Wednesday 23 December 2009

A sweet romance for Christmas

For those of you who enjoy a little romance with your snow and mulled wine, there's a short story over at Mercian Muse.

Happy Christmas!

Friday 18 December 2009

Yuletide Gift

As a Yuletide gift to everyone, I have posted three stories illustrating different aspects of the season on my Mercian Muse blog. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment either here or on the other blog.

Bright Yule blessings to you all!

Monday 30 November 2009

Finding hope and colour through the rain

Winter brings many challenges. It is not just reduced light and worsening weather, but may be personal tragedies or stress brought on by approaching holidays. It’s hard to know how to support everyone around you whilst trying to find time and support for yourself.

I tend to fall back on the simple things within my control
• food (which normally means more soup and proper, nourishing meals),
• laughter (usually silly TV programmes and a dose of Terry Pratchett)
• sleep/resting

There is also the discipline of keeping in the present moment –
• what is going well now?
• what needs to be considered now and what can be discarded until later?
• what are my responsibilities/things I can change/influence and what belongs to others?

The other activities I find really helpful are sending out distant healing to all parties affected by a situation and my herbs.

Distant healing is such a positive activity. It helps the sender because the breathing and attunement makes them relax, dispersing the knot of worry from the solar plexus. Sending energy to an individual for their highest good is such a positive thing to do, achievable even in the most frightening or seemingly hopeless situations. It is easiest to do when you can make a few minutes of quiet either during the day or last thing before you go to sleep, but I’ve done it whilst waiting for a train, during difficult meetings, during inquests and in court when extra support for difficult situations seemed called for.

Herbs can be such generous allies. The ones I have found most useful in keeping me calm and divorcing me from other people’s distress are skullcap tincture and yarrow flower remedy. They might not work for everyone, but skullcap seems to calm the nervous jitters of anxiety and yarrow strengthens personal boundaries whilst helping to connect you with the oneness of the universe (that may sound a contradiction, but it seems to work!).

My major problem is remembering to take my medicine soon enough. Days may pass before I have the energy to start treating myself rather than other people!

Bringing joy to the senses can also help during difficult times. It might be the beauty of a raindrop hanging from a berry or nestling in a fallen leaf. Yesterday it was the fiery red of blackcurrant and pineapple sage flowers sitting on my patio. The leaves of each plant have such uplifting scents when you stroke them and their flowers are so late in the year, they bring joy just by flowering when they do.

Hope is another helpful emotion. It can often be found in strange and unusual places. For me it was in the root system of a rose geranium cutting. Nearly two months ago I took a large numbers of cuttings from rose and lemon scented geraniums in the hope they would send out roots if I left them in water for long enough. I also took some pineapple sage cuttings and some heel cuttings from the blackcurrant sage plant. Both sage cuttings rooted within a couple of weeks, but there was no sign at all from the geranium cuttings until a few days ago when I noticed one set of translucent root tendrils. Yesterday I was able to place this new plant in its own pot of compost, ready to join the others which will be given away over the holiday period.

Christmas seems to be racing towards us. I seem to have been knitting for England since the summer and everyone will be receiving a little something practical whether they want them or not!

If you are interested in Christmas recipes, I wrote a long post here. Although we’re not hosting Christmas this year, I seem to have done more preparatory cooking than ever (3 sweet potato pies, 3 walnut tarts and 3 Christmas cakes) and I’m hoping to make my first gingerbread men and ginger biscuits to go with the peanut butter cookies I usually bake.

I’ve also put together two wall calendars from photos of herbs I’ve taken during the year. If you are interested in ordering one, please email me at for more details.

Monday 23 November 2009

Apprenticeship reminder

Just a quick reminder that there are only three weeks left to apply for the 2010 Simple Apprenticeships. I need to receive applicants' best hopes before 12 December 2009. For more details look at the previous posting.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Working with roots

It is not until you start working with roots that a sense of completion comes over you. Every root you dig or touch represents a life lost, a life offered. This plant will never grow again because you hold the means of its living in your hands.

It is a humbling experience which will, perhaps, enable you to wonder about the complexity of the living plant. How it anchors itself to the soil. How it lives for part of the year in darkness and solitude. How it knows when to grow forth into the light once again.

What is a root? In many plants the root is defined as the organ which grows beneath the soil, but some plants, such a mangrove trees, have roots growing up into the air or above water. These are called aerating roots, while roots which grow above the ground are known as aerial roots. The parts of a root are the xylem, the epidermis, the cortex, the root cap, the root hair, the phloem, and the cambium

The function of a root is to gather water from the soil and the minerals and nutrients it requires to flourish. These are drawn upwards from tiny root hairs to the rootlets or secondary roots into the main root system and from there into the plant stem where they are distributed via the xylem and phloem networks to where they are needed in the aerial parts – leaves, flowers, seeds etc.

Roots also anchor the body of the plant in the ground. A root system will often spread as wide as the plant canopy or beyond. They may also serve as the main reproductive part of the plant, sending up new shoots at every node. Herbs which have these extensive root systems are those like mint, nettle and bramble. They are adept at covering large masses of ground if left unchecked.

The roots of most vascular plant enter into symbiosis with certain fungi to form mycorrhizas, and a large range of other organisms including bacteria also closely associate with roots. Two plants which are grown specifically for this symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria are runner beans and red clover. The large root nodules produce materials which enrich the soil.

A seed’s first root is called a radicle. It responds to gravity, growing downwards. This has caused substantial problems in trying to get seeds to germinate in space where there is no gravity, but has been overcome by increasing the light above the seed and reducing the amount below. There have been no problems growing seedlings in space which have been germinated on Earth.

A true root system is comprised of a primary root with secondary or lateral roots. Many root systems are diffuse with no primary root. Examples of herbs with these root systems are valerian, mullein, dyers woodruff and goldenseal.

Some plants have roots which emerge from the stem rather than from the primary root. Ivy, clover, strawberry and willow have adventitious roots, where roots originate from the stem, branches, leaves, or old woody roots.

Aerating roots of the mangroves have large breathing pores on their surfaces above the water to enable the exchange of gases, which would not be possible below.

Ivy also has completely aerial roots which held to anchor or prop the plant around the object it growing against.

Dandelion has a single, large primary root known as a tap root. It also has contractile roots which pull it further into the ground. The tap root stores sugars during the winter which enables the plant to survive. This is why roots pulled in spring or summer are more bitter than those pulled in autumn or during the winter.

Dandelion roots are fascinating and help to show the many different species which may grow in one locality. The roots I normally harvest in January from the field next to my parent’s bungalow have a hollow centre. Seemingly large roots are often the smaller roots of several plants which have twisted together over the growing season to form spirals. Roots dug from my main herb bed have single, large, solid tap roots with a very different consistency.

Burdock and comfrey also have deep tap roots which are difficult to harvest, especially when grown in rocky soil. Burdock root is very clever and instead of growing straight down, tends to veer off in a completely new direction after three to four inches. Roots like this are sometimes best harvested with a strong “digging stick” rather than a gardening fork.

Roots can be modified to store nutrients or act as an asexual means of reproduction. Potatoes are examples of stem tubers, while sweet potatoes are examples of root tubers or rhizomes.

Other examples of herbal root rhizomes are solomons seal, elecampane and angelica. All three have a very pungent scent ranging from delicate to profound, which is echoed when they are chewed. Solomons seal has a definite growing tip which can be broken off and left to remain in the soil if you wish to harvest the roots as ethically as possible. It is an American woodland plant and the tubers were eaten by the indigenous people and early settlers as a trail food

I have been growing Solomons seal for nearly ten years now. It was one of the first plants I bought to grow in my herb garden after hearing the wonderful success both Matthew Wood and Jim Macdonald were having with spinal issues using the root extract.

This autumn I took the plunge and harvested eight roots, leaving a strong patch of around twenty further plants to grow for the coming season. I had hoped to leave the growing parts in the ground, but the lateral roots were so firmly wrapped around each other, it was impossible to separate the plants. It took a good half hour of concentrated hosing with a water pipe to remove all the soil, stones and debris (including an ancient, twisted nail!) to reveal the pristine white tubers.

There were so many secondary roots, I cut these away from the tubers and made a double infused oil with them. It is rich and delicately scented. I have combined it with fresh horsechestnut oil into a salve for restoring vein strength and soothing a weak and inflamed shoulder.

Matthew Wood cautions against making a solomons seal root tincture with vodka. He believes that unless you use a high concentration alcohol, there will be a large amount of sweet substance precipitated into the tincture. The only high percentage alcohol we have in the house is a very special, single malt. There was no way Chris was going to donate it to my herbal medicines, so I made a vodka tincture as normal. Luckily, when I decanted it over a month later, there was no precipitate.

I began to take the tincture mixed with yarrow and plantain and I’m sure it has helped my weak shoulder. The pain is virtually gone, even when I lie on it. Any residual pain I’ve been feeling I’m putting down to falling outside Snow Hill station yesterday morning – I really should learn to negotiate the cracks in the paving stones better!

Everyone seems to find a root they enjoy chewing. Jim Macdonald loves calamus root. (I have planted several corms, but never got a plant to grow!). Henriette Kress loves elecampane root. I tried my first elecampane root this year, deciding to sacrifice one of my older plants as it died back at the beginning of October. The root was very scented to my palate, not as bad as angelica, but not something I would choose to spend a large amount of time with.

I sliced half the root for drying and tinctured the other half. Interestingly, the tincture did produce a white precipitate, but I will have to wait for someone to produce a phlem-filled cough before I can try it!

Angelica plants like me. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that, but they do grow prolifically in both my gardens. The first time I tried chewing the root, which was a second year plant in the last throes of life. It was disgusting, like chewing a bottle of scent! The second time I tried it, the plant was only a year old and although the scent taste was still strong, it wasn’t quite so unpalatable.

