There are times I envy those who dedicate their entire lives to herbs; who do not face the frustration of other commitments which eat up time and opportunity to respond as seasonal harvests approach.
My first panic attack occurs when pink-tinged hawthorn blossoms appear in hedges. Will there be time to seek out flowers and leaves to make tinctures or flavoured brandy or dry for teas? Things have been easier since we allowed part of our hedge to grow into unruly trees in our back garden. Each May sees them covered with pure white flowers and a small branch makes enough tincture to keep me in medicine for over twelve months.
It only takes half an hour to sit in sunshine and strip everything from the wood into two large glass jars to be covered in vodka and left to mature on the bottom shelf of the larder. This May I wandered into the garden one Sunday morning, still dressed in nightclothes to commune with my hawthorn before getting dressed and leaving to deliver training in Newcastle. Unfortunately we were too early for rose petals below the Angel of the North and no spare time to explore suitable hedgerows for anything else.
At the beginning of June we travelled to Exmouth for the annual kite flying festival. All the way down the M5, I caught tantalising glimpses of white elderflowers, waving ox-eye daisies and pink dog roses, but you can’t stop on a motorway and there are never any places to park a caravan along a quieter road, so I have learned not to remark on any abundance during a journey.
It’s the same if I pass a farm shop, craft market or pottery while we're on holiday. If I mention them to the driver, he will affect that seasonal disorder, “holiday deafness” which means he won’t affect to have heard me until we are at least two miles away from the facility when he will say, “Oh, did you want me to stop?” Of course if there is anything signposted for steam trains, kites, golf or chocolate factories, he will immediately stop the car, turn around and go back! (Before you ask, I’m not really interested in chocolate!)
At least in Exmouth, I knew I could gather some wild fennel and harvested yarrow and burdock leaves to tincture as well. There were no signs of elder trees on the estuary and I’d forgotten the bush overlooking the car park until we drove away, but I wouldn’t really have wanted to gather there.
Last Thursday saw me on a journey from London to Taunton gazing out of a train window at all the beautiful elder trees and dog rose bushes. I even noticed the deeper pink of briar rose bushes. At one point a huge buzzard rose up over a field with a freshly plucked rabbit in its talons! A wonderful reminder of the wild, secret life which continues as we pass by.
My plan was to scour our caravan site near Dunster for elderflowers and rose petals the following day while we prepared for my sister in law’s medieval wedding in the Tenants Hall at Dunster Castle on Saturday. I’d forgotten that most large caravan sites are heavily manicured - not an unruly hedge in sight and no sign of either an elder tree or a rose bush – very frustrating!
It didn’t help that Chris could only think about football and the wedding, so I was left to wander around gathering ivy from oak trees and willow fronds from beside the stream to make myself a circlet to go with my medieval costume for the evening banquet.
Now I will be shut up in my office for a week with piano pupils to teach after work and no time to explore the highways and byways until next weekend. Waiting for the train this morning, the elder tree in the hedge looked decidedly green after all the recent rain, so I can only hope there will be some blossoms left to harvest at the farm next weekend!