Tuesday 29 June 2010

The joys of harvest

After complaining about the lack of time to wildcraft in my last posting, the plants have had the last laugh. Everywhere I look something is either blooming or making its green profusion known for gathering before the flowers bloom.

Harvest began in earnest on 17 June when I wandered around the Priory field picking elderflowers to make into elderflower cordial for the workshop at the farm on June 19th. The recipe can be found here.

Cotswold nettles gathered during my visit on 15 May for tincture and vinegar while Chris was flying kites at the Bidford on Avon Steam Faire, were ready to cut again to make a cold water maceration for workshop participants to drink. I suspect I covered the nettles and a few sprigs of red clover with a little too much water as the resulting infusion was lighter than last year although it did deepen in colour as I reached the bottom of the bowl.

During the workshop we gathered catmint, white horehound, white hyssop, lemon balm and sage which are drying laid out on the sofa of the Sanctuary summerhouse. After everyone left, I picked some beautiful yarrow which was flowering next to the greenhouse.

The plants outside the glass were bright pink while those inside were the usual white of the wild plant. I have no idea what makes the flower change colour. I know the plants are both wild, because they transported themselves to that spot and my parents have never grown cultivars in the garden. I can only think it is something to do with nutrients in the soil. The flowers of farm marjoram is deep pink, almost crimson, while the majoram in my garden on acid, clay soil is always very pale pink.

On the Sunday afternoon, before I left for home, my father helped me pick elderflowers and red clover from the field by the bungalow and I plucked a small handful of dog rose petals – just to feel that I hadn't totally missed out on their beauty. Their scent was glorious!

Once home, the elderflowers were transformed into an elderflower water and a new citrus tincture with the remainder of the harvest were put to dry. The dogrose petals made a new elixir and roses from the garden were added to the garden rose elixir, which has a definite rose scented “kick”.

I used the red clover blossoms which my parents had so carefully picked to make an elixir and tincture and put the whole aerial parts on the table in my garden summerhouse to dry for tea.

The star of all this profusion has to be St John's wort. The first two flowers appeared on midsummer's day and I've picked a bowlful of flowers most days since then. Two full 2lb jars of oil are infusing on the kitchen window sill, two similar jars of tincture sit in the larder - the first one has already turned an amazing shade of red! - and a small jar of honey is infusing next to the oil. I can't remember harevsting so much St John's wort in so little time any other year!

Sean Donohoe inspired me in his article on restoration following heat stroke to make some Lemon balm elixir last weekend . It was one of our hottest days and I spent most of the time sitting in the shade under the apple tree. I've already gathered enough for two jars of tincture and Sunday's harvest was enough for both the elixir and a further jar of tincture.

I can thoroughly recommend a soothing cup of yarrow, plantain, lemon juice and St John's wort honey tea. I made one for myself using leaves growing in between our patio flagstones following a visit to the dentist for a large filling last Friday. As I get older, I find such visits more and more traumatising and normally I am laid out for the rest of the night once the anaesthetic wears off. Maybe it was the skill of my new dentist, but I had absolutely no pain or suffering at all! I think my herbal tea helped too!

So, what are the rest of you out there in the herbal world doing with your herbs at the moment? Are the plants flowering earlier or later than usual? Are they more or less prolific or do you feel the season is moving as it should?

Monday 14 June 2010

Wildcraft frustration

There are times I envy those who dedicate their entire lives to herbs; who do not face the frustration of other commitments which eat up time and opportunity to respond as seasonal harvests approach.

My first panic attack occurs when pink-tinged hawthorn blossoms appear in hedges. Will there be time to seek out flowers and leaves to make tinctures or flavoured brandy or dry for teas? Things have been easier since we allowed part of our hedge to grow into unruly trees in our back garden. Each May sees them covered with pure white flowers and a small branch makes enough tincture to keep me in medicine for over twelve months.