Angelica root is recommended for excruciating fibroid pains and as a nourishing tonic for menopausal women. Gail Faith Edwards suggested the best way to take angelica root is to infuse it in honey. Maddie washed the roots and poured the honey over them during the September workshop and it has been sitting on my windowsill in the sunshine since then. Recently I decanted it and tasted the honey. It’s an interesting flavour and one which should enhance a herbal tea, so I look forward to using it.

I love roots. Their strength and concentrated essence are so different from the aerial parts. They offer us a wonderful gift to use.

Friday 6 November 2009

Sloes and a slice of history!

The Indian summer of September and October has finally disappeared. Clocks going back to Greenwich Mean Time seemed to herald a return of normal temperatures and lots of rain. Before this happened, I managed to achieve three field walks, one in the Cotswolds and two in the town.

During our last visit to the farm for the woodworking workshop on October 24th, I was anxious to pick more sloes and rosehips to try making a hedgerow tonic. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday morning. After pulling all the bark off my crampbark prunings, I made my way outside to a neighbouring field armed with a wicker basket and my late great-uncle’s walking stick.

As I opened the small hunting gate into the field, twenty partridges and a cock pheasant who were sheltering against the wall next to our barn flew up into the bright blue sky. I was so sorry to have disturbed them. There were lots of sloes on the trees, although most of them had dried up. I also found a good handful or more of late blackberries. There were even some blackberry flowers which showed how unseasonal the weather was!

I was very grateful to have Uncle Arthur’s walking stick as it made it much easier to reach all the fruit which was above my height. When I came to the open gate, I saw two horses coming along the road, so I hid behind the huge pile of lucerne bales in plastic covers so they couldn’t see me and wouldn’t be spooked. I was very surprised to find a host of dandelion flowers by the bales, so I picked them for the tonic.

There were cows about to calve in the field where I picked rosehips the last time I visited my parents, so I decided not to disturb them and made my way up the side of my original field and found a large bush with bright, ripe rosehips just waiting to be picked. Chris had to come and call me in to dinner as I’d been having too much fun out in the fresh air!

We were supposed to fly off to a long weekend in the sun last weekend, but the online ticket order wasn’t recognised, so we decided to forget about it and I spent a happy five days pottering at home with my herbs and knitting needles.

After four days of being shut in an office, only able to see sunshine through distant windows made me desperate to be outside. I was able to sort out some dried herbs and some sewing whilst sitting on the bench underneath the kitchen window, but in the afternoon, I took my basket and wellington boots and ventured around the corner into the Friary field.

Our area in Olton (literally Old Town) has an interesting history. I live on Kineton Green Road. The word, Kineton, means King’s Mead i.e. the land belonged to the King rather than to the nearest Abbey.

Interestingly, all parishes called Kineton are still managed through the Queen’s personal offices. When the Gloucestershire parishes of Upper and Lower Slaughter, Kineton, Cutsdean, Temple Guiting and Naunton were merged into one benefice in the early 1980s, permission had to be granted by the Queen for Kineton to be included. Wawickshire also has a village called Kineton near Edgehill where one of the early battles of the second Civil war were fought.

Olton was originally farm land, benefitting from the introduction of the Great Western Railway from Leamington Spa to Birmingham and the Warwickshire canal. The first Catholic bishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne, built St. Bernard's Seminary at Olton in 1873, giving its name to the road.

In 1889 his successor moved the seminary to Oscott and the Franciscan Friars, Capuchin, bought the site, bringing the Roman Catholic Parish into being. They built and opened the church of the Holy Ghost and Mary Immaculate (otherwise known as Olton Friary) in 1929. Fr. Pascal built the parish hall in 1955. I used to take the children to the Tuesday afternoon mother and toddler group in the parish hall as it was only a five minute walk from our house.

The Friary also leased land to the Jewish community, so there is a synagogue right next to the churchyard! I often see people walking along St Bernard’s road heading for Friday night or Saturday prayers. The friars provided a Catholic chaplain to Solihull Hospital for many years.

During the late 1980s, planning permission was sought to build on the remaining five-acre field in the parish next to the Friary. Permission was granted, provided that one acre was left as public land for people to walk their dogs.

You can still see where original hedgerows divided ups the land. Amongst the trees are elder, hazel, holly and hawthorn, which are normal hedging trees. As you enter the field there are a group of ancient horse chestnut trees, where I gather my conkers in August for tincture or infused oil. It was lucky I came here in August because the squirrels appear to have eaten the majority of the conkers. There was nothing left besides pieces of seed casing and bright fragments of conker shell.

High banks were built around the Friary itself to preserve the privacy of the car park with elder and laurel planted at the top of the bank. Over the past five years I have noticed how blackthorn has taken over the sides of the banks. It’s never mown or slashed, so they just keep on growing. Most of the trees are still too small to bear sloes, but I found some wonderful juicy berries on older trees, all of whom had lost their leaves.

I’d noticed some dog roses on the top of the bank in the spring, but as they didn’t look quite like the ones I’m familiar with, I didn’t pick any. Luckily, they’d made some beautiful large rosehips, so I climbed up through tall nettles and small blackthorn bushes and picked a large handful. I was very glad I’d got my wellingtons on!

What really made me laugh (and cry at the same time inside!) was a dog walker who wanted to know what was in my basket. He looked quite perturbed when he saw the rosehips.

“Are you sure those are edible?” he asked me and when I reminded him of the rosehip syrup he must have drunk as a child, he said, “I always thought those were deadly nightshade and poisonous!”

I’ve had the same thing said to me when I’ve been picking haws from trees there. It makes me want to lecture people about what is edible and what isn’t!

As the weather was still glorious on Saturday, I returned to the field in the afternoon to pick nettle seed. I’d seen lots of nettles in just the right stage when I’d been wandering around the previous afternoon, but I didn’t have any gloves or secuteurs with me and I don’t like picking nettle seed without them.

I got a huge basket full which are destined for my friend Debs’ husband Simon. It’s hoped they will act as a replacement for Ashwaghanda roots to give him more energy until we can grow some more plants from seeds harvested this year.

Half of the sloes picked went into the freezer for Debs to make some infused sloe vodka and the rest I made into sloe and rose hip cordial with lemon juice. It was the best tasting cordial I have made so far!

Spiced Sloe Cordial
1lb sloes
4oz blackberries (less than one handful),
4oz rosehips(about a handful)
1 cinnamon stick
½ freshly grated nutmeg
1 inch root ginger (peeled and chopped into tiny pieces – optional)
1 doz yellow dandelion petals from about a dozen dandelion flowers (optional).
Cover everything with water in a medium sized saucepan and cook at a gentle simmer for half an hour. When everything seems cooked, liquidise and then strain it through a seive to remove all seeds and other hard bits. Recover what is stuck on the sides of the liquidiser with some boiled water to make the liquid up to 1 and 1/4 pints. Add 1 and a 1/4 lbs sugar to the liquid back in the washed saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has all melted. Pour into sterilised bottles, seal, label and date.

It tastes wonderful. It is definitely astringent, which goes with what Glennie Kindred wrote about blackthorn in that it is helpful for diarrhoea, but very comforting when drunk warm.

Sloe/Rosehip Cordial
1lb sloes
1/2lb rise rosehips
I added 2 pints of water and the juice and zest of half a lemon and simmered for about an hour until the rosehips are soft. (I was outside de-petalling dried calendula flowers and hanging out washing, so I just let it get on with it!). I ignored it for most of the day and came back to it around 5pm, so it had cooled down by then. I liquidised it and then tasted it. It wasn't bitter or sour and tasted very much like blackberries - still an astringency in my mouth, but not unpleasant. It was 2 pints of liquid, so I added 2lbs of sugar and brought it back to the boil. It tasted a little too sweet, so I added juice from another whole lemon.

I have to tell you I am totally in love with sloes and rosehips. It tastes even better as a simple syrup than it did as a spiced one, and that was really good. I cut some lemon peel and put it in a mug together with some recently boiled water and the dregs from the saucepan. I gave it to Chris to try and he almost wouldn't let me have the mug back. I've never seen him that enthusiastic about a syrup before!

If you know where your blackthorn trees are locally and haven't searched for sloes yet, you might still find some. Believe me, it's worth it!

Friday 30 October 2009

A literary moment

If you feel like a quick read to go with your morning beverage or cup of herb tea, try Coals to Newcastle over at Mercian Muse.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Time for more soup

Some friends of ours came over to dinner on Tuesday evening. They are off on holiday to South America at the weekend culminating in a visit to Machu Picchu, the historical Peruvian site. It is a place I have always wanted to visit, so I’m looking forward to seeing their photographs.

Judith said they had been preparing for the rigors of the holiday in different ways and would be following an iron rich diet to try and help in building up their haemoglobin to help them acclimatise to the high altitudes.

As my contribution to their preparations, I thought I would put together an iron-rich meal. This is what we had.

Nettle, beetroot leaf and sweet potato soup
½ colander full of fresh nettle tops
Leaves from 4 beetroot
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 carrots, scraped and sliced
10 cardamom seeds
1 onion, peeled and diced
4 garlic cloves peeled, sliced and left to rest for 15 minutes
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and shred beetroot leaves, wash nettles. Fry onion and garlic in olive oil, add cardamom seeds, add all other ingredients and cover with cold water. Add salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer until everything is soft. Remove cardamom seeds. Liquidise then strain to remove stalks from nettles. Return to pan and serve with freshly made granary bread and butter. Serves 6.

