Monday 14 July 2008

Harvesting, Flowers and Weather

This time last year I remember driving along a darkened Fosse Way on the Friday night before my July herb workshop during torrential rain wondering if I would make it through deep pools of water threatening to flood the entire road. I remember feelings of frustration and despair because my father was unable to mow down to the Sanctuary. The constant rain made it impossible to cut the fields for hay, so grass was sodden and almost impenetrable.

It was with a sense of déjà vu I travelled along the same road on the same evening of the year with rain again beating against the windscreen in torrents. This time it was Chris who was prevented by weather from doing any tidying up in the Sanctuary. I anticipated finding a total wilderness as I traipsed down the just discernable path with water coating my boots and overtrousers. Despite the damp and cold, my journey was accompanied by dancing butterflies seeking nectar from waterlogged red clover and bright yellow ladies bedstraw blooms beside the path.

As I opened the Sanctuary gate, I was met by a glorious surprise. A huge mass of lilac and white goats rue flowers were waiting for me by the summerhouse veranda, towering over the stately white plumes of the comfrey. Bumblebees were diving inside the flowers at their usual languid pace as if the previous downpour had never happened.

Inside the summerhouse it was still comfortably warm. I was able to gather up all the dried herbs into paper bags – elderflower, red clover, apothecary’s rose petals and lemon balm. I didn’t have time to take the leaves off the lemon balm just then. Gillian kindly completed the task for me during the workshop the following day.

Although the light was poor, I tried to take photos of all the beautiful flowers – motherwort’s pink, scullcap’s blue, calendula’s orange, valerian and heliotrope’s pink-tinged white, the huge canopy of yellow from dyer’s greenweed, even the deep crimson of the apothecary’s rose. Unfortunately, the flash washed out much of the colours, making the photos unusable.

It was still a wonderful experience to be down in the heart of the Sanctuary as the rain fell gently. I took shelter under the trees, searching around the edge of the pond for the small spotted orchid. I only found two blooms but know there must be more hiding. There was little sign of the meadowsweet either. I could see the leaves and the deep red stems, but there was no sign of flowers. Maybe they are late blooming because of the shade from the overhanging branches or maybe something has eaten the flower stalks!

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny – such a contrast from the previous day! The workshop was great fun. I even managed to pick a basketful of young nettles before they were trampled on. I was hoping to repeat the harvest on Sunday morning since the new steps were totally covered by young nettles, but I was too tired after harvesting everything else. It’s still good to know I have some young nettles drying for the winter.

On Sunday morning, I knew I had about two and a half hours to harvest everything I needed. I cut the flowering stems of the broadleaved thyme growing in the bungalow garden before I left to go down to the Sanctuary. Rock rose grows intertwined with the thyme, so I picked the yellow flowers as well, leaving them to dry on newspaper after the sun had dried the initial dampness.

I began my harvest by taking photographs to show what the plants looked like in all their glory. This time it was the brightness of full sunlight which made exposure difficult.

Skullcap was the first abundant plant I came across. I divided the harvest in half, leaving some to dry and the rest to take home and tincture. I wanted to make lots of motherwort vinegar this year since I’ve used up the one bottle I made last year, so I gathered great armfuls of the tall stems, taking care not to scratch my bare arms on the stiff flower prickles.

It was wonderful to see the white horehound in flower and know I would have plenty to make a new cough syrup this autumn. The hyssop wasn’t quite in flower, so I weeded between the plants to give them some access to sunlight.

The heartsease was beautiful, but I left them to bring joy to the garden. Betony flowers were few and had to be searched for amidst the jungle of solomon’s seal, joe pye weed and lemon balm. Luckily I have bottles of tincture left from the Cornish betony I gathered last year and we’ll be returning there next year so I can gather again.

The first few calendula flowers were out, but most were very rain damaged. The mint was tall and impressive. The reaction to mint tea made with this chocolate mint has been so favourable, I gathered a huge armful to dry. Applemint is really nice dried as well as fresh, so I’m hoping the chocolate mint will be the same.

Other stately plants were the agrimony with their long, yellow, flower stalks, while the blue star flowers of the borage made me feel happy just to look at it. The deep pink cups of the Himalayan balsam were gorgeous, but any plants growing within the herb borders were ruthlessly culled.

I keep meaning to work more closely with agrimony. Maybe this is the year I will do so. I love the fresh taste and smell of both borage tincture and vinegar. Many people don’t use this plant any more because of the potential harm it might cause to the liver, but I still value it.

I also uncovered the ladies mantle, their long strings of yellow flowers trailing across the ground. I made some fresh tincture last year and haven’t used it, so decided not to gather at the moment. I did take three long stalks of fennel to make a syrup for heartburn along with meadowsweet.

The real stars of the herb garden were the huge red blooms of the bergamot blazing amongst the green immature tansy and lemon balm. Their colour is much more vibrant than last year, which was their first flowering, so I’m hopeful they will produce many more blooms throughout the summer. I tinctured the aerial parts last year, so this year I have left them to dry for teas.

The heat was intense while I was picking and weeding, not helped by the constant swarms of flies which objected to being disturbed from their nectar source! It was wonderful to see two copper butterflies hanging together from a New England Aster leaf in the top garden. I also managed to gather enough St John’s wort flowers to fill up the 1lb honey jar in my parent’s kitchen. They picked half a jar full two weeks ago before the rain set in and were impressed how quickly the oil went dark.

Before I left, we picked raspberries and blackcurrants from the garden and I gathered more plantain – both ribwort and greater – to make some more oil, along with a few stalks of yarrow.

On my way home I stopped to wildcraft some beautiful, searing white yarrow from the grass verge and a large bunch of meadowsweet. Two herbs from two different counties – Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, both of which provide my roots back into pre-history.

It is really difficult to know whether to wildcraft from road sides or not. I know the dangers of pollution, but neither road was constantly busy, both plants were newly grown and I didn’t have anywhere else to harvest at that moment and needed them both.

Back at home, I picked some more St John’s wort flowers to make up the beginnings of a new jar of oil (this will be the third) and some more raspberries- red and yellow, alpine strawberries and a few redcurrants.

I managed to make both the plantain double infused oil and the meadowsweet and fennel syrup as well as put up two jars of motherwort vinegar during the evening, but I did spend two hours watching the TV on the sofa as well. The trouble with harvesting is you forget how exhausting it can be! The rest of the harvest will have to wait until tomorrow night when I have no other commitments and can give them my undivided attention.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a beautiful and inspiring post. I love your deatailed, descriptive prose.. the Summerhouse sounds like a place in a fantasy book. Thanks for taking me on a journey with your words and vibrant pictures! (: Sasha

Sarah Head said...

Hi Sasha

Thanks for your comments! If you would like to see the summerhouse and it's environs, take a look at my Springfield Sanctuary site -