It only takes half an hour to sit in sunshine and strip everything from the wood into two large glass jars to be covered in vodka and left to mature on the bottom shelf of the larder. This May I wandered into the garden one Sunday morning, still dressed in nightclothes to commune with my hawthorn before getting dressed and leaving to deliver training in Newcastle. Unfortunately we were too early for rose petals below the Angel of the North and no spare time to explore suitable hedgerows for anything else.

At the beginning of June we travelled to Exmouth for the annual kite flying festival. All the way down the M5, I caught tantalising glimpses of white elderflowers, waving ox-eye daisies and pink dog roses, but you can’t stop on a motorway and there are never any places to park a caravan along a quieter road, so I have learned not to remark on any abundance during a journey.

It’s the same if I pass a farm shop, craft market or pottery while we're on holiday. If I mention them to the driver, he will affect that seasonal disorder, “holiday deafness” which means he won’t affect to have heard me until we are at least two miles away from the facility when he will say, “Oh, did you want me to stop?” Of course if there is anything signposted for steam trains, kites, golf or chocolate factories, he will immediately stop the car, turn around and go back! (Before you ask, I’m not really interested in chocolate!)

At least in Exmouth, I knew I could gather some wild fennel and harvested yarrow and burdock leaves to tincture as well. There were no signs of elder trees on the estuary and I’d forgotten the bush overlooking the car park until we drove away, but I wouldn’t really have wanted to gather there.

Last Thursday saw me on a journey from London to Taunton gazing out of a train window at all the beautiful elder trees and dog rose bushes. I even noticed the deeper pink of briar rose bushes. At one point a huge buzzard rose up over a field with a freshly plucked rabbit in its talons! A wonderful reminder of the wild, secret life which continues as we pass by.

My plan was to scour our caravan site near Dunster for elderflowers and rose petals the following day while we prepared for my sister in law’s medieval wedding in the Tenants Hall at Dunster Castle on Saturday. I’d forgotten that most large caravan sites are heavily manicured - not an unruly hedge in sight and no sign of either an elder tree or a rose bush – very frustrating!

It didn’t help that Chris could only think about football and the wedding, so I was left to wander around gathering ivy from oak trees and willow fronds from beside the stream to make myself a circlet to go with my medieval costume for the evening banquet.

Now I will be shut up in my office for a week with piano pupils to teach after work and no time to explore the highways and byways until next weekend. Waiting for the train this morning, the elder tree in the hedge looked decidedly green after all the recent rain, so I can only hope there will be some blossoms left to harvest at the farm next weekend!

Wednesday 2 June 2010

June Blog Parties - Calls for submissions

I don't know where May went to. Well, I do - a lot of it was spent on the M1 travelling "up north". The two weeks we were away seemed to stretch into at least a month of events and experiences. I missed both blog parties, which was upsetting as I had worked out what I wanted to write for both, but had no time or energy to transfer the words from my head onto the computer. Maybe those of you who read this blog could let me know if you would like to read my thoughts on speedwell and "Keeping yourself alive: sexuality in maturity". If so, I might post them later in the year.

The next UK Herbarium blog party will be hosted by Lucinda over at Whispering Earth. Her chosen subject is “Leaf and Blossom, Bark and Berry: My Favourite Tree Medicines“. Lucinda is flexible as to her definition of ‘tree’and shrubs such as crampbark and blackberry can be included. This is actually a good time to talk about crampbark because it is probably the only bark collected while the tree is flowering, usually, bark is harvested when trees are asleep.

If you haven’t joined the UK blog party before but would like to it’s easy; write a piece and add it to your blog and send Lucinda the link before the 20th June and she’ll add it to the list on her blog on the 20th. If you don’t have your own blog, if you send your post to Debs Cook as a word document to debs at herbal dash haven dot co dot uk. She will then add it as a guest post to the UK Herbarium blog.

The Herbwifery Forum International blog party for June is on the subject of "Beating the heat of summer" and will be hosted by Kristine Brown on her blog Dancing in a field of Tansy I might have trouble with this subject as I can't remember the last time we had a hot summer!