Beef Stew
5lbs stewing steak and kidney
6 celery stalks
1 onion
6 cloves of garlic,
4 carrots
4 parsnips
Peeled and slice garlic cloves. Leave to rest for 15 minutes. Peel and dice onion. Wash and thinly slice celery. Fry onion and garlic. Add meat and fry until all meat is sealed. Add celery. Stir. Cover with cold water (about 4-5 pints). Bring to the boil and simmer on lowest heat for three hours. Add carrots and parsnips, salt and pepper. Cook for a further 15 minutes until vegetables are done. Thicken gravy (I used 3tsp cornflour and 3tsp Bisto mixed to a paste with a little cold water then stirred in). Serve with baked potato and further green vegetables (we had cabbage). This serves 8-10 people. (Leftovers were used the following night then frozen)

We had apple pie and cream for dessert. Chris made it and fashioned a beautiful treble clef on the top. It was his first homemade pie and tasted really good! The treble clef represented the ties of music which has run through our friendship.

Judith and I met when our children were very small. Both she and her husband, Julian, have served our communities for many years through the police and our local church. My eldest and her second son were in the same class at primary school. She helped me run a mums and tots group in a local church hall for a year in the early 1980s and was an alto in a small choir I put together for 3 fundraising concerts. I taught all her boys piano for several years until they went off to boarding school and accompanied a choir she put together to raise money for Malawi last year. Her eldest boy was married two weeks after Richard and Laura.

We all lead busy lives, but it was really nice to spend time together over an enjoyable meal.

Friday 2 October 2009

What to do with sage?

I was standing outside Condicote church after the annual Harvest Festival service when I caught up with someone I hadn’t seen since my cousin’s wedding last year. Her sister was one of my first piano pupils and then my bridesmaid five years later. I told her I was going to raid my aunt’s sage plants before we returned home.

“What are you going to do with it?” she asked. “We have tons of sage and I’d love to be able to make use of it more.”

So this post is for Caroline and anyone else who finds themselves with a glut of herb they don’t know what to do with.

Why do we use sage? Some will only know it as a condiment, mixed with onions as a stuffing for a fatty meat such as pork or goose or as a flavouring to replace salt in a salt-free diet.

While these uses show sage to be an aid to digestion, its myriad of uses stem from very ancient times. Sage is known as a Mediterranean herb which doesn’t like to get its feet wet (as I learned to my cost by over-watering cuttings!).

It’s location has led people to think it must have been brought to the UK by the Romans, but as historical plant expert, Anthony Lyman Dixon, is wont to remark, Romans are blamed for many things, but we really can’t be sure whether they brought all their herbal flavourings with them or whether sage was one of those herbs which was growing here well before they invaded our lands.

Sage, salvia officinalis, is described by Maud Grieve as “about a foot or more high, with wiry stems. The leaves are set in pairs on the stem and are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, stalked, oblong, rounded at the ends, finely wrinkled by a strongly-marked network of veins on both sides, greyish-green in colour, softly hairy and beneath glandular. The flowers are in whorls, purplish and the corollas lipped. They blossom in August. All parts of the plant have a strong, scented odour and a warm, bitter, somewhat astringent taste, due to the volatile oil contained in the tissues.”

There are many different types of sage, but all those which begin with salvia can be used interchangeably. I prefer purple sage, salvia officinalis purpurascens, because this is the one most used medicinally in the UK and I prefer the flavour to the greener garden sage.

Sage has been a healing plant since ancient times and remained popular through the Middle Ages. Mrs Grieve quotes the latin phrase Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto? ('Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?') and gives a corresponding English proverb, 'He that would live for aye, Must eat Sage in May.'

As with most herbs, I began my journey learning about one particular use. Sage has an affinity with the chest and throat, so is good for sore throats (gargling with a tea) and lingering coughs brought on by the common cold. Then Henriette Kress mentioned sage and thyme together could be taken at the beginning of the year for three months to support the respiratory system in reducing sensitivity to pollens and other particles which induce hayfever in sufferers.

This remedy then led to a wonderful tea which could be taken for colds, coughs and general symptoms. One of my friends was working in a doctor’s office in Washington State at the time and used to give the recipe to disgruntled patients who had been refused antibiotics for their virus.

Sage and Thyme Tea
1tsp dried sage (or 1 tblsp fresh)
1 tsp dried thyme (or 1tblsp fresh)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 inch chopped or grated root ginger with the peel left on
Honey to taste
Infuse the dried herbs and ginger for approximately 10 minutes in a pint of water in a cafatiere or teapot or mug with a lid. If making the drink without the ginger you can get away with infusing for 3 minutes if you don’t want to have a really strong sage taste. Strain and pour into a mug containing the juice of half a lemon and enough honey to taste.

If you are thinking of making this tea for a child, don’t use either the thyme or honey if the child is under two years of age. They may not like the ginger either.

This drink is really warming and comforting and can be drunk 2-3 times a day.

Sage has been used for increasing blood flow to the brain and therefore to help reduce memory loss. James Wong, in his recent BBC2 series, Grow your own drugs, carried out an interesting experiment with two people in middle age who were having problems remembering things. He asked them to drink cups of sage tea for a week and afterwards both people reported being able to remember things far better.

Obviously two people isn’t a large sample and a week isn’t a long time to take a herb, since herbal actions often take a while to make themselves apparent. Still, it was an interesting experiment and something everyone can try at home. I know I should, since my family constantly sigh at me when I start a sentence and then can’t remember either the rest of it or the key word I wanted at the time I wanted to say it!

Matthew Wood says that sage acts on veins which are depressed and relaxed. Sage also acts on clotted blood. He says he learned of this use from the herbalist Eva Graf. She used it to cleanse blood vessels, remove plaque or hardening, for varicose veins and for diabetic ulcerations of the veins, especially the calves.

This use is something I haven’t tried yet, but I’m tempted to make an oil and see what happens if I add it to horse chestnut oil as a varicose vein salve.

Sage is a potent anti-viral. Like many febrifuges, it encourages sweating when taken as a hot tea, but is cooling when drunk cold. You can make a sage tincture using the simpler method by adding vodka or brandy to a glass jar filled with fresh sage.

Medical herbalist, Jenny Jones, recently demonstrated how to make this tincture at the Herb Society’s Volunteers Day. She recommended not filling the jar completely to the top with vodka as the alcohol would draw water out of the sage leaves. Jenny suggested taking a 30-drop dose three times of day at the first sign of any cold or flu. If you were using a higher percentage alcohol, the drop dose would be much lower.

Sage also acts to dry up secretions, which is why it is so effective for chest and throat issues and can help to alleviate hot flushes of menopause. It can also help to dry up unwanted milk production and has even been known to delay the onset of menstruation by a couple of days if extremely large amounts are taken.

Sage should be safe to take in culinary amounts if you are pregnant or nursing, but it may well be prudent not to use sage medicinally during these times.

I have to be honest and admit sage is not one of my most favourite flavours in tea on its own, but I love the combination of sage and thyme. This year I experimented with a sage and thyme elixir which tastes wonderful.

Sage and Thyme Elixir
Pick enough fresh sage leaves and flowering thyme sprigs to half fill a glass jar. You could use dried sage or thyme, but reduce the volume by three-quarters. Cover with runny honey, stirring well with a chopstick to remove any air bubbles and make sure the herbs are completely covered. Fill to the top with brandy and mix well. Seal with a screw top lid. Label and date. Store in a cool dark place for 4-6 weeks. Strain, bottle and use. Dose is one dropperful every half hour at the first sign of a virus.

Sage also makes an amazing vinegar. I suspect the soil sage is grown in affects the colour which is transferred to the vinegar. My clay-grown garden purple sage only turns vinegar a pale pink, although the taste is good. My aunt’s sage plants, grown on alkaline Cotswold limestone, turn the vinegar a deep crimson within half an hour of being infused. This is why I have been raiding her plants annually for the past three years!

Sage Vinegar
Fill a glass jar with sage leaves. Pour over cider vinegar until the jar is full. Remove air bubbles with a chopstick, then refill with more cider vinegar. Seal the jar with a screwtop lid and label and date. Store in a warm, dark place for three weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain and bottle, label and date. Use with honey for a delightful hot drink or in salad dressings.

Sage Honey
Fill a glass jar with sage leaves. Very slowly, pour runny honey over the leaves, pausing regularly to remove air bubbles by stirring with a chopstick. When the jar is full, seal with a screwtop lid and leave to infuse for several weeks. Strain before use if you don’t fancy eating the sage leaves.

My sage honey and vinegar have now been infusing since the end of August. I’m looking forward to decanting them this weekend and trying out my first sage oxymel. That’s the wonderful thing about herbs. It doesn’t matter how many herbal products you have made with a particular plant, there are always more to experiment with and try.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Simpler Apprenticeships 2010

During 2010 I shall be offering apprenticeships to those who wish to develop their knowledge and skills of kitchen herbwifery.

Apprentices will be asked to commit to:-

Choosing between 10-20 herbs to study in greater depth

Attending at least six workshops during the year and taking responsibility for some of their chosen herbs

Keeping a detailed diary of their herbal journey including studies of their chosen herbs, associated studies of human physiology and notes of all herbal products made and taken.

Discussing herbal experiences via an email discussion group

Anyone who is interested in an apprenticeship should contact me before December 14th saying what their best hopes would be for the twelve months of their apprenticeship.

Unfortunately, because the essence of these apprenticeships is local and practical, they can only be offered to people living within the UK who are prepared to travel to the Cotswolds and/or Solihull. It is not possible to offer apprenticeships outside the UK. However, if someone abroad wishes a herbal mentor and can tell me how they think we could work well together, I'm willing to consider it.

Sunday 20 September 2009

More hedgerow tonics

At the last meeting of the Mercian Herb Group I took along a bottle of my newly made blackberry, apple and rosehip syrup. Those who tried it, asked for the recipe.

Blackberry, apple and rosehip syrup
1lb blackberries
1 large double handful of rosehips
3 medium size cooking apples (preferably windfalls)
1 cinnamon stick
½ grated nutmeg
1 pint of water
Sugar or honey
Peel, core and slice the apples. Wash blackberries and rosehips and place in a large saucepan with the apples and spices. Just cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer until everything is soft and mushy (around 40 minutes or so depending on the ripeness of the rosehips). Liquidise the contents of the saucepan, strain and measure the volume. Clean the saucepan and return the puree to the pan together with a suitable amount of either sugar or honey working on 1lb sugar/honey to 1 pint puree. Heat until sugar or honey is dissolved into the puree. Pour into heated sterile bottles and seal with screw top lids. Label and date.

