Tuesday 20 January 2009

Searching for lions in winter

Many people know dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) but few go hunting for it across fields in January. Standing in the middle of an empty five acres, gardening fork in one hand and a yellow washing up bowl in the other, I must have looked a strange sight to passing motorists or horse-riders trotting wearily home after a day’s hunting. Bitter wind sweeping down over the Cotswold hills made my eyes water, so I could hardly see and bending down made my nose run, necessitating the application of tissues every five minutes!

Luckily the ground was not frozen, nor was the soil too wet to release the dandelion roots when I found them. “Gather second year roots,” says Linda Ours Rago in her book, “Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing with Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise Woman Tradition”, but she doesn’t say how to recognise the difference between first, second or older roots by the crown of new leaves appearing on the surface.

What I discovered was that smaller roots seemed to have more leaves and thicker roots were only just sprouting a dark, green array. The thicker taproots are not like carrots, they are actually the product of several small roots – often from more than one plant- twisting around each other to reach up to half and inch diameter, but with a hollow centre.

It’s often easier to identify the roots once you have tipped the clod of earth upside down. The white root sap will gleam at you from the darkness of the soil, enabling you to almost “crack the clod open” to reveal the root in all its glory – no matter how small it is!

I love roots. I don’t enjoy digging them, especially not on my own, but there is a real sense of achievement and worthwhile effort when you’ve finished all the scrubbing and other preparation and the jar of new tincture is sitting on the table waiting to be put away to macerate.

I washed the roots, scrubbing them furiously before swilling in several changes of water. After that I cut them into small sections less than an inch long and about 1/4inch thick and put them on trays to dry in the fire oven for several hours. They came out very crisp but the leaves didn’t disintegrate on touch, which I would have expected if they had dried too long.

Normally I wouldn’t bother drying them, but they were so wet and my harvest was only half of what Chris and I gathered last year, so I decided to concentrate everything to try and extract the maximum amounts in vodka. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Seeing the crispness of the roots made me want to create a dandelion root chai with other spices. Unfortunately my coffee grinder isn’t working at the moment, so I shall have to wait until I gather my next batch of roots to try this out.

It seems only right that dandelion’s Latin name comes from Greek words 'taraxos' (disorder) and 'akos' (remedy), echoing the many centuries dandelions have been helping people. Its English name is derived from the French “dents de lion” meaning lion’s tooth referring to the serrated edge of the leaves. Of course the French have their own word for the plant – Pissenlit – which eloquently describes its diuretic nature.

There are so many different uses and recipes for dandelions. Brigitte Mars has written a wonderful little book called “Dandelion Medicine”. It’s out of print, but still available from the US. She provides a cornucopia of ideas from nourishing soups, fritters and pancakes to cosmetic uses of dandelions.

I played with dandelions a lot during 2008. She was a real ally in helping my body return to a state of balance where my ankles no longer swelled if I sat at my desk all day or stood in front of a group of people during one of my workshops.

The root is historically ally to the liver and Christopher Hedley recommends it for any digestive problems or long term treatment of gall-stones. When my hairdresser was complaining of digestive upsets several years ago, I recommended she try some dandelion tea. I warned her about the bitter taste, but she said she loved it!

Dandelion leaves support the kidneys and bring real excitement to any salad especially when coupled with sorrel leaves! The leaves are best picked before the plant flowers or they can become too bitter afterwards. I remember picking leaves in driving sleet last March, which not only shows how appalling our Easter weather was, but also how desperate I was to gather my own medicine and not be reliant on store-bought produce. Even when the leaves were dried, they still retained a more vibrant colour than the bought dandelion leaves.

My salads are never measured or weighed, but my friend, Debs Cook from The Herb Society produced a delightful dandelion salad and soup when she appeared last year in Countryfile on BBC1 last April. You can find the recipes here.

One of the new dandelion parts I played with last year was dandelion flower. We made the essence during a workshop in May. I thought the flower essence was for happiness, but I was delighted to see a wonderful story given in Matt Woods’ book, “The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism” where an eight year old girl, who was being thoroughly obnoxious to her entire family, completely changed her nature when given a few drops of dandelion flower essence. Unfortunately I didn’t keep any of the flower remedy after the workshop but I shall be making some more this year to offer to harassed parents!

It was dandelion syrup which really turned Chris onto herbal products. I made two batches last Spring. We poured it over porridge for breakfast and Chris decided it made a really nice addition to his mid-morning coffee while I was away at work. I used Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley’s basic recipe for making syrups, inspired by Henriette’s eulogy about dandelion syrup in her blog.

