Wednesday 27 May 2009

Cherries, dandelions and blue eggs

I love going away in the caravan. It is probably the only time I can relax and forget most of my responsibilities. I can go to bed when I’m tired and enjoy lazily getting up – no alarm clocks, no train to catch and no 9-5 working day.

It was actually work which took us away. Providing a training session in Chesterfield so close to the Bank Holiday seemed a perfect excuse to spend time in the Peak District doing very little in beautiful surroundings. Even the weather co-operated, allowing us to spend a gentle day ambling around the Crich tramway museum followed by a day of knitting in the open air before we braved the hordes of Bakewell to pick up a tart and a pudding to take home with us.

The first place we stayed was a small site attached to a converted farmhouse with a couple of acres in Old Brampton, just outside Chesterfield. It only took fifteen minutes to drive across to the hospital where I was teaching on an NVQ course at midday, but nearly forty minutes when Chris tried to collect me at 4pm after I’d finished. Luckily I had Angela Paine’s “The Healing Power of Celtic Plants” and a banana with me so I was able to sit on a bench outside the education centre and read until he finally arrived.

We parked the caravan next to a small orchard leading onto a grass field which housed two grey ponies, one of which was supposed to be foaling in the near future. Opening the curtains each morning allowed me to contemplate the glories of cherry trees, wishing I could beg some bark to try to make some of Ananda’s cherry elixir.
We have a cherry tree overhanging our garden, so when it flowers next spring, I shall be experimenting with a bough which reaches over our side of the fence.

Derbyshire’s peak district was three to four weeks behind us in flowering terms. Although the cherries were well formed, the apple trees were just blooming and I got to see my first lime flowers. The trees were very mature and way too high for me to even think about harvesting. My tiny short-leaf lime trees in the Sanctuary are about four year old now and I’m wondering how soon it will be before I will have my own lime flowers to savour.

I use lime sparingly as I have to buy it. I love the flowers in a soothing tea with lemon balm and I add the tincture to my daily medicine.

This small holding was notable for the wide variety of hens and cockerels which roamed around the farmyard. I recognised Welsummers and Marans as my mother loves these breeds which lay brown eggs with deep orange yolks. Chris had forgotten to pack our farm eggs in the rush to get away, so he asked the owner if we could have some from his flock. Imagine our surprise when the requested dozen arrived complete with two large blue eggs accompanying the white and brown. We learned later the blue eggs came from Anaconas, but I still am no wiser which hens were which! If anyone can identify the different breeds, I’d be very grateful!

I have posted many times about dandelions and did not intend to mention them again so soon. The syrup I made this year has been disappointing as Chris said it tasted too much like grass. Seeing dandelion flowers still blooming on the second certified location we stayed at Moor Edge Farm on the outskirts of Tansley near Matlock was too good an opportunity to waste.

While our friends went off to Nottingham to retrieve some of their son’s belongings from his university cupboard/hall of residence, I decided to forage. Dandelion flowers were first, but then I thought I’d combine them with something else and walked along the road for a short way to see what I could find.

There was a mature rowan tree in full bloom, but I’ve never seen a recipe for using the flowers, only the berries to make jelly or calm very sore throats with nodules from too much talking/singing.

On the grass verge I found some red clover blossoms and nearby was a hawthorn tree just coming out in blossom, so I added some handfuls to go with the dandelion flowers. It was truly blissful sitting outside in the sunshine removing dandelion petals from the green stems and creating a new flower syrup.

Normally I wouldn’t have a glass, screwtop bottle in the caravan, but I’d recycled one from a pear and elderflower drink bought at the Tramway museum the day before. If you’ve never visited, I can thoroughly recommend this open air reconstruction of a small high street with trams running up and down a mile long track showing spectacular views over the Derwent valley.

There is a newly opened woodland walk which was carpeted with flowering wild garlic. I have never seen such a beautiful sight! The local chain saw sculptor has made some stunning carvings from local felled wood. His green man had all of us spellbound.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and Monday evening saw us back at home. Luckily, with a couple of hours to spare, I was able to plant out my runner beans and some sweet corn seedlings I bought several weeks ago. The runner beans were far too large to leave in their pots another week as we’ll be down south at the Exmouth kite festival in two days time. The forecast is good, so maybe I’ll be able to finish my small contribution to the Milkweed project. I’m looking forward to sitting near to the coast while kites weave their magic in the sky.

Saturday 16 May 2009

New blog award!

This has been a truly wonderful week - busy, but full of good things.