Here are two more honey recipes. You will probably want to strain your honeys before using them.

Rosehip honey (Gail Faith Edward's recipe)
2 large double handfuls of fresh rosehips
1 jar of runny honey
1 large glass jar
Wash the rosehips and remove any stalks of dried bits of flowers. Put the fresh rosehips in a liquidiser and process for 30 seconds or so until they are in very small bits. Scrape all the rosehips into the glass jar and slowly pour on the runny honey, stirring as you go to remove all the air bubbles. (If you pour too fast it will stay on top of the rosehips and end up on the work surface). Seal the jar with a screw top lid tightly. Keep in a warm place e.g. a sunny windowsill for 4-6 weeks.

Mint honey (Kiva's recipe)
Pick several large handfuls of mint – preferably stalks which have not flowered yet or new side shoots. Remove each leaf and place in a 1lb glass jar. Every so often, cut up the mint leaves with a large pair of scissors inside the jar. When the jar is filled with chopped mint leaves, add the grated rind and juice of one lemon. Carefully pour runny honey over the mint leaves in small batches, mixing with a chop stick every time to remove air bubbles. Add as much honey as you can. Seal the jar with a screw top lid tightly and place in a warm place for a month or so.

Don't worry when the infused matter, whether blossom, leaves, or dessicated roots floats to the top of the honey. If your lid is secure, try turning it upside down ever so often so the top of the contents are covered.

I've made 2 small jars of horseradish root honey and one of elderberry honey this weekend. It's best to keep the elderberry honey in the fridge whilst infusing so it doesn't start to grow mold. It is your choice whether or not you strain the elderberries or horseradish out before using. I keep them in. Chris mutters about "having bits floating around" in his cider vinegar, but I like to chew them. The elderberries are wonderfully sweet at the end of your drink!

Friday 18 September 2009

Something new

“What’s been new for you this year?” Maddie asked during the August workshop. This post is a more considered response to the question than I was able to make at the time.

My first new loves must be mint honey and creating new elixirs. Mint is one of the two herbs which graced my childhood. On alternate Sundays we would have roast lamb. In summer this would be served with mint sauce, in winter with onion sauce.

Most people rave about mint tea when they first start trying herbal drinks. It is not my first choice, unless it is chocolate mint freshly picked from the Sanctuary. To me, mint tea belongs to the aftermath of a stomach bug when I can’t tolerate anything else.

I’ve grown several different varieties of mint for years – peppermint, applemint, spearmint, Swiss mint, pineapple mint, eau de cologne mint, lemon mint, lime mint, red mint, black mint and chocolate mint. The first three do battle for supremacy along the left hand border of my garden while others grow mournfully in tubs on the patio. The chocolate mint runs riot in the main Sanctuary bed, but I don’t try to cull it as everyone who goes there falls in love with it.

I love the smell of mint freshly crushed, but until this year I’ve never really engaged with the plant itself. Two months ago, Kiva Rose gave the recipe for her mint honey with lemon zest and juice. Lemon and honey is another comforting memory from childhood. A special drink my mother would make when we were ill with colds. The combination of lemon and mint with honey appears to have done something quite amazing to my taste buds. It is not often I sit and drool over something, but mint honey does it for me!

I was reading Carol Rogers' chapter on menopause recently, whilst preparing to give a talk to the Mercian Herb Group and she listed several foods which are especially nourishing for women during this time. Honey was one of them. Avocados were another. I have been relishing avocados for a year or so. Honey has been an important part of my life for the past three years, when I first became perimenopausal. It is easy to see how mint, which is a cooling herb, lemon and honey all combine to provide something richly nourishing for my particular time of life.

Needless to say, when I found applemint growing wild on the banks of the Catherine de Barnes canal last weekend, I gathered as much as I could and spent the next day putting up a further 2lb jar of lemon mint honey to add to the jar already infusing. It’s not really a flavour to spread on your toast, but it will be fantastic in drinks.

Chris loves honey and he was grumbling the other evening that all the jars I buy seem to disappear leaving him nothing to have for breakfast. I showed him all the herbal honeys sitting on the kitchen window sill and asked why he hadn’t been tempted to try them for himself.

“I daren’t” he replied. “I don’t know what is to eat, what is medicine and what is to be avoided while you go and lie down in another room.”

His reply had me in stitches for several minutes. When the children were small, there was a memorable occasion at Greenbelt when the mere offer of mint tea had two of them jumping up from their sickbed and declaring their complete recovery. It was good to be reminded.

I also loved the reference to Terry Pratchett’s dwarf bread which is carried on expeditions and is only eaten once everything else including clothes and soles of boots has been consumed. (Guess which books I was reading on holiday!)

Anyway, to return to the subject of honey, those currently infusing are:-
Blossom and pineapple mint and sage leaves, sage, wild bergamot, rosehip, mint and lemon, angelica root and St John’s wort honey. The latter was begun because Darcey said she wanted to make some to see if it would turn red like all other SJW concoctions. She had no access to fresh SJW flowers, so I decided to carry out the experiment myself.

The half jar of honey and yellow blossoms sat on the window sill next to the infusing SJW oil for weeks and nothing appeared to happen until last week when we had several days of hot sun. Finally the honey started to change colour. It won’t be the deep crimson of the oil, but it will be a definite SJW derivative.

I have already written about my new elixirs. I decanted them all last weekend, ending up in a sticky, sweet surfeit after trying them. Even Chris agreed they tasted far too good to be medicine!

The other completely new things in my herbal life have been plants – lemon geranium and lemon eucalyptus, pleurisy root, ashwaghanda and ox-eye daisy. Ashwaghanda is proving a total delight even though I have not yet tasted her. I was going to harvest the roots of both my plants this year, but after a member of the Herbwifery Forum advised that the roots were stronger, the older the plant, I decided to leave them to see if they will over-winter on the patio and return to me next year. It has been a real joy watching the flowers appear and produce beautiful bright green berries which then turn scarlet as the leaves become brown.

The ox-eye daisy has a tale all of its own. Several years ago, Henriette enthused about ox-eye daisy delivering a tasty and nourishing tea. It caught my fancy, but finding seeds proved a real problem. They only seemed to be available in wild flower meadow mixes, not on their own. My father came to the rescue, using his considerable charm on a local seed merchant who let him have an ounce of seed for nothing. I dug a suitable sized patch of ground in the main herb bed, planted the seeds and waited.

It was a good job I didn’t hold my breath, because nothing grew I convinced myself the plot had become overgrown and overshadowed with other herbs, thereby killing the seeds. I was really disappointed.

This spring I noticed a plant with strange leaves was growing in the middle of the herb bed. I presumed it was another wild flower like white or red campion but decided to let it flower before I pulled it up just to be sure. Imagine my delight when the newcomers turned out to be ox-eye daises! I checked the leaves against the moon daises in my garden and they were exactly the same shape, but larger. Obviously the seeds take several years to germinate, so I should not have been disappointed when they didn’t appear the first year they were planted.

Then I noticed their energetic properties – they help women come to terms with the menopause. It made me laugh and feel slightly humble. The plant had waited to enter my life until it was needed. I was very grateful and made a special batch of flower essence to share with others.

There have been several other new herbal products I have made this year: –
 milk thistle leaf vinegar for its minerals,
 dried mullein stalk tincture for hormonal incontinence,
 hawthorn flower brandy to add to Christmas custards,
 crampbark tincture for nocturnal leg cramps,
 elecampagne flower essence for deep grief
 hyssop, horehound, liquorice and marshmallow leaf cough syrup (a classic)
 fennel tincture and liqueur
 chive flower vinegar
 nettle seed salt

The crampbark tincture was made from slivers of red bark collected from twigs when the bush was flowering – not the usual time to collect bark from deciduous trees or bushes! Janey prompted me to create the tincture. She mentioned she was having terrible trouble sleeping because of nocturnal leg cramps, so I suggested she tried taking some milk of magnesia to increase her intake of magnesium and gave her some twigs to start de-barking and cover with alcohol.

When she next returned to the Sanctuary, I asked her whether her cramps had improved. She said she had started taking the milk of magnesia immediately and the first night she had taken a spoonful of the crampbark tincture her cramps had disappeared and never returned!

Another tincture I am planning to make this weekend is Solomon seal root. The plants have become well established over the past ten years. The good reports I have heard about using the tincture to support back health from Jim MacDonald and Matthew Wood have inspired me to try making some for myself. It is not a tincture which is widely available commercially, so it will be exciting to see how it works.

One of the wonderful things about herbs is there is so much to learn and experience. It doesn’t matter how many you grow or what you make, each year is a new beginning and a real opportunity for growth.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Harvest ramblings

Despite the weather, harvest is upon us. No matter how large or small our productive plots, there is something to gather, preserve and enjoy. I thought I would share some of my recent activities.

Surprisingly, I harvested nothing during our time away apart from some wonderfully sweet blackberries and a few nettle seeds. Cornwall grows the largest ribwort plantain I’ve seen, but there seemed little point in gathering armfuls as I did two years ago when there was nowhere to keep it dry and relatively warm. Instead I caught up with embroideries I’ve been meaning to do for the past 15 years – starting but never finishing until last month.

Usually I make a new corn dolly to celebrate the harvest, but this year I drew one and embroidered it instead. I also drew a picture of the three pine trees we could see out of the caravan window. I can’t draw in any sense of artistic merit, but my little attempt at folk art brings me pleasure if no-one else!

