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!


Anonymous said...

Cow parsley is Heracleum whatever - a digestive aromatic, more or less.

Queen Anne's lace is wild carrot, Daucus carota, the seeds of which are also used as a digestive aromatic, but in addition Robin Rose (and jim) use the seeds and flowerheads as a herbal contraceptive (etc.).

Not the same plant at all...

Sarah Head said...

Thanks Henriette - that will teach me to check the latin names against the folk names!

fiona said...

really interesting post .. I'm so glad to have found your blog!

thanks for visiting Earth and Tree and for the invitation, I went along and signed up for the webring and am looking forward to being part of a UK herb community :-)