On Wednesday I travelled up to Sheffield to give a presentation on changes to the NHS complaints system to forty of my colleagues across the country by videolink. The date was chosen because it was a scheduled meeting with my boss, who then had to attend a meeting in London and I was expecting to return the next day to meet with him.

As I wandered down the office, I heard my boss talking on the telephone - his case had been settled and he was in Sheffield. Thanks to his secretary, I was able to spend time with him, sort out various issues and give the presentation - a day well spent.

In the evening was the meeting of Solihull Writer's Workshop where Mike Megano adjudicated the annual article writing competition. To my complete surprise and delight, my article about Mount St Helen's was awarded first prize of £25. I was so happy!

Today has been split between Solihull Healers this morning and digging and weeding the garden during the afternoon. When showers fell, I retreated into the summerhouse to pull may flowers off dry hawthorn branches to make some hawthorn blossom brandy.

Imagine my surprise when I finally sat down at the computer to find a message left by Star to say she'd awarded my blog the Bella Award. Thank you very much, Star, it is very much appreciated!

The rules are: Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award, and his or her blog link.

Pass the award to 5 other blogs that you've newly discovered. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

I have chosen
Herbal Matters because Katrina writes fascinating herbal articles
The Sandwich Life because Cynthia shares her life with us all and has taught me so much
Growing Colour because I know nothing about dyeing with herbs and this blog makes it look so beautiful.
Life at Home because I have great respect for what Tabitha and her husband are trying to achieve for their family.
Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook because Hank seduced me with tales of sausages and how to dispatch cockerels.

Friday 15 May 2009

A sense of change

Many people are commenting about changes in both activity levels and the feel to the season. The first frantic rush of digging, sowing and planting has past and there appears to be a short hiatus while seeds germinate, seedlings grow and need nothing more than to be watched and watered.

I can feel the seasons moving as well. Daffodils and tulips are almost long forgotten, petals fallen and seedpods lost in quickly growing grass. In two weeks, banks of nettles grew from several inches to several feet in height, hiding piles of stones and enclosing the damson tree and elecampagne at the Sanctuary as if they were the sole plants elected to flourish on that patch of earth.

In my home garden it has been the Swiss mint running rampant in the darkest bed, dwarfing valerian and hiding pale green elecampane leaves which are half the size, but double the number of their younger counterparts, introduced a year later to a much sunnier location. I had to cut back curling green fronds to let in light, thinking these ferns will soon be culled, since they add nothing to the medicinal, culinary or floral beauty of the garden and we need their space!

Clearing nettles behind one of the garden seats has led me to experiments in juicing for the first time, both nettles and cleavers. The juicer was not impressed. Tiny amounts of vibrant, dark green juice eventually emerged, but hardly enough to drink or add to anything flavourful. I may be more successful adding small amounts of herbs to smoothies, rather than forcing the juicer into overheated sulks with large volumes of plant material.

The hawthorn hedge has grown into a substantial tree, producing more blossom than I’ve ever seen before. Sitting outside in evening sun shine, you can smell the cherry aroma filling the air. I’ve started two jars of hawthorn tincture and another of infused vinegar.

Last night was the May meeting of the Mercian Herb Group. The title was “eating and drinking flowers” presented by Debs Cook. It was a lovely evening. Debs had grown some stunningly beautiful pots of flowering herbs in her green house – thyme, jasmine, ginger rosemary, heartease, clove pinks and chives to name but a few. Just looking at the beautiful flowers made you feel happy!

Debs made a wonderfully moreish cheese dip with cottage and cream cheese mixed with thyme and chive flowers. She also prepared a hawthorn blossom brandy which will be ready to use in brandy sauce and custard to pour over Christmas pudding - something I’d never thought of.

It’s amazing how stuck in your ways you become until someone jogs you out of it. I’ve always used vodka for may blossom and brandy for haws, now I shall have to try something different!

We drank newly made dandelion syrup, last year’s elderflower cordial, violet syrup Debs brought back from France and some of her homemade honeysuckle wine. There were also rose geranium and marigold cakes to sample, which left everyone with happy, sated smiles on their faces.

Thunder rolls around outside as I write, dropping torrents of water over Birmingham City Centre. Such frustrating weather after a possible sighting of sunlight half an hour ago. I thought perhaps we might venture into the garden once I returned home to clear the last patch of wilderness so I can plant out the pumpkins I bought some times ago.