Since our return, my free time has been taken up with birthdays and harvesting. Last week we celebrated my mother’s 81st birthday. I made new cockerel cushions for my father to give her and she liked them and the new teapot, milk jug, mugs and plates – all with blue cockerels on them - I’d found in Bakewell back in May.

We were at the farm again for the weekend for a herb workshop. Eight people came and made flower essences, comfrey and meadowsweet double infused oil, nettle salt, wild bergamot flower honey, bergamot leaf elixir and various vinegars and tinctures. The weather was kind and during our herb walk around the beds, we looked at meadowsweet, spotted orchids, burdock, white horehound, lemon balm, Solomon’s seal, calendula, motherwort and several other herbs.

The wasps’ nest behind the summerhouse had been deserted, but this didn’t stop the wasps being out in force, attracted by all the honey we were using. When everyone had gone, I managed to pick some hyssop, skullcap and white horehound along with a few dandelion roots.

After tea, I took my mother down to Condicote, where we used to live and where her brother and nephew still farm, so I could raid their purple sage plants. I finished the evening by collecting yarrow from around the garden. I was afraid it would all have gone to seed, but I managed to find some newly flowering plants.

On Sunday morning I picked flowering mullein stalks and dug rosettes to make mullein root tincture. It was really difficult digging the new plants as the hens decided they had to investigate everything I was doing as they couldn’t afford to miss any insects or seeds I might dislodge in the soil!

I also managed to pick some seed-heavy nettles from the field which will probably be the last ones I dry for this year. I already have several jars put away along with three or four from last year, so there should be plenty to munch my way through for the rest of the year or to give away to those in need.

My uncle gave us some of his cream out of a huge bowl while we stood in his kitchen. It was so thick; it turned into butter with just one whisk of the beaters when I worked it on Sunday morning! It took me back to my childhood whisking cream into yellow gold, then painstakingly squeezing it with a large knife to remove the buttermilk. With only one housecow, butter making was a very infrequent task in our household, but we relished the new butter when we had it.

On Bank Holiday Monday, Chris went off to spend a happy day at Greenbelt with his cousins while I took a deep breath and began my herbal task list. Herbs which had been drying in the kitchen and summerhouse were brought onto the garden bench to be checked for mildew and either discarded or placed in glass jars in the larder.

Although I still have to do something with a large bag of assorted dried herbs sitting in the summerhouse (nettles, dead nettles, ground ivy and red clover), sage, burdock, St John’s wort, thyme, calendula, apple and spearmint were all dealt with. I also decanted three jars of vinegar (milk thistle, motherwort and mint), put up some St John's wort and mullein root tincture and made some meadowsweet oil from last year's dried leaves and flowers.

The mint vinegar tasted and smelled so wonderful, I picked some more mint and put up another jarful, together with a small jar of rose petal vinegar using the last 3 roses in the garden and a sprig of spearmint.

The hawthorn trees in the garden have produced the most amazing large, ripe haws this year, so I took time to pick enough to put up 1 jar of brandy, 1 jar of liqueur and 2 jars of vinegar. Chris kindly took his stepladder on Tuesday and picked more haws, which took me two evenings after work to prepare more liqueur and vinegar.

When researching a particular herb, it is not often I find an appealing recipe and have all the herbs to hand. This happened on Tuesday when looking up the properties of horehound. Maud Grieve said a popular cough medicine was made with hyssop, white horehound, marshmallow root and liquorice.

I still haven’t had the courage to dig any marshmallow roots, but the plants are prolific in leaves, flowers and seeds at the moment, so it didn’t take long to pick a large handful to go in the syrup mix along with half my hyssop and horehound bundle and a large stick of liquorice I bought at a French farmers market in Solihull a few years ago. The resulting syrup was incredibly bitter, so it’s been put in the larder to wait for an unsuspecting guinea pig with a dreadful cough!

The remaining hyssop and horehound was mixed with brandy and honey for a cough elixir. We shall see which is the more popular!

My first priority yesterday was to make some St John’s wort salve for a Tabler friend who is suffering the aftermath of transverse myelitis. I mixed a small amount of yarrow oil with the SJW and will be interested to know how useful he finds the salve.

I split my yarrow harvest in two and made some more oil with the older stems and a tincture with the fresh green leaves and flowers. Now I just have nettle roots to tincture and dandelion roots to pickle tonight and this current batch of herbal preservation will be over.

It is very satisfying to see my hot cupboard full of vinegars and liqueurs, but I need to start decanting tinctures and elixirs soon as there is no more shelf space and I’ve run out of large glass jars!

Thursday 30 July 2009

Sweet Memories of Summer

I have to thank, Kiva Rose, our host for the August Herbwifery Forum blog party, for introducing me to the delights of mixing herbs with honey and encouraging my alcohol purchasing to include brandy as well as vodka.

Three years ago Kiva talked about making elderberry elixir. I experimented. It was wonderful. Everyone who tried it experienced a moment of bliss as they savoured and swallowed a tiny dropperful.

“Do I have to be ill to drink this?” they asked. I just smiled and told them it was up to them.

Last year my bergamot (monada didyma) and wild bergamot (monada fistulosa) danced over the herb bed in red and purple profusion. Kiva talked about making infused honeys with these herbs so I made some. They were so beautiful and smelled so wonderful, I haven’t had the heart to eat them. They sit in the cupboard and are brought out during workshops and talks for people to smell and taste (and drool over!).

Interestingly, the first herbal honey I made was sage, way back in the late 1990s. I really didn’t like the flavour and it sat in the larder for a long while before I threw it out. I know now, I didn’t put enough plant material with the honey. I’m waiting to harvest from my aunt’s huge sage plants and try making the honey again. I can think of nothing better than sage honey with sage vinegar as a winter drink when sore throats threaten.

I’ve noticed that herbs alter the consistency and the sweetness of honey. Using fresh herbs makes the honey far more runny and the bergamot/rose/evening primrose combination is much less sweet. My elderberry honey started growing mould when I tried to infuse it in the hot cupboard, but is fine, twelve months later in the fridge. My husband complained about berries floating around in his drink, but it didn’t stop him using it when he was feeling under the weather.

Everyone thought I was mad mixing grated horseradish with honey until they tried it. The result is a perfect accompaniment to fire cider vinegar.

I make my honeys the same way I do everything else – fill a glass jar full of plant material and cover with honey. I then screw on the lid tightly, label and date and leave it for 3-4 weeks. Most of them go in the warm cupboard to infuse, but I keep a close eye on them, in case they need to infuse in a cold place, like the elderberries.

The plant material always travels to the top of the honey and I don’t bother to strain it before use. If you don’t like bits of leaf or petal or grated root floating around in your drink or on your porridge, then it is advisable to strain the honey after a suitable infusion time.

The wonderful extension to herbal honeys is an elixir. Kiva has said that any aromatic plant can be used, especially those of the mint family. This information gave me permission to play with combinations and it has been such fun creating an elixir from whatever happens to be flowering in the garden around me.

So far I have created four different elixirs:-
Respiratory: flowering thyme, purple sage leaves and fennel
Uplifting: St Johns wort flowers, rose petals, lemon balm leaves, violet leaves, alpine strawberry leaves, heartease aerial parts.
Cooling: red bergamot leaves and flowers, marigold flowers, flowering thyme
Colds/coughs: peppermint, flowering thyme, sage leaves (purple & green), yarrow leaves, rose petals, self-heal.

I can’t wait to taste them, but suspect they won’t be ready until we return from holiday towards the end of August.

My method is to gather a basketful of different herbs, cut them up into inch or so pieces with scissors until they half fill a two pound glass jar. I then cover them with a jar full of honey. It used to be 1lb, but the jars are now smaller since honey is more expensive and they’ve gone to metric measures. When all air bubbles have been removed from the mixture with a chopstick, I fill the jar to the brim with brandy, then stir again, refilling if necessary. When the lid is firmly screwed on, the jar is labelled and dated then put away in a cool, dark place for 4-6 weeks.

We made the “Cooling” elixir during my last workshop. Everyone took turns stirring the mixture to remove air bubbles. The scent was amazing with the combination of bergamot, thyme and honey and again when brandy was added. You could see people delighting in the pleasure they received from their senses as they worked together.

Cordials are another delicious way of preserving a herbal harvest. Not only are they a pleasure to drink, but they are a wonderful ambassador for herbs when you have a sceptical audience. For the past two years, I’ve been giving talks about herbs to older people who live in sheltered housing or residential homes owned by an organisation my employer has a relationship with. As employees, we are allowed time to give talks, help with gardening or decoration or activity sessions.

The residents were not at all sure when I talked about nettles and hawthorn berries, but they were very enthusiastic about elderflower cordial and my spiced hedgerow cordial. There are lots of recipes for cordials. I have already written several articles about elder. You can read them here and here

These are other cordials and syrups I’ve been very pleased with. Although syrups are generally thicker than cordials, I tend to use them in the same way, making them into drinks as well as adding them to porridge or rice pudding. You could also make savoury versions, like haw-sin sauce, and use them as a dipping sauce for meat or vegetables. Recipes for two more rose syrups can be found here.

Blackberry cordial
1lb blackberries
1oz cinnamon (in sticks or powdered)
1oz cloves (whole or powdered)
1 inch root ginger (grated)
1lb honey/sugar
¼ pt alcohol
Cover blackberries with smallest amount of water. Add prepared spices and simmer for 20 minutes. Mash blackberries, strain and measure liquid (should be around 1pint). Clean saucepan, pour liquid back into saucepan together with 1lb honey or sugar per pint of liquid. Heat gently, stirring until honey is dissolved. Add 1/4pint of alcohol of choice. Pour into hot, sterile bottles, seal. Label and date.

