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!


fiona said...

Hello! Loved reading this post.

It is difficult deciding about collecting herbs locally .. I'm in a very urban environment (you don't get much more urban than Tottenham, lol!) and share your frustrations seeing plants along the railtracks that I can't get to, and lovely looking weeds on verges that I'm wary about due to urine and pollution.

But even in my locality we have little wildlife places .. there's one round the corner at Tottenham Hale, where I go to collect elderflowers, blackberries, comfrey and nettles. And we are close the Lea Valley canal, too, which makes a lovely nature walk.

Sarah Head said...

Thanks for your comments, Hedgewitch. I think you're right, there will always be places you can wildcraft no matter where you are.

Christopher Hedley and his wife, Non Shaw live in London and I remember him talking about harvesting comfrey from a canal cutting somewhere.

All we need to do is open our eyes wide and look!

Ananda said...

Sarah - thank you for your beautiful posts I enjoy them frequently, and am coming out of hiding just to tell you....
tag - you're it!
youcan of course make them all about plants if you like :)
Green Blessings