I’ve never really had time to grow vegetables, apart from runner beans each year, but this year is different. We have a short, established fruit border containing a gooseberry and elderberry bush we brought with us from our first house in Selly Oak three years after we were married. (The theory was we couldn’t have children without a gooseberry bush in the garden. So, having moved in in 1980, Richard duly appeared in 1982!)

Chris adores raspberries, so two years ago I planted several raspberry canes in the hope we might get our own crop. The red raspberries were fine, but the yellow autumn gold were very sour the first year, but seemed sweeter last year. There are two redcurrant bushes I collected from a nursery in North Derbyshire, one early and one late. They both produced lots of redcurrants last year, but it doesn’t look as if all the flowers have set this year and some of the strings are half empty.

I decided to experiment with strawberries as well last year and they seem to be flourishing, with lots of flowers, complimented by a sea of alpine strawberry flowers and set fruits all around the garden.

This year I’ve planted a few cabbages, cauliflowers, lettuces, spinach, broad beans and peas. Some plants have disappeared in the night, but some are still with us, which makes me very happy,

My real joy is the runner beans. Every year my parents plant seeds for me and I collect the young plants when they’re ready to be placed in the outdoor bed. In January this year, I collected a whole pile of seed from last year’s crop when I finally took down the bean poles. I wasn’t sure they’d be viable, but I threw caution to the wind and planted up about 24 seeds in 12 pots on the patio just to see what might happen.

It was such a delight to notice one runner bean popping up in each pot at the beginning of the week after two weeks sitting quietly doing nothing. My parents will still be planting 25 more seeds for me in the hopes I may get an early and a later crop. Knowing our luck they will start producing beans as soon as we depart for Cornwall in August and I’ll return to an entire line of beans which have grown too hard to be eaten! Maybe this will be the year my children finally learn how to pick beans after so many summers of enjoying them fresh from the garden.

Friday 1 May 2009

Joy and fear in large doses

On April 18th, at Armathwaite Hall in the Lake District, my eldest son, Richard, married his longterm sweetheart, Laura. His sister, Kathryn, played the piano for the ceremony and brother, Stephen, was an enthusiastic usher.

It was a wonderful day for everyone involved, full of joy and laughter from the fabulous wedding breakfast, through croquet on the lawns overlooking Bassenthwaite Lake to the wonderful ceiledh hosted by Kerfuffle in the evening. As the first wedding of this generation, it could not have been better and we wish them every happiness together in their married life.

The joy of the occasion has stayed with us, despite the media's attempt to cause panic and dispair with the projected arrival of swine flu. My sister in law kindly gave me my last dose of flu over Christmas 1999. After hosting the whole extended family for several days, I took to my bed as they went out of the front door. As a result I missed all the millennium celebrations including the firework display Chris put on for one of the Tablers' parties. Too weak to join anyone, I saw the new century in on my own accompanied by friends online and a cup of tea!

Don't think I don't acknowledge how severe a flu pandemic can be. Chris' grandmother told me how she lost a sister in the post-First World War epidemic. The teenager showed no symptoms until the day of her death. She asked her sisters if one of them would do her household duties for her that morning and by the afternoon she was dead. I hope no-one has to go through such trauma during the swine flu outbreak.

It struck me that writing a herbal nursing protocol for influenza was a practical way of challenging the media panic and doing something helpful, so I am posting it below. By the side, you'll see photos of the wedding and the beautiful spring blooms in my garden. There is nothing like noticing blossom for making you feel better!

What to do with flu

Everyone hopes they won’t catch flu. Hope is a good thing but prevention can help support your immune system and lessen the effects should you come into contact with the virus.

There are three main strands to optimising your health
• Plenty of sleep
• Regular nourishing meals
• Fresh air during the daytime to optimise production of vitamin D from sunlight and regular exercise to keep your body as fit as it can be

There are herbs you can take to improve your immune system. These should not be taken if you have an auto-immune condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus etc. as the herbs might precipitate a flare-up in the condition.

The common immune stimulating herbs are Echinacea, reishi or shitake mushrooms and astralagus. Echinacea can be taken as a tea, tincture or tablets. Both the mushrooms and astralagus root can be used in stews or soups. (Remove the sliced astralagus root before serving.)

If you, or any member of your family, feel anxious about getting flu, make some soothing cups of lemon balm tea. Lemon balm is both anti-viral and very good at keeping people calm.