Elderflower Cordial
20 elderflower heads (I forgot to keep counting and used half of the basketful I’d gathered)
4 lemons
2 oranges
1.8 kg granulated sugar
1.2l water
Place the sugar in the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. While the water is heating, place the elderflowers in a large bowl and cut the zest off the oranges and lemons and add to elderflowers. Cut the ends off the citrus fruit and discard, then slice and add to contents of bowl. Pour the boiling sugar syrup over the elderflowers and citrus fruits. Cover the bowl and place in a cool place for 24 hours. I put a plate on the top of the bowl to keep the citrus fruit submerged in the syrup. After 24 hours strain (eat the orange slices – they are amazing!). Strain twice more using either muslin or kitchen paper. Makes 4 pints of cordial. Pour into sterilized glass jars or plastic jars and freeze. Keep in the fridge and dilute to taste. It tastes good with fizzy water. Serve in glass jugs with slices of lemon and a sprig of mint.

Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
Small bowl of blackberries and rosehips
1 inch of fresh ginger root peeled and chopped (or you could grate it whole)
3/4 nutmeg grated
1 cinnamon stick broken up
4 cloves
runny honey
Juice of a lemon
alcohol of your choice (brandy, sherry, a good whiskey, vodka etc)
Wash the blackberries and rosehips. Place in a heavy bottomed saucepan and cover with water. Simmer over a low heat for half an hour. Mash the blackberries and rosehips to a pulp with a potato masher and cook on the lowest heat for another 15-30 minutes. Strain the liquid through a plastic sieve and measure the volume. Wash out the saucepan. Return the liquid to the pan together with a lb of runny honey for every pint of liquid. Heat gently until honey is dissolved. Add juice of a lemon. This can now be poured into clean, sterile bottles and sealed and kept in the fridge to use with children and anyone who doesn't like/can't have alcohol. To preserve the syrup without keeping in fridge (but in a cold place) add alcohol to taste. I had a pint of liquid originally to which I added a lb of honey which gave around 2 pints of syrup so I poured out one jar then added about 1/2 pint of Madeira to the remaining syrup. I probably could have added less. Both taste wonderful!

Derbyshire Delight
Pick an amount of fresh dandelions, red clover flowers and stalks and hawthorn flowers. Remove the dandelion petals and centres from any green bits. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Strain and measure liquid. Clean saucepan. Return liquid to the pan and simmer with the lid off until the liquid is reduced by 7/8s. Add honey in the ratio of 1pint to1lb honey. Stir gently until honey is dissolved. Pour into heated, sterilized bottles. Seal when cold. Label and date.

Haw-sin Sauce
375g haws (hawthorn berries)
200g runny honey
250ml water
250ml cider vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
Wash haws in cold water and remove stalks. Cook in saucepan with water and cider vinegar for 45 minutes until soft. Sieve through metal sieve pushing through as much softened material as possible. Measure liquid. Clean saucepan. Return liquid to saucepan adding honey to liquid in equal volume (100ml:100g). Heat gently while stirring with wooden spoon until honey is dissolved. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Cook for a further 5-10 minutes if you wish to reduce the amount of liquid and thicken the syup. Pour into hot, sterile bottles. Seal, label and date.

Herbs can be made into wonderful liqueurs. I use Christina Stapley’s basic recipe to invent my own combinations.

Melissa Liqueur
1 75cl bottle of vodka
1/2 cup of lemon balm leaves
7 cloves (or less, the original recipe uses 1 tsp)
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp carraway seeds
2 tsps grated lemon or orange rind
3 tsps marjoram leaves
Wash and chop the herb leaves, adding the spirit with the pounded seeds and cloves and grated lemon rind. The cloves should be measured whole, but ground before adding. Leave to steep in a tightly closed jar in a warm dark place, swirling daily for 6-7 weeks. Filter and sweeten to taste with approximately 1/2-1 cup of sugar or honey before labelling in the original bottle and maturing for at least a year. A soothing liqueur for troubled spirits.

Hawthorn Liqueur
To a jar full of infused hawthorn berry brandy, add 1 grated nutmeg, one cinnamon stick (crumbled), the chopped peel of one orange, 4 cloves and ½-1 cup full of sugar or honey. Seal the jar with a screw top lid, place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly, then strain and pour into a sterile bottle. Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years).

The wonderful thing about preserving your herbal harvest with honey is that it makes you smile. You smile when you’re creating it, you smile when you taste and you smile as you gently sip when the heat of summer has gone.

Monday 13 July 2009

More literary excitement!

Last night I discovered two of my short stories have been published online. The Lady and the Bull is a story of experience based in Cornwall, while Malachi's Task came from a dream. For more details, go to my writing blog, Mercian Muse.

Roses in summer

There is something very special about roses in summer. Their deep scent transports us to a place of warm sunshine, peace and tranquillity; memories of carefree times amid beautiful surroundings.

My childhood roses grew in my grandmother’s garden and in hedgerows. My parents had no time in their busy lives nor inclination to grow plants with thorns which needed care and attention. It wasn’t until I went away to secondary school and lived with a family opposite the school that I discovered the joys of cultivated roses. The father cherished his roses, bringing a single bud to place on the mantelpiece above the fireplace in the living room so everyone could stop and smell the perfume as they passed by. I watched yellow, pink or red buds open into flowering glory, before being replaced by a new bud when petals faded.

When we moved into our house in 1981, the garden was a weed-free rose haven, with roses climbing over every fence. It was too much for us to look after. The previous owners were retired, the wife having never worked outside the home, so they had plenty of time to lavish on both home and garden. Our priorities were different, with both of us working, then bringing up three children. The flower beds receded to give the children more room to play and now only two ancient plants remain from those we originally inherited.

My interest in roses began in 2004 when I ordered an apothecary’s rose (rosa gallica) from Poyntzfield Herb nursery. I had to wait until the following year for it to bloom, but it was worth it. I was dazzled by the glorious colour and rich scent. The poor bush had to contend with being browsed by rabbits, sheep and deer during its first few years, but I noticed last year the runners were not like those of other roses, they all flowered. It has grown into a good size bush and this year bloomed a whole month earlier than usual, June rather than July.

Working with rose petals began in 2008, when I spent a delicious hour late one Friday evening collecting dog rose petals from along my parent’s lane. I climbed over gates into our next door neighbour’s field to harvest petals from the largest bushes, noticing how the colour changed from pink to white on different briars. The best pictures were taken the following Sunday when I risked barriers of nettles to gather from other briars near our old barn. It was one of the few dry weekends of the summer and I was desperate to gather elderflowers and rose petals while I could.

We used the dog rose petals during the Saturday workshop to make tincture, vinegar and to dry for future teas. When I returned home, I made my first rose infused honey, which still retains its subtle fragrance even now.

Later on in the summer I begged red rose petals from my friend’s garden in Sheffield. These yielded an amazing ruby cider vinegar with a truly awesome flavour which we played with during a vinegar workshop in November. Mixed with a light, sunflower oil and soaked up on crusty French sticks, it made a unique starter to lunch.

Nearly all my dogrose briars were decimated at the end of last year by the new tenant of my father’s fields. His brief to tidy all the farm hedgerows lead to total obliteration of many tree tops and bramble hedges. It needed doing and looks much better in many ways, but I shall have to wait several years before I can gather dogroses in such profusion from the same place again.

Luckily, work took me to Northumberland towards the end of June this year. I hoped the northern latitude would mean dogroses would be flowering later than in the Midlands. As we drew into our first caravan site on the Whitehouse Farm Centre in Stannington just outside Morpeth, I was delighted to see a wealth of bushes showing pale and bright pink flowers. While Chris recovered from the six hour drive, I took my gathering basket and explored the grounds of the first children’s sanatorium in the UK.

Nothing is left of the original buildings except the electricity substation, although a sign on a tree still reads “Dangerous buildings”. What really annoyed me and local inhabitants was that the top soil from the land was dragged off into mounds many years ago in readiness for building houses. This has never happened, so the field lies sterile and unusable, only a few hardy weeds growing in barren soil.

It seemed ironic that the most prolific plants were coltsfoot and dog roses – both with ancient associations with treating deep seated lung conditions – yet ignored by the medical enthusiasts who set up their fresh air wards with an open-air school where children were expected to learn in icy temperatures during the winter and snow drifted onto verandas which housed the beds of young patients during daylight hours. Despite the sometimes harsh physical conditions, the sanatorium boasted an 80% success rate. This may have been due in part to the good food and fresh air given to poverty stricken children from the slums of Newcastle.

Food was grown by the neighbouring farm colony, also established by the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, where local poor children, mainly boys, were taught farming and horticultural skills. Many of the children were dispersed to “the colonies” in Australia and Canada.

I was surprised to find another briar rose (rosa rubiginosa) in the Northumbrian hedgerows. The petals were smaller and deeper pink, but I knew the properties were similar to rosa canina, so I picked as much as I could from bushes in Stannington and those lining the car park to Walkworth beach. It was incredibly soothing to walk across the sand dunes to look at the calm North Sea, then pick as many petals as I could before the heavens opened! I put all the petals to dry on kitchen towel in one of the shelves in the caravan. Now they are safely put them away in a glass jar in the larder waiting to be added to elderberry elixir in the autumn..

Since our return from Northumberland, I feel as if I have been knee-deep in rose petals. This time from the apothecary’s rose and my new William Shakespeare rose which is blooming in a pot on the patio.

I scoured the garden to find young nettles hiding amidst the broad beans and soft fruit bushes to make the 1935 Famers Weekly recipe, Nettle Syrup.

“Gather the tops of young nettles, wash well. To every 1lb nettles add 1pt of cold water until all juice is extracted, then strain. To this liquid add ¾ lb white sugar and petals of seven red roses. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Strain free of petals and boil until syrup thickens, when it will be a rich red colour. Pour into clean, dry, warmed jars and seal very securely. To make a good drink, put a teaspoonful into a milk beaker and dissolve it in a tablespoonful of boiling water. When cold, fill up with milk. This is an excellent cure for sore throats and is also a splendid pick me up.”