I also made some dandelion flower salve. The sunshine yellow oil makes everyone smile! I was so glad I did, because one lady who came to my workshops had recently had a double mastectomy and she found the salve really helpful in soothing her scar tissue.

I have often thought you cannot really claim to know a plant until you have gathered and used every part of them. Although I have shared many experiences with dandelion, I suspect there are many more secrets she has yet to reveal!

January Musings

Many people find winter difficult. In some respects, I’m one of them. Not because of Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD), but because Christmas brings such a welter of responsibilities and activities that from the end of December I seem to lose the ability to think or create or do anything!

I say that, yet, looking back, the truth is I’ve done so much, I’m just exhausted. Sleep helps. Playing helps even more, but my kind of play usually results in much less sleep, so it’s a vicious circle! I’ve enjoyed myself and, from the fun, been able to kick start my creative muse and finish the adult romance I’ve been posting on the internet called Tears in a Dry Land.

It’s been a long time in gestation. Chapters 1-5 were written up in the caravan in Cornwall in 2007, Chapters 6 and 7 were completed during December 2008, but I’d never thought about the ending. I’m very bad at endings. I’m good at starting new projects, having new ideas, working on them until they are about half way through, but finishing them is like drawing blood out of a stone. I have to drag myself, kicking and screaming to ensure their completion.

Luckily I have two good friends, Steven and Matthew, who act as my editors. I can rely on them to spot not just spellings and bad grammar, but also parts of the story they’re not happy with. Their comments are usually very helpful and I’m able to change bits, add extra pages or cut things to make a much tighter, more interesting creation. It’s very satisfying when you’re happy with the last few pages and hope your readers will be too.

Chris flew off to the French Alps for a week’s skiing with his cousin and her friends last Friday. I decided to spend the weekend with my parents as they’d been suffering badly with colds since Christmas but are now much improved.

Despite the howling winds and lashing rain on Friday night, Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day (if you wrapped up warmly!). I spent time down at the Sanctuary pondering what needed to be done over the coming year.

The body responsible for maintaining live electricity pylons had written to my father the previous week, asking if they could bring a JCB into the Sanctuary to replace the wooden pole which holds the electricity cables. My initial reaction was one of shock and horror at the thought of the desecration which could be caused, but thinking about it more calmly, I realised this could be the opportunity I’ve been looking for.

The pylon sits in the middle of the top herb bed. It is completely out of place and I’ve worried about the energetic difficulties it causes to the plants. Now, if they are agreeable, we could move the live wires completely out of the Sanctuary, to the corner of the field which can’t be used for hay. The herb bed could be given a totally new lease of life.

The other major project which has to be completed before March is moving the white mulberry tree. It’s grown so large; it completely blocks the view of the valley from the summer house, so my parents decided it must go. I have asked Fiona Hopes, who came to one of my workshops three years ago, if she can find it a new home, so I am waiting to hear what she thinks.

Visiting the Sanctuary in winter is always difficult, because I see all the things which need to be done, but it’s too cold/wet/frosty to do anything about them. There is so much grass, thistles, fewerfew and other plants to remove from the main beds. Other beds have been totally overgrown and need to be reclaimed if any of the herbs I’ve planted there can flourish and be harvested next year.

The winter does allow me to see possibilities. If the ivy could be removed from under the “ancient woodland” area, we could plant English bluebells, primroses, ramsons/wild garlic and maybe other woodland plants. If the stream bed could be extended a little, we could start a watercress site – something I’ve wanted to do for a while.

There are several areas where fallen twigs and branches need tidying up into piles ready for burning, opening up other parts of the Sanctuary which we could perhaps use for storytelling or other events.

Despite all these plans running around in my head, it wasn’t until I began to stop and look properly; I began to see the wonder in the winter landscape. There were several patches of violets flowering underneath the hawthorn and crab apple trees. The bank was awash with thick, green daffodil spears and pristine drops of snow lay on the grass from snowdrops bursting into flower.

I took several photographs to prove Spring is on the way before resting for a while on the bench. A pair of buzzards were wheeling above the pasture in the next field and as they moved to other territory, I watched a kestrel and a rook battle with each other - something I’d never seen before.

The dried leaves of the Joe Pye Weed stalks (gravelroot) clattered in the wind, reminding me to listen, to be present, rather than consumed by my own thoughts. There was a tiny bird flying between the briars overhanging the fence and the tunnel of ivy sheltering the meditation space, but I couldn’t make out what it was. I know there are a pair of wrens, a robin and some finches, as well as blackbirds, hedge sparrows and other birds in the Sanctuary, but the movement was two quick to make an identification.

It was good to sit and feel the hum of the earth beginning to wake again all around me, giving strength to return to the real world, taking the confidence of new life and new energy with me.