At the first sign of the virus, you should begin taking elderberry. The syrup can be taken as a cordial in hot water (about 1tblsp in a mug full of hot water) several times a day. The elixir and tincture should be taken every half hour in doses of one dropperful (1/2 a teaspoon = 30 drops) for the first day and 5-6 doses during subsequent day. Elderberry cordial and syrup can be given to small children, but the doses of elixir and tincture should be reduced to 3-5 drops in warm water or fruit juice because of the alcohol involved. Glycerite extractions may be more useful for children because there is no alcohol if a cordial is not available.

For high fevers, give hot elderflower tea to encourage the patient to sweat and the fever to break. The tea is made by steeping 2 tsp of dried elderflower or 2 tablespoons of fresh elderflowers in a pint of boiling water for ten minutes, strain and drink as often as wished. The tea should be drunk as hot as possible. Elderflower is suitable for small children.

If the patient has aching bones from the fever, give boneset tincture or tea. (Boneset is very bitter, so a tincture may be more palatable.)

If the fever is very stubborn and won’t break, try vervain.

For coughs, give teas of thyme, sage and plantain. These are anti-viral and the plantain with sooth the mucous membranes in the bronchioles. A pleasant tea can be made from 1 tsp of dried sage, 1tsp dried thyme steeped in boiling water for 5-10 minutes then poured over the juice of half a lemon with honey to taste. Plantain can be added to the tea mix or as a tincture.(1/2-1tsp)

A cough syrup can be made from sage, thyme, white horehound, ginger root and angelica leaves. This can be given as a spoonful or as a hot drink.

While the patient has a high temperature, only drinks should be offered, no food. It may be helpful to have a supply of straws available if the patient feels too weak to lift their head from the pillow. The body should be left to concentrate on fighting the infection rather than by being distracted by food. Lots of sleep should be encouraged in a quiet and comfortable bedroom in shaded light.

Children’s temperatures can spike very quickly and medical advice should be sought if their temperate rises and they do not respond to simple nursing care.

If the patient suffers with sickness and/or diarrhoea, starve for 24 hours to let the digestive system completely rest and treat with digestive teas such as peppermint or chamomile. Diarrhoea can be treated with bramble leaf tea or two tsp of bramble root vinegar in water. Raspberry leaf and chamomile tea is another astringent remedy.

Remember that both young children and older adults can become severely dehydrated very quickly if large amounts of fluid are lost. Offer regular small amounts of fluid (sips, not gulps) following an attack of vomiting or diarrhoea. Seek medical advice if you are concerned.

Once the temperature has dropped, nourishing soups can be offered. These can be prepared beforehand and frozen.

Normal flu lasts one week in the acute phase but expect to be off work for at least two weeks. If you try to go back to work early, you may well put back your recovery and put yourself at risk of secondary infections, particularly chest infections. If this happens seek professional advice.


To make a Herb Tea
Place 2 tsb dried herb or 2 tblsp of fresh herb into a china or glass teapot or a glass cafatiere (French coffee press). Pour over just boiled water and leave to steep with the lid firmly on for ten minutes. Strain and drink. Sweeten with honey if necessary.

Elderberry Rob 1
This recipe for elderberry rob is from ‘The Countryside Cook Book’ by Gail Duff.

“Elderberry Rob should really only be kept for medicinal purposes, but it makes a delicious warm drink on a cold night. Dilute it with three parts of hot water.

1.8kg (4lbs) elderberries, weighed on stem
two 5cm (2inch) pieces cinnamon stick
1 piece ginger root bruised
2 chips nutmeg
5ml (1 teaspoon) allspice berries
5ml (1teaspoon) cloves
275ml (1 ½ pint water)
350g (12 oz) honey to each 375-ml (1 pint) liquid
150ml (1/4 pint) brandy

Take the elderberries from the stalks. Put them into a saucepan with the spices and water. Bring them gently to the boil and simmer them until the pan is full of juice, about 20 minutes.
Put a piece of muslin or an old linen tea towel over a large bowl. Pour the elderberries through it. Gather the sides together and squeeze out as much juice as you can. Measure it and return to the cleaned saucepan.
Bring the juice to the boil and add the honey. Stir for it to dissolve and then boil the syrup for 10 minutes. Take the pan from the heat and wait until the syrup stops bubbling. Pour in the brandy.
Pour the hot cordial into hot sterilised bottles and cork it tightly. Fills about 1 ½ wine bottles.