The means to make this syrup has eluded me for several years as it seemed impossible to gather young nettle tops from the first spring growth at the same time as roses, since they are at least 4 months apart, unless the writer is talking about a second crop of nettles.

I also couldn’t make head or tail of the sentence “To every 1lb nettles add 1pt of cold water until all juice is extracted.” It’s not like adding sugar to rhubarb and leaving overnight to extract the juice through osmosis! This time, I wanted to get as many water-based constituents from the nettles as I could, because the syrup is destined for a friend who has just finished her fourth bout of chemotherapy, so I decocted it for 20 minutes, then left it covered overnight in the saucepan aka Susun Weed. Then I strained it and left it in the fridge during the day while I was at work until I returned home and could find the time to finish it.

The resulting liquid was very dark green. I suspect what I should have done was make a cold water overnight maceration producing a pink coloured liquid, which would then have turned deep red from the rose petals as per the recipe. My syrup was very dark, but did have a deep red colour if you poured it against a bright light. There is also a subtle rose scent and none of the usual earthy nettle aroma.

I also rediscovered a recipe for Greek Rose Syrup, Tyrandafilo Glyko, posted on Susun Weed’s forum by Saint Francesca.

4 cups red Rose petals (though scented pink petals will do), with the white ends removed (I only had 3 roses available so added ten heads of flowering lavender)
3 cups sugar
1 cup water
juice of 1 lemon
Place lemon juice, sugar and water together in a suitable saucepan (preferably heat toughened glass or enamel. Not aluminium!). Bring to the boil, stirring as it heats to dissolve the sugar before it begins to boil. Simmer over a low heat for 15 minutes to make a syrup. Remove from the heat and cool. (I poured the syrup into a plastic bowl with a lid and cooled in a water bath in the sink for half an hour.) Add the petals to the syrup and leave for at least five to six hours or preferably overnight. Return to the stove and bring quickly to the boil. Simmer for five minutes. Remove from the heat and either strain the liquid through a sieve into warmed sterilized jars or bottles, or leave the petals in the syrup and bottle. Seal when completely cold and store in the refrigerator. The Greeks do not usually strain this preparation. The traditional manner of taking this restorative syrup is to dissolve 1¬ - 2 teaspoons in a glass of cold water and give it to the weary traveller.

The syrup is possibly the most beautiful preparation I have ever made. The flavour is subtle and a sheer delight to sip slowly in a glass of cold water while resting.

There is so much to learn from rose. It is a plant which can be used to cool conditions involving heat from any part of the body both internally and externally, whether the heat arises from infection e.g. tuberculosis, vaginal yeast infections, insect bites or an auto-immune inflammation such as arthritis. It is also astringent and has been used for such conditions as dysentery and excessive nose bleed.

Mathew Woods in his Earthwise Herbal says it is used for acute inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract, including sore throat, free secretion or obstruction of the nose and bronchi. It is also a remedy for chronic inflammation and is indicated in “the weakness of convalescence, old age and delicate children”. He says rose also acts on heat in the digestive tract, including diarrhoea and stubborn inflammatory conditions. He recommends rose petal waters, lotions and baths be used to cure arthritis associated heat.

Maurice Messegue, the French herbalist, recommends rose to counteract the damage done by antibiotics on the intestinal flora.

Kiva Rose Hardin has written several fascinating articles on rose. She uses it to “ease the itch of mosquito bites and other hot, itchy things”. She also uses it for lung congestion irritability, tension, respiratory heat and general feeling of overheatedness and anxiety. Her favourite rose medicine is an elixir, where petals and leaves are steeped in a mixture of honey and brandy, then macerated for 4-6 weeks before straining or sometimes leaving the plant material in the menstrum. Doseage is one dropperful every half hour or so.

She also uses rose infused honey and vinegar to treat burns – the honey being especially useful where the burn appears to be infected. Last year I made up her recipe for burn honey using apothecary’s rose petals, flowers from evening primrose and bergamot flowers. The scent is amazing. The honey is less sweet than when pure and has a more runny consistency which would be ideal for smearing over open skin.

Possibly the most helpful thing about roses, like plantain, is that you can use any species to achieve the same effect. It doesn’t matter if you only have access to dog roses in hedgerow or copse, apothecary’s rose in the garden or rosa rugosa in a boundary hedge, their properties remain the same. They are the ideal plant for summer and I look forward to working with them even more closely in the years to come.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Fennel update : a feast of red

Some spare hours today saw me decanting the most recent tinctures and vinegars. Ribwort plantain came out it's usual almost black colour, with a warm taste to the slight bitterness. The small amount of yarrow tincture was a clear brown/orange, making me anxious to harvest more once it all starts flowering. I had to protect the few random stalks in the field behind the gate from Chris'enthusiastic strimming last Sunday, but he then went on to leave the ones in my parents garden as he recognised them as a plant I wanted, rather than a weed!

The real surprises were the fennel tincture and the chive vinegar, both of which came out a beautiful red. The fennel tincture had a rose glow to it, while the vinegar was almost scarlet. I didn't think the tincture would go red as it looked a dark green when I first poured the vodka in. It was such a surprise! I hope the liqueur will also have a red tinge, but I shall have to wait another month before that is ready to decant.

The chive vinegar smelled strongly of pickled onions (which is not surprising!), but has almost a sweet flavour to the vinegar. I can see we're going to have fun at the next Vinegar workshop!

At the last one, we made fire cider vinegar and I was thinking of that when I saw some horseradish leaves sticking up above a patch of weeds surrounding some courgette and squash plants. The courguettes are flowering and have set one fruit, which already has had a bite taken out of it. The butternut squash plants don't seem to have grown at all since I planted them, which does not bode well.

I thought I would clear the weeds from them (red dock, chickweed and various others) when I saw some rustling and a huge frog made its way into the safety of the compost bins which are overgrown with potatoes and bindweed. I did apologise for taking away his shelter, but he has lots of other places to hide. I've seen a couple of tiny froglets in the past month, but it's really good to see the adults back again.

Tuesday 30 June 2009

Summer Weeds: Watercress and Sorrel

The theme for July’s Herbwifery Forum Blog Party is summer weeds hosted by Darcy Blue.

The two plants I have chosen could never really be defined as weeds since they have both been eaten and cultivated by mankind since ancient times, yet grow wild in glorious profusion – watercress by clear, flowing streams and sorrel in meadows.

My first memories of watercress, Nasturtium officinale, are from childhood teatimes when it would be eaten with bread and butter. We all loved the hot, peppery taste. The use of watercress for this meal was promoted during both World Wars when Britain was reliant on home grown food. Studies were carried during World War Two by the Department of Health which showed that watercress promoted children’s growth and was often included in locally-provided school dinners.

Watercress has always been associated with good health. Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, is said to have located his first hospital beside a stream on the Island of Kos around 400 BC so he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients. The ancient Greeks called watercress kardamon; they believed it could brighten their intellect, hence their proverb “Eat watercress and get wit.”

Romans and Anglo Saxons ate watercress to prevent baldness. Egyptian Pharoahs served freshly squeezed watercress juice to their slaves each morning and afternoon in order to increase their productivity. Anglo-Saxons swore by watercress potage to ‘spring clean’ the blood.

Irish monks were said to survive for long periods eating only bread and watercress and referred to watercress as ‘pure food for sages.’ In one of the earliest Celtic stories, “The frenzy of Suibnhu”, the writer describes an Irish valley where madmen went to live for their year of madness.

…he reached ever-delightful Glen Bolcain. It is there the madmen of Ireland used to go when their year in madness was complete, that glen being ever a place of great delight for madmen. For it is thus Glen Bolcain is : it has four gaps to the wind, likewise a wood very beautiful, very pleasant, and clean-banked wells and cool springs, and sandy, clear-water streams, and green-topped watercress and brooklime bent and long on their surface. Many likewise are its sorrels, its wood-sorrels, its lus-bian and its biorragan, its berries, and its wild garlic, its melle, and its miodhbhun its black sloes and its brown acorns. The madmen moreover used to smite each other for the pick of watercress of that glen and for the choice of its couches.”

When I go to visit sacred wells all over the country, I often find large watercress beds nearby. The most memorable have been the sacred wells of Tara in Ireland and Davidstow in Cornwall. Often I will wildcraft enough watercress to take back with me for our next meal as Chris loves watercress, as I do.

The first attempts at commercial cultivation are reported to have been made by a Nicholas Meissner in the 16th century at Erfurt in Germany. It was seen there by Cardon, an officer of Napoleon’s army and introduced by him into France, where it was eaten at almost every meal. The first British Watercress farm was opened in 1808 by William Bradbury at Springhead in Northfleet, near Gravesend in Kent.

Mrs Grieve describes watercress as “A hardy perennial found in abundance near springs and open running watercourses, of a creeping habit with smooth, shining, brownish-green, pinnatifid leaves and ovate, heart-shaped leaflets, the terminal one being larger than the rest. Flowers, small and white, produced towards the extremity of the branches in a sort of terminal panicle.”

She says that watercress is particularly valuable for its antiscorbutic qualities and has been used as such from the earliest times. It is thought to promote appetite when eaten in a salad. Culpepper said the bruised leaves or the juice “will free the face from blotches, spots and blemishes”, when applied as a lotion.

Mrs Grieve also noted watercress was used as a specific in tuberculosis. Its active principles were said to be at their best when the plant is in flower.

I found this really interesting because you never see watercress flowers on commercial plants. I thought I’d never be able to grow watercress myself until I found a way to make a watercress bed in my stream. However, this spring, I found some plants growing in earth in our local garden centre. I planted them in a large pot on our patio and we’ve been eating fresh watercress for the past month. The plants have been flowering the whole time and the stems taste the same powerful peppery taste I remember from childhood, unlike the fairly bland varieties in shops today.

