Monday 29 March 2010

Celebrating a Herbal Springtime

This post is part of the Herbwifery Forum April blog party hosted by Cory Su on her blog Aquarian Bath

Spring evaded us for longer this year. Now the waiting is over as suddenly my garden is swathed in yellow. Forsythia blossoms hang from the naked cherry tree like a sunshine waterfall. Daffodils, primroses and cowslips offer yellow beacons amidst the dark brown earth, while a solitary primula promises red flowers in the near future.

Gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes have already unfurled their vibrant green leaves. Red currants and raspberry canes will not be far behind. I can see leaf buds swelling on the hawthorn hedge like a grey/green mist as I check the new plum trees for signs of contentment with their new home.

Spring brings bursts of new energy. Friday night saw me collecting nettles, garlic mustard, spinach and sorrel from the garden for my workshop soup. Already their different shades of green are painting a new palate together with the stalwarts of winter – holly, ivy, laurel, rosemary and yew.

Early fronds of St John’s wort have been growing for several months now, their lemony tang a burst of flavour on my tongue. Sea holly shoots are blue/green compared with their shiny green golden rod neighbours. A touch of red nearby reveals new rhubarb stalks, their green curled leaves waiting to explode against the hedge.

In the shade of the laurel hedge, violet flowers offer a swathe of colour amidst the green. Early rosettes of other herbs are beginning to make their mark – lemon balm, mint, vervain, valerian, while yarrow fronds wave at me as I step outside the back door. Their roots run deep beneath the paving slabs, but they grow straight and tall if left alone.

Underneath the bench a tiny elder tree hides, grown from an escaped berry two or three years ago. It cannot stay where it is, but neither can I move it without re-arranging the terrace. It may be safe for one more year, but then, who knows!

Spring can also bring sacrifices. This year it was angelica. Last year it grew happily behind the Mexican orange bush, but that has gone to make way for summer vegetables. If the angelica stayed, it would shade smaller plants and make the bed more difficult to manage.

It was a sturdy plant, defying the frosts and snow of winter, returning to full strength as temperatures rose and daylight lengthened. We tasted her leaves, bathing ourselves in her fragrance. She was photographed before being dug, then carefully washed and taken indoors to be swathed in honey and vinegar; her essence transferring to different mediums to nourish others.

Over the weekend, a single buff-tailed bumblebee buzzed her way around the garden. I watched her resting on the white patio door while I washed newly dug dandelions on the patio table, noting their difference from Cotswold cousins. The leaves were immersed in vinegar. Half the roots were chopped and roasted in the oven before joining their fresh counterparts, together with grated ginger root, dried orange peel and a pinch of ground black cardamom to be covered with vodka for a bitter tonic.

These are my first medicines of spring. Tonight they will be shared with another group, opening their hearts and minds to the endless possibilities of nature – food and medicines close at hand in their own gardens.

Friday 26 March 2010

April UK Blog party: Herbs for aches and pains

I'm hosting the UK Herbarium blog party on 20th April. A recent posting on the Herb Society Forum started me thinking about all the new aches and pains we gather as we start back working in the garden, or generally exercise more because of the lengthening days and hopefully more clement weather.

What are your favourite herbs to use at these times? Is it a salve or oil to massage in to the aching area, or do you opt for a herbal liqueur to savour as you take your ease?

Please send me the url for your blog party posting either as a comment here or to my email address, sarah at headology dot co dot uk before 20th April and I will reveal them all on the day!

Saturday 20 March 2010

Ostara blessings

It feels as if spring is finally coming our way. To help you celebrate the Equinox, I have posted two stories on Mercian Muse

Thursday 18 March 2010

March UK Blog Party: My Herbal Treasure -Violet

They say violets flower from the end of winter until early Spring, but I will always associate them with Mothering Sunday. We would go to our local Cotswold church and be given bunches of primroses and violets to pass on to our mother as a small gift.

One year, Rev Walker, gave us a special card to go with our flowers. My sister’s card was a picture of a chancel with sun cascading in through the window and an appropriate verse, mine was a bunch of violets.

I always loved their scent. It was one of the perfumes of spring, delicate and short-lived. To me it bore no resemblance to the commercially scented sweets my grandmother sometimes offered.

There were few cars along our narrow country roads when I was young. It was safe enough for my sister and I to cycle the short way to the local quarry – then a dumping ground for the village. We would go to see what had been left, clambering over piles of earth to reach the farthest point where our small garden lay. There we transplanted snowdrops, primroses and violets, watching them grow and flourish in the warmth of each new spring before summer covered everything with nettles and we stayed at home.

We had no primroses or violets on our farm, so we dug up a few plants from our quarry garden and took them elsewhere – primroses in the garden and violets sheltered behind wiry hawthorn trees where they would be safe from cattle or sheep.