Elderberry Rob 2
This elderberry rob recipe is from Non Shaw's book, "Herbalism: An Illustrated Guide". Her method is "Take a quantity of elderberries and strip them off their stalks with a fork. Press out the juice using a wine press or jelly bag" I usually put them into a large piece of clean used cotton sheet and twist one end around until you can't squeeze out any more. This is a very tactile experience and you shouldn't use or wear anything you don't mind getting stained purple from the juice! "Add 1tsp allspice and 1/2 tsp ginger (optional) per 2 pints of liquid in a heavy bottomed pan" (preferably stainless steel or glass)"Reduce over a low heat until the juice is the consistency of molasses. Bottle and store in a cool place. Dose: Take 1tsp in a cup of hot water daily." I like this recipe because it doesn't use any sugar or honey and therefore is suitable for people with diabetes either type 1 or 2.

Elderberry Cordial
Barbara Grigson, in her book "The Greenwitch: A Modern Woman's Herbal" gives a very simple recipe for spiced elderberry cordial.

"Wash and destalk the berries. Put 2lbs of them in a pan with a cupful of water and simmer until they have given up most of their juice. Crush and strain the berries through a sieve. Put the juice back in a saucepan with five cloves, an inch or so of fresh root ginger, grated and 1/2 lb of sugar. Simmer for another hour and then store in tightly sealed jars."

Elderberry Tincture
Elderberry tincture is easy. Fill a large glass jar with elderberries stripped from their stalks, then top the whole thing up with vodka. Leave for three weeks or more in a cold, dark place then strain it, bottle the liquid. At the first sign of a cough, cold or 'flu' take a teaspoonful diluted in water (or orange juice) and do so four or five times a day over the next three days or so. Tincture can also be made with dried or frozen elderberries.

Elderberry Elixir (based on Kiva Rose’s recipe)
2 Pint Jar
1/2 ounce of dried Elderberries (2oz fresh approx to fill half the jar)
1 cinnamon stick,
1oz root ginger peeled, sliced and chopped
Large handful or fresh or dried rosehips
Chopped peel of half a large orange
appr. 1 pint Brandy
½-1lb Honey
Place the herbs in the jar, cover with honey and mix well. Add brandy until the jar is full and mix well again. Leave to macerate for 4-6 weeks. Take 1/4 - 1/2 dropperfull of Elixir every two to three hours at the first sign of illness. You MUST take the Elixir frequently rather than having a bigger dose further apart, it just won't work that way. Use the same dosage if you are actively ill. For a general preventative dose, I suggest 1/3 dropperful every four hours or so.

Cough Syrup
Use general syrup recipe from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's Herbal Remedies
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100 g (4oz) fresh chopped herb
450 g (1 lb) sugar or honey
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain.
Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until
you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz) left Add sugar or honey, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label. (This takes time. 1 fluid ounce evaporates about every hour.)

A children’s cough syrup can be made from onions or elderberry and Echinacea in equal parts. For straightforward syrup use 2 parts peppermint, 1 part hyssop, 1/2 part thyme, 1/2 part horehound. For cough syrup which can also be used as a drink, use hyssop, thyme, elecampagne, white horehound, angelica and root ginger. You can use lemon balm to flavour, instead of peppermint.

Chicken Soup
Simmer a whole, organic chicken for 5 hours with an onion, half a head of garlic, celery, thyme, sage, a bay leaf, 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar (preferably infused with a mineral rich herb such as nettle, motherwort or mugwort) and black pepper all covered with cold water. Then take all the chicken flesh off the bones, remove the herb stalks and bay leaf and add 3 carrots and potatoes to the soup (or any vegetables of your choice). Simmer for a further 15 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Liquidise and serve with chunks of bread or freeze in suitable portion sizes until needed.

Bone broth
Several large bones (Lamb, beef, goat, chicken carcass)
4 stalks of celery
1 large onion
1-2 leeks
1 handful thyme
1 sprig sage
6 stalks from fresh burdock leaves
1-2 dried bay leaves
½ a head of garlic, peeled and chopped or crushed and left for ½ hour before cooking
6 peppercorns
2 tblsps cider vinegar (preferably infused with mineral rich herbs)
Wash and chop vegetables. Place everything in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Cover with water and simmer for five - seven hours. Remove bones, herbs and spices. Liquidise broth with onions, celery, burdock and leeks. Strain through a fine sieve to remove any bits. Serve in a mug or freeze in suitable portion sizes or use as the basis of a nourishing soup by adding fresh or dried nettles and vegetables and/or mushrooms of choice.

Herbal suppliers
Baldwins of London
Phyto Products Tel 01623 644334
ProLine Tel 01780 753366
Artemis Herbs
Natures Laboratory/ Herbal Apothecary. Tel 01947 602346