The peppery heat comes from the plant’s mustard oils, which are released when chewed and act as a stimulant to the digestion and the taste buds, while the stalks are succulent and cool. Watercress contains 15 essential vitamins and minerals. It is said to have more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach. Watercress is low in fat and very versatile. It also contains beta-carotene, Vitamin A equivalents and antioxidants.

There is also very interesting research being done by the University of Southampton where they are investigating watercress's potential ability to suppress breast cancer cell development. The results are expected to be announced in autumn 2009.

This follows research, carried out by the University of Ulster, Coleraine, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2007, which found that watercress increased the ability of cells to resist DNA damage caused by free radicals. It also found that daily intake of watercress significantly reduced levels of DNA damage found in blood cells. DNA damage is considered to be an important trigger in the early stages of cancer.

My second plant is sorrel. Rumex acetosa. Wikipaedia describes sorrel as “a slender plant about 60 cm high, with roots that run deep into the ground, as well as juicy stems and edible, oblong leaves. The lower leaves are 7 to 15 cm in length, slightly arrow-shaped at the base, with very long petioles. The upper ones are sessile, and frequently become crimson.”

To me, when flowering, sorrel looks very much like red dock, except the leaves are larger and curled and taste better! Sorrel has a totally unique taste. I give it to new workshop attendees and tell them it will explode inside their mouth! Mrs Grieves says the sour taste of Sorrel is due to the acid oxalate of potash it contains. Tartaric and tannic acids are also present.

In Tudor times, sorrel was held in great repute in England, for table use, but after the introduction of French Sorrel, with large succulent leaves, it gradually lost its position both as a salad and a potherb.

Maude Grieve gives a resume of what earlier herbalists wrote about sorrel

John Evelyn thought that Sorrel imparted 'so grateful a quickness to the salad that it should never be left out.' He wrote in 1720, 'Sorrel sharpens the appetite, assuages heat, cools the liver and strengthens the heart; is an antiscorbutic, resisting putrefaction and in the making of sallets imparts a grateful quickness to the rest as supplying the want of oranges and lemons. Together with salt, it gives both the name and the relish to sallets from the sapidity, which renders not plants and herbs only, but men themselves pleasant and agreeable.’

Culpepper wrote, 'Sorrel is prevalent in all hot diseases, to cool any inflammation and heat of blood in agues pestilential or choleric, or sickness or fainting, arising from heat, and to refresh the overspent spirits with the violence of furious or fiery fits of agues: to quench thirst, and procure an appetite in fainting or decaying stomachs: For it resists the putrefaction of the blood, kills worms, and is a cordial to the heart, which the seed doth more effectually, being more drying and binding.... Both roots and seeds, as well as the herb, are held powerful to resist the poison of the scorpion. . . . The leaves, wrapt in a colewort leaf and roasted in the embers, and applied to a large imposthume, botch boil, or plague-sore, doth both ripen and break it. The distilled water of the herb is of much good use for all the purposes aforesaid.'

Gerard counted eight different kinds of Sorrel - the Garden, bunched or knobbed, Sheep, Romane, Curled, Barren and Great Broad-leaved Sorrel. He said, 'The Sorrells are moderately cold and dry. Sorrell doth undoubtedly cool and mightily dry, but because it is sour, it likewise cutteth tough humours. The juice thereof in summer time is a profitable sauce in many meats and pleasant to the taste. It cooleth a hot stomach. The leaves are with good success added to decoctions, and are used in agues. The leaves are taken in good quantity, stamped and stained into some ale and cooleth the body. The leaves are eaten in a tart spinach. The seed of Sorrell drunk in wine stoppeth the bloody flow.'

Mrs Grieve also lists the medicinal uses of sorrel. She said, “The medicinal action of Sorrel is refrigerant and diuretic and it is employed as a cooling drink in all febrile disorders. It is corrective of scrofulous deposits: for cutaneous tumours, a preparation compounded of burnt alum, citric acid, and juice of Sorrel, applied as a paint, has been employed with success. Sorrel is especially beneficial in scurvy.”

Apparently, both the root and the seed were formerly used for their astringent properties, and were employed to stem haemorrhage. A syrup made with the juice of Fumitory and Sorrel had the reputation of curing the itch, and the juice, with a little vinegar, was considered a cure for ringworm, and recommended as a gargle for sore throat. A decoction of the flowers, made with wine, was said to cure jaundice and ulcerated bowels, the root in decoction or powder being also employed for jaundice, and gravel and stone in the kidneys.

I’m not sure I shall experiment making a syrup or a flower decoction as I use most of the plants leaves on a regular basis from early spring to autumn in my salads. It is amazing in cheese sandwiches and brings a whole new dimension to salads when mixed with plain lettuce.

The interesting thing about both these plants is how well they serve us during the summer. They cool us and stimulate the appetite when we are feeling at our most sluggish due to heat. They also protect against skin conditions and mineral deficiencies helping to keep us healthy and maybe even contributing to our ability to be wise!

The Watercress site:
Mrs Grieve on watercress
The frenzy of Suibnhu
Mrs Grieve on sorrel
Wikipaedia on sorrel

Wednesday 3 June 2009

A forest of fennel

As we left the Exmouth Kite Festival last year, I noticed a bank of wild fennel growing along the estuary embankment. This year I made sure to investigate further and was rewarded with a whole basket of wildcrafted green and bronze fennel stalks.

For me, fennel is associated with hot summer days spent watching boats on the coast. Usually this has been at Percuil, a tiny harbour on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall where we used to launch and retrieve our small dinghy during summer holidays. Fennel would add a delightful soothing fragrance to the warm evening air. To find it growing on the Devon coastline was an added bonus.

I have to be honest, I have never used fennel in any structured way. Bronze fennel has always grown in my gardens, the delicate fronds occasionally finding their way into freshly baked fish dishes or omelettes. It was amongst the first herbal vinegars I made, producing a beautiful delicate pink colour to add to salad dressings. I have added the seeds to lemon balm liqueurs over the years in place of aniseed, but there my relationship with the herb ended.

Until last year.

Every so often, when I’m very tired, I get annoying bouts of heartburn. As with most ailments, I try to ignore it as much as possible in the hope it will grow tired of annoying me and go away. Last summer, Darcy Blue mentioned making a useful syrup of fennel and meadowsweet for heartburn, so I made some. Occasionally I remember to take it when I need to.

To be presented with such a wealth of herb made me realise I need to work with fennel much more closely, so last night was spent in the garden processing my harvest. Now I have bronze fennel macerating in cider vinegar, green fennel tincturing in vodka and another jar full of ground marjoram and chopped fennel in vodka waiting to be turned into a digestive liqueur for after-dinner delights. I may add some cumin and coriander seeds to add further digestive support.

Today I have been researching the properties of fennel. The aromatic and carminative uses were something I was aware of, but I was surprised to find it had galactagogic and anti-microbial properties useful in breaking up respiratory congestion.

Jim Macdonald describes the action of an aromatic herb as follows. “Aromatic herbs are those that contain strong smelling volatile essential oils. These oils tend to be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are “dispersive” in nature, which is to say that they help break up stagnation of all sorts. This can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas, or even cluttered minds & cloudy thinking. Although not exclusively so, aromatics are often relaxants, acting perhaps as antispasmodics to help relieve tension and spasm, perhaps as calming nerviness to allay nervous stress and anxiety (and frequently both). Though it sounds strange to say, aromatic herbs are also very often stimulating, and some are both relaxant and stimulant

Aromatics often act as diuretics as well, as the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys, which find them irritating and increase urine output to “flush” them out of the body. This is what provides aromatic’s antimicrobial effect; the antiseptic oils in the urine bathe the tissues of the urinary system as they are swept out of the body.”

Jim also describes carminative as “aromatic herbs that contain volatile oils and initiate the expulsion of intestinal gas. They often relieve cramping as well.” Fennel seeds have always been used to help dispel gas in tiny babies. It was one of the major components in the ubiquitous “gripe water” given to colicky babies. My children never suffered with colic, so it wasn’t something I ever used.

A simple remedy for bloating is to chew fennel seeds or make a tea by pouring nearly boiling water over a teaspoonful of seeds and leave to steep for ten minutes in a covered container before straining and drinking.

Darcy Blue gave a “kitchen spice” remedy to support good digestive function as well as relieving discomfort on the Herbwifery Forum in 2008. She said to mix equal parts of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, crush a teaspoonful and steep in hot water for ten minutes. She advised adding a touch of ginger and honey for added flavour.

There seem to be many different ways to use fennel for heartburn. While Darcey uses either a syrup (as mentioned before) or fennel honey pills, Jim favours a fennel tincture, which he gave to his wife when she was pregnant and suffered with heartburn.

Darcy shared how to make the honey pills with powdered herbs on the Herbwifery Forum last year. She described the process as “mix the powdered herbs, and a bit of marshmallow powder( helps it to make a dough) with a bit of honey - just enough to hold it together- and work into a stiff dough, then roll into pills. These can be taken fresh, or dehydrated in the oven with the light on, or in a dehydrator to be stored on the shelf.” Darcey uses the honey pills for indigestion or nausea if she is suffering in the middle of the night, popping the pills in her mouth to let them continue their work while she returns to sleep.

Tansy has also recently posted about making herbal honey pills on the "Not Dabbling in normal" blog. I am very tempted to try making some of my own soon.

I had never thought to use fennel with congestive respiratory conditions, but several herbalists suggested using fennel tea, or a mixture of fennel tea with marshmallow or mullein and rose to loosen a stagnant, hot, wet cough in a young child. It seems as if fennel has the extreme gentleness needed for babies and young children combined with a tenacity to move “stuck” infections as well as providing support and nourishment to a breastfeeding mother or an adult in digestive distress.

Fennel has also been cited in a list of herbs along with plantain, calendula, marshmallow and chamomile to heal a troubled gut or gastro-intestinal difficulties. Truly a herb to be valued!