but mint honey does it for me!
I was reading Carol Rogers' chapter on menopause recently, whilst preparing to give a talk to the Mercian Herb Group and she listed several foods which are especially nourishing for women during this time. Honey was one of them. Avocados were another. I have been relishing avocados for a year or so. Honey has been an important part of my life for the past three years, when I first became perimenopausal. It is easy to see how mint, which is a cooling herb, lemon and honey all combine to provide something richly nourishing for my particular time of life.
Needless to say, when I found applemint growing wild on the banks of the Catherine de Barnes canal last weekend, I gathered as much as I could and spent the next day putting up a further 2lb jar of lemon mint honey to add to the jar already infusing. It’s not really a flavour to spread on your toast, but it will be fantastic in drinks.
Chris loves honey and he was grumbling the other evening that all the jars I buy seem to disappear leaving him nothing to have for breakfast. I showed him all the herbal honeys sitting on the kitchen window sill and asked why he hadn’t been tempted to try them for himself.
“I daren’t” he replied. “I don’t know what is to eat, what is medicine and what is to be avoided while you go and lie down in another room.”
His reply had me in stitches for several minutes. When the children were small, there was a memorable occasion at Greenbelt when the mere offer of mint tea had two of them jumping up from their sickbed and declaring their complete recovery. It was good to be reminded.
I also loved the reference to Terry Pratchett’s dwarf bread which is carried on expeditions and is only eaten once everything else including clothes and soles of boots has been consumed. (Guess which books I was reading on holiday!)
Anyway, to return to the subject of honey, those currently infusing are:-
Blossom and pineapple mint and sage leaves, sage, wild bergamot, rosehip, mint and lemon, angelica root and St John’s wort honey. The latter was begun because Darcey said she wanted to make some to see if it would turn red like all other SJW concoctions. She had no access to fresh SJW flowers, so I decided to carry out the experiment myself.
The half jar of honey and yellow blossoms sat on the window sill next to the infusing SJW oil for weeks and nothing appeared to happen until last week when we had several days of hot sun. Finally the honey started to change colour. It won’t be the deep crimson of the oil, but it will be a definite SJW derivative.
I have already written about my new elixirs. I decanted them all last weekend, ending up in a sticky, sweet surfeit after trying them. Even Chris agreed they tasted far too good to be medicine!
The other completely new things in my herbal life have been plants – lemon geranium and lemon eucalyptus, pleurisy root, ashwaghanda and ox-eye daisy. Ashwaghanda is proving a total delight even though I have not yet tasted her. I was going to harvest the roots of both my plants this year, but after a member of the Herbwifery Forum advised that the roots were stronger, the older the plant, I decided to leave them to see if they will over-winter on the patio and return to me next year. It has been a real joy watching the flowers appear and produce beautiful bright green berries which then turn scarlet as the leaves become brown.
The ox-eye daisy has a tale all of its own. Several years ago, Henriette enthused about ox-eye daisy delivering a tasty and nourishing tea. It caught my fancy, but finding seeds proved a real problem. They only seemed to be available in wild flower meadow mixes, not on their own. My father came to the rescue, using his considerable charm on a local seed merchant who let him have an ounce of seed for nothing. I dug a suitable sized patch of ground in the main herb bed, planted the seeds and waited.
It was a good job I didn’t hold my breath, because nothing grew I convinced myself the plot had become overgrown and overshadowed with other herbs, thereby killing the seeds. I was really disappointed.
This spring I noticed a plant with strange leaves was growing in the middle of the herb bed. I presumed it was another wild flower like white or red campion but decided to let it flower before I pulled it up just to be sure. Imagine my delight when the newcomers turned out to be ox-eye daises! I checked the leaves against the moon daises in my garden and they were exactly the same shape, but larger. Obviously the seeds take several years to germinate, so I should not have been disappointed when they didn’t appear the first year they were planted.
Then I noticed their energetic properties – they help women come to terms with the menopause. It made me laugh and feel slightly humble. The plant had waited to enter my life until it was needed. I was very grateful and made a special batch of flower essence to share with others.
There have been several other new herbal products I have made this year: –
milk thistle leaf vinegar for its minerals,
dried mullein stalk tincture for hormonal incontinence,
hawthorn flower brandy to add to Christmas custards,
crampbark tincture for nocturnal leg cramps,
elecampagne flower essence for deep grief
hyssop, horehound, liquorice and marshmallow leaf cough syrup (a classic)
fennel tincture and liqueur
chive flower vinegar
nettle seed salt
The crampbark tincture was made from slivers of red bark collected from twigs when the bush was flowering – not the usual time to collect bark from deciduous trees or bushes! Janey prompted me to create the tincture. She mentioned she was having terrible trouble sleeping because of nocturnal leg cramps, so I suggested she tried taking some milk of magnesia to increase her intake of magnesium and gave her some twigs to start de-barking and cover with alcohol.
When she next returned to the Sanctuary, I asked her whether her cramps had improved. She said she had started taking the milk of magnesia immediately and the first night she had taken a spoonful of the crampbark tincture her cramps had disappeared and never returned!
Another tincture I am planning to make this weekend is Solomon seal root. The plants have become well established over the past ten years. The good reports I have heard about using the tincture to support back health from Jim MacDonald and Matthew Wood have inspired me to try making some for myself. It is not a tincture which is widely available commercially, so it will be exciting to see how it works.
One of the wonderful things about herbs is there is so much to learn and experience. It doesn’t matter how many you grow or what you make, each year is a new beginning and a real opportunity for growth.