Friday, 27 June 2008

Watching mullein flower

When the meadow growing on the disused railway platform began to flourish two months ago, it was easy to spot the ox-eye daises, fox gloves and lupins as they grew and flowered. Even the purple waving flax was easily distinguishable from its narrow leaves. Three bundles of pale green leaves looked vaguely familiar.

‘Mullein,’ I thought to myself, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember any mullein plants from the previous summer and before that everything had been destroyed with weed killer, so I settled down for a curious wait as time went by. Over the past few weeks, telltale flower spikes appeared and yesterday I noticed the first yellow flowers appearing at the base of the spike. They are so beautiful.

Mullein grew for me last year at the farm. I managed to harvest several flower heads, drying them on newspaper in the warm summerhouse. The centres of the flower stalks are really hard when you come to remove the dried flowers and leaves. I began by picking them off separately, but it was clumsy and made my fingers sore, I ended up rubbing my hand over everything and collecting the debris in a large bowl. I was delighted to see what I’d gathered resembled a previously purchased package of dried mullein, so I thought I must be doing something right!

My mullein harvest produced 2 full two-pound jars. I used one of them to make a double infused oil during my first winter workshop, enabling my students to go home bearing an oil to help with ear aches. We have been so fortunate while the children were growing up. I only remember two of them having earache once and both were quickly resolved. The other jar is still sitting in the larder waiting for someone to develop a deep chest infection.

The past few weeks have been so busy, it is easy to think little herbal has happened, but that would be very wrong! I was able to spend a whole morning and entire evening wandering through hay fields and by hedgerows to gather elderflowers, dog rose petals and greater plantain. It was even dry enough to walk through the fields in my long skirts holding my basket like a herbwife of old!

Having said that, wildcrafting is not an easy pursuit when you have to wade through grass up to your shoulders, nettles and thistles grow everywhere and gale force winds tangle rose thorns in your hair! It is also very easy to lose balance when dips in the ground appear from nowhere and climbing gates when one is no longer a child is a real challenge. (Especially when you know you have to climb near the hinge and that side of the gate is covered with nettles or briars or something equally aggressive!)

The June workshop was great fun with lovely people attending who really enjoyed their time whether it was making herbal medicines or weeding! As well as the rosemary infused oil, which took at least four days to demulsify, i.e. separate into a dark green oil and water from being a paler green emulsion, I also brewed some elderflower oil in a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil.

The last time I made elderflower oil in sunflower oil two years ago, it was pungent but pale green, this oil was so dark green it was almost black but the smell is just wonderful. I was worried I had no beeswax left, but I managed to find two ounce sticks, so last Tuesday I was finally able to turn the oil into salve, which is pale khaki/olive green. I’ve been using it on my face for the past three days. Being an oil rather than a cream, it does look rather shiny when you put it on, but the dry patches of skin by my nose and forehead are better and my skin feels beautifully soft and moist.

The hardest part of making salve is grating the beeswax. It goes everywhere if you try to grate it straight into the oil, so I’ve started putting the grater on a chopping board and pressing hard, then adding the wax when it’s all grated. I still manage to slice a finger nail at some point in the proceedings!

It was so exciting finally making some infused rose petal honey, witchhhazel extract and vinegar. Seeing an air space at the top of the honey jar, I dutifully turned it over to ensure all the petals were covered, but this was not a good idea as I found a line of honey escaping from the jar on the window ledge down onto the draining board the next morning. Chris wasn’t happy with me using his special acacia honey out of the caravan for my rose extract, so losing it all to gravity would have been a disaster!

The rose petals were so pretty when I put them in the jars; I am hoping the colour spreads to the liquid. I’m not sure what the perfume will be like as dog rose petals have a very subtle scent which is hardly discernable unless you have a large amount of them. I did add some bought rose petals to the withchhazel to see if they would add perfume, but most of it had disappeared. I also added the petals of a rose originally given to me by the East Birmingham Pensioners Association many years ago when I gave a talk to them to the vinegar extraction and the colour started to travel immediately.

Finally I have a whole day at home to enjoy tomorrow before I take off again for three days training in the wilds of south Yorkshire. (Not entirely true, one could hardly call Chesterfield, Leeds and Sheffield wild!) If it stays dry, I shall be harvesting more St Johns wort flowers to add to the oil in the kitchen window, marjoram, mint and rosemary to dry for Kathryn and Corey and maybe I shall finish The Bear and the Ivy Lady! Who knows!

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