Those hawthorn trees are now part of the Sanctuary and violets spread a bright green carpet across the earth.

Susun Weed was the first person to draw my attention to violet as a medicinal herb in her book, Healing Wise. She talked about violet’s nutritional support for women. Her words were wonderful, but they didn’t mean anything to me until Rebecca Hartman, Kiva Rose Hardin and Darcey Blue French were discussing the amounts of mucilage present in leaves of viola odorata’s cousin, viola tricola (heartease).

“I wonder what they mean,” I thought to myself, never having chewed a violet leaf.

A few days later I was wandering by myself in the Sanctuary. Taking my courage in both hands, I plucked two violet leaves and chewed them. There was no real flavour, but as the leaves decomposed in my mouth, I discovered the mucilage.

It was a revelation – fleeting, but noticeable. It reminded me of the tiny remains after the shell of a Smartie had been carefully crushed between my teeth as a child and worked until a scrap of goo remained.

I now understood what mucilaginous and demulcent meant.

Like all herbs, violet is not just one thing. For a start, her scented purple flowers are not true flowers at all. Those appear later. They are green and hide underneath leaves where no-one can see them.

Violet is described as an “alterative” or “blood purifier”, a perfect addition to spring salads or mineral-rich hot, long infusions. Susun Weed adds her to red clover, plantain and nettles. Jim Mcdonald likes to combine her with hawthorn and oatstraw.

From times long past violet has been used to soothe hot, dry coughs such as whooping cough, congestion and sore throats. Rebecca Hartman has a lovely recipe for blender juice made from “weeds from your lawn” – plantain, chickweed, violet and mallows. She picks the leaves, washes them if necessary then throws them in her liquidiser with some cold water, blends, then leaves them for a short while before blending again then straining and drinking.

It is important to use cold water if you want to extract the most mucilage from a plant. It is the mucilage which coats and soothes the dry throat and chest. It can also help with irritated bowels or be sponged on sunburn.

Violet is not a single season herb. The leaves grow all year round, even surviving the recent months of snow and ice. Something has been feasting on the violet leaves in my garden and the ones in the Sanctuary look very small and fragile, but vibrant. I only found three flowers blooming last weekend, so I won’t be making violet syrup this year.

Susun Weed’s recipe for violet syrup
1/2 pound/225g fresh violets
2 cups/500ml water
2 cups/500ml honey
Enlist all the help you can to pick violet blossoms. Boil water; pour over blossoms; cover. Let steep overnight in nonmetallic container. Strain out flowers. Reserve purple liquid. Combine violet infusion and honey. Simmer gently, stirring, for ten or fifteen minutes, until it seems like syrup. Fill clean jars. Cool. Keep well chilled to preserve.

Violet syrup from the website
Pour 1 pint of boiling water over 1 cup packed, of fresh crushed flowers and leaves, cover and let stand for 12 hours. Strain and squeeze through cloth, add 2 lb. of sugar and boil for 1 hour or until syrupy. Store in glass jar. Give 1 tbs. (1 tsp. for children) 2 or 3 times a day.

Violets contain many different compounds including vitamins A&C and salicylic acid, which means it can be taken for headaches, migraines, body pain and as a sedative. Apparently work is also being done with breast cysts – using violet both internally and externally as a poultice – and with HIV and cancers. It’s not a good idea to eat the roots unless you need an emetic!

I use her mainly as a double infused oil to offer added moisture to any salve I am making. Like her cousin, heartsease, she is good with irritable skin conditions and plays her part in soothing troubled hearts. She is also a wonderful teaching aid. Anyone who visits the Sanctuary is offered a leaf to chew, a new experience to bring delight and wonder.

Violets allow me to focus on both past and present. Their scent reminds me of a carefree childhood, while their leaves show me the wealth of support she is able to offer to mankind.

Thursday 11 March 2010

UK March Blog Party: My Herbal Treasures in March

Brigitte has announced the subject for this months blog party, its “My Herbal Treasures In March”, information and instructions from Brigitte’s blog My Herb Corner are:-

“Spring and Autumn are the best seasons to dig up things like dandelion roots for coffee or medicine, so we might share the same things at the same time in the Northern- and Southern Hemisphere of this beautiful planet.

If you live in the UK or Commonwealth you are invited to share your favorite herb(s), recipe(s) or harvest of this special month.

Post it on your blog before the 20th of March and send the link to:
brigitte at myherbcorner dot com

I will collect all posts and will open the party with the links here on myherbcorner on the 20th of March.

If you like you can make yourself a cup of plantain tea which is my favorite herb. You will find some words about this lovely herb on the 20th and I hope you join in the fun. I am already curious about your post”

Apologies for the late posting of this announcement, I've been busy digging in the garden and away training in Cambridge this week. Hopefully there is still time for you to think of a subject and get the links to Brigitte. If you need somewhere to post, let me know.