Friday 23 May 2008


There is something very special about harvesting your own herbs. For me it is also associated with moments of panic, timing, weather considerations and a general sense of extreme urgency, all of which fade away while I’m actually with the plant.

I know I should pick leaves and flowers before midday when everything is dry. I know this is the best time yielding the least stressed and most concentrated plant matter. I also know that if I waited until conditions were always ideal, I’d only harvest a very small amount and I’d be continually frustrated.

I do have some days when I’m free to do what I want before midday when it’s sunny and dry – maybe once or twice a month if I’m lucky. Otherwise it’s more the case of braving the wind and possibly rain to pick wet leaves and flowers in the hope of drying them sufficiently before I make them into something else. Or I pick in the evening when everything is calm and dry in the few free moments between returning from work and carrying on with another task.

Yesterday was one of those days. The sun was trying to shine, but not quite managing it, but it was warm enough in the garden to walk in sandals without a cardigan. The herbs were dry, so I was able to fill my basket with lots of lemon balm, a large handful of beautifully flowering sweet woodruff and around five stems of white nettle before Chris called me in to teach my first piano pupil.

I was amazed how strongly the dead nettle smelled like ordinary nettle. If my nose were my only guiding principle I’d have worn gloves to harvest them, but the large white flowers gave them away. I’ve never used white nettle because it’s been decades since I had my one and only UTI and I’m hoping I won’t have another, but it seemed prudent to have it to hand, dried for a future tea “just in case”. When plants put on such a display for me, it usually means I’m to take notice of them, so I have.

I was in Coventry on Wednesday night giving an Introduction to Herbs talk to a local group in a pub while the rest of the world watched a football match in Russia very loudly. As we were finishing, someone asked where they should source their herbs and the person sitting next to them began an almost hopeless litany of how polluted everywhere is and all the sprays used by farmers. I almost felt cross with her for stressing how impossible it might be to find your own herbs in your locality until someone else pointed out the wide availability of plants on canal tow paths.

I suppose, as with all things, it’s knowing your locality and its history which is the key. Then you can decide whether or not it’s safe (and appropriate) to harvest for yourself.

I have to admit I was feeling a similar sense of frustration this morning while I was sitting waiting for a train. Across the platform were hundreds of ox-eye daises which I would dearly love to harvest and explore, but which are totally inaccessible. A foxglove was just coming into bloom, complementing the pinks and purples of the lupins further along the deserted platform and the patches of yellow, which look like ragwort but probably aren’t.

All through the journey, elder trees were showing the beginnings of white splodges amongst the green. Soon it will be time to pick and dry. Next weekend I shall be down in Exmouth with time on my hands, so I suspect I may be foraging with basket and paper bags or there are two apple and cherry twigs waiting to be sanded and oiled.

Whatever the weather, I know I shall have plenty to do!

Monday 19 May 2008

Surrounded by Scent

Scents have captured me on several occasions over the past few weeks. The first was the cow parsley hidden behind the fence beside the station bus stop. The aroma always makes me think of carefree lunchtimes in Priory Park in Warwick when two friends and I would use our cherished sixth form freedom to go and play on the slides in the adventure playground. The cow parsley grew everywhere, hiding the sides of the deep bowl where the adventure playground was set so we could enjoy ourselves without fear of being seen acting like children instead of decorous young ladies!

It was then I also learned about cow parsley’s other name – Queen Anne’s Lace, a term I’d not heard beforehand. Today the name is used by American Herbwives for wild carrot (daucus carota), with Jim Macdonald and Robin Rose Bennett reporting interesting uses for the seeds as a uterine tonic and contraceptive. Cow parsley is Anthriscus sylvestris and looks like a more delicate version of the wild parsnip (heracleum lanatum) which grows in great profusion in my Cotswold herb beds.

Cow parsley also taught me about knowing my seasons. When I was fifteen, I had a vivid dream about visiting a chapel and finding a wounded Civil War soldier. The dream became my first attempt at a short story. I wrote about the heroine walking down a road smelling cow parsley in the heat of August. When I showed it to a family friend who was also a writer, he gently pointed out that cow parsley didn’t bloom in August and I must take care to be accurate in my descriptions if I wanted to convince my readers about a time and location. It was a lesson I never forgot. (One version of the story can be found on

Another scent which has captured me has been honeysuckle. As I sit down on the platform bench first thing in the morning, I am suddenly arrested by a powerful perfume so beautiful it takes my breath away. The honeysuckle grows around the corner, but its influence carries a long way. It makes me want to try the recipes I have found in Julie Brueton-Seal’s new book, “Hedgerow Medicines” which tells how to produce a virus-beating honey with honeysuckle blossom. Debs is already infusing a jarful and has enthused about the glorious smell and flavour. ( I wish I could make some as well, but the honeysuckle which used to hang over my garden wall has now disappeared since Chris and our next door neighbour installed a new boundary fence two weeks ago.

Many people are drawn to herbs by their scent and somehow feel cheated if a plant has no aroma. Sometimes the scent is subtle, such a dandelion flowers and ground ivy, but sometimes the lack of scent is a mask for the bitterness of the plant’s taste. With both burdock and motherwort, you are lulled into a sense of false security by the absence of scent until you bite into the leaves and wish you hadn’t!

Much has been written about the need for bitters in modern diets. We expect everything to be sweet and bland, or spicy and fiery, yet what our digestive juices crave is bitterness to stimulate production. Maybe things will change if we educate enough palates!

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Digging the scullcap bed

Digging should be easy. You push in the fork, pick it up, shake it, remove all the weeds and move on to the next patch. It wasn’t like that in the skullcap bed. I can’t remember how many plants I ordered from Pyntzfield Herb Nursery back in 2004 – probably three. I can’t even recall where they were originally planted. All I can remember is that there used to be a line of Echinacea augustifolia all the way down the short end of the bed which have now completely disappeared.

For the past two spring digging sessions, my father has efficiently dug a three foot width of the herb patch, removing all nettles, dandelions, wild parsnips, red campion and other unwanted visitors from the soil and the skullcap have returned more vigorously each summer along with a display of self-seeded calendula. This year, the digging was left to me.

I didn’t dare let Chris loose on this patch. He is also an efficient digger, just as long as you don’t expect him to leave any plants actually growing. (I am doing him a disservice; he now recognises goats rue and motherwort as long as they are large enough!)

So, it was down to me. Every plant I picked up to discard seemed to have a familiar white tendril entwined within the ball of roots and soil which had to be carefully pried loose and replanted. It took nearly two hours to clear from the bottom of the bed by the peony to the top of the bed where the thymes are growing.

It was worth it. The entire bed is now relatively clear of all unwanted plants. The black cohosh is comfortably nestled beneath the remaining angelica plant, the calendula seedlings are sprouting and the ladies mantle is flowering. The dyers woodruff is spreading happily and the bergamot looks as if it is feeling quite at home.

My only worry is the absence of any signs of the Joe Pye weed and the boneset. The former (also known as gravelwort) is not a herb I use, but the bees and butterflies love it. Boneset is a necessity, being the herb which reduces the bone wrenching aches of influenza. I’ve only had to use it once on Chris, but he said it worked. The plant was not happy last year being overshadowed by angelica and decided to wither. Maybe it has given up the struggle for sunlight, not knowing it would have a clear view of the sky this year, since all the angelica nearby have been removed to “another place”.

I shall have to search again next weekend for any signs of life.