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!