Saturday 31 December 2011

Farewell to the old!

Blog posts are strange things. I know many bloggers are capable, productive people. They plan their posts, programme the widgits to deliver posts at regular intervals and carry on with their life. It doesn't work like that for me - or hasn't done so in the past. I think about things, really want to share discoveries and then life happens and nothing gets posted for ages.

For several weeks I've been wanting to tie up things with my herbal ally for 2011 - sweet violet but it hasn't happened, so I'm going to give you a run down of some of the things I've been up to.

Back in October, my aim for the remaining three months of 2011 was to catch up with any tasks I'd omitted from Kristine Brown's Herbal Ally challenges. I know I only meditated with the plant once rather than on a regular basis, but things went rather pear-shaped. I did make some salve with the beautifully dark green double infused oil just before Christmas and aim to use it for breast massage on a regular basis next year (New Year resolution No 1!)

When autumn arrived I fully intended to dig up a violet plant and consider its roots, but when I went down to my violet patch at the bottom of my garden (I don't have fairies who live there, just a pile of stones and shells guarded by a hedgehog and a mouse!) I discovered an amazing show of new violet flowers. How could I dig up a plant when they were putting on so much new growth!

Instead, I picked the flowers the day before the December workshop and poured boiling water over them to begin the process of making a violet syrup. I'd left the flowers in a glass jug for an hour or so before I infused them and the smell was positively divine! You can read about the magic of syrup making on Jackie's blog. The syrup was much more pink than the one I'd made in the spring which shows how more potent the fresh violet flowers were despite growing at the wrong time of year!

I've learned so much from this plant, I'm really pleased I chose her for my ally during 2011.

Herbal Ally 2012
Next year's ally has also been chosen during one of my recent. sleepless nights. Although I've worked with her a great deal already, I'm going to walk with all the different kinds of rose who gift me with their friendship and medicine. I spent an hour on Wednesday clearing a secret path to the new dogrose in the field around the corner from my house. I have three others to learn from at the farm along with the apothecary's rose and some US rosa rugosa seeds I hope to plant in the spring.

Friday 16 December 2011

Tonics: a lesson in trust and sufficiency from rose

Two days ago I received an email from one of my new apprentices asking what I would recommend as a tonic she could give to her patients. Her question inspired me to write a blog post which I began yesterday.

Tonic is one of those words which you think you know, but when you take time to consider its meaning, the totality escapes you.

When I’m confused I usually turn to Jim MacDonald’s website because he has such a wealth of information and he puts things in ways which can be easily understood.

Browsing through his terms, I found he had written, “"Tonic" is a dreadfully problematic term, because it has so many meanings and can be applied in so many different ways. Really, without using an adjective to qualify what kind of tonic it is, the noun "tonic" is close to useless. To be practical, most people intend to convey that a tonic is an herb that builds up your energy and health and is good for you.”

Jim then went on to quote from a draft copy of Matthew Wood’s Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, saying that it offered one of the better definitions of the word “tonic”, in that it allowed for all the different manifestations this vague category may take. I looked through my copy of Wood’s book, but I couldn’t find the definition, so I was especially grateful for Jim’s note.

Matt Woods wrote, “A tonic is usually an herb or food that acts on the body in a slow, nutritive fashion to build up the substance of the body. In this sense, the term "tonic" might be considered synonymous with "trophorestorative". It can also be defined as a substance which (like an astringent) restrains loss from the body by "toning" tissues.”

He offers the following categories tonics may fall into: Bitter tonics are used to strengthen and nourish the liver and metabolism (mostly alteratives,), Sweet tonics act primarily on the immune system and adrenals (adaptogens). Oily tonics supply fixed oils and essential fatty acids to tissues to ensure hydration, cell permeability and to prevent atrophy. Mineral tonics provide essential minerals, and sour tonics are rich in bioflavinoids. Protein tonics are rich in protein.

I then turned to Kiva Rose Hardin’s blog and searched for tonics. The first articles offered two tonics, one for the heart made from Choke Cherries and another made from the wild rose.

Chokecherry Heart Tonic
1/4 C Chokecherry bark or bark/flower tincture
1/2 C Chokecherry fruit concentrate or syrup (possibly more if your concentrate isn’t strong tasting, ours is very intense and flavourful but the stuff you get from stores is often tasteless and terribly sweet and just don’t work for this)
1 C Brandy
Sugar/honey to taste (very optional, just depends on your syrup and sense of taste)
1/4 tsp of Cinnamon tincture (or a good pinch of powdered cinnamon)
1 tsp Ginger infused honey (or just add a good pinch of fresh grated ginger)
Generous splash of Merlot or Elderberry mead (optional)
Mix together in pint jar and shake well, allow to age for at least a month. This stuff is strong and somewhat mind-altering (in a relaxing kind of way), so use in small doses. It’s an excellent heart strengthener for people with signs of inflammation, high blood pressure, heart palpitations and general heat symptoms.

Choke cherries don’t grow over here and I’ve never seen them in the shops, which is disappointing because the recipe looks delicious. I’m wondering if I could substitute hawthorn instead or if my hawthorn berry brandy liqueur would be a good alternative.

Hawthorn Liqueur
To a jar full of infused hawthorn berry brandy, add 1 grated nutmeg, one cinnamon stick (crumbled), the chopped peel of one orange, 4 cloves and ½-1 cup full of sugar or honey. Seal the jar with a screw top lid, place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly, then strain and pour into a sterile bottle. Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years).

Wild Rose Tonic
First, make a half pint of infused honey with finely chopped, de-seeded fresh wild rose hips, plus 1 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1 tsp. grated fresh orange peel and 1/4 tsp cardamom. Let infuse for one month, do not strain.
1 C spiced Wild Rose hip honey (as seen above)
3 Tbs Wild Rose petal tincture (or more, as desired for flavour)
1 C Brandy or Cognac
Mix together in a pint jar and shake well, allow to age for at least one month. This cordial/tonic is relaxing, uplifting and wonderful as a heart tonic, nervine, anti-inflammatory and bioflavanoid rich blood tonic. For a real treat, make a small cup of half Chokecherry Heart Tonic and half Wild Rose Tonic.

When I read through the Wild Rose Tonic, something strange happened. I knew I needed to make the spiced rosehip honey. I made rosehip honey nearly three years ago by liquidising freshly gathered rosehips with runny honey. It tasted delicious, but the seeds were a pain. I wanted to make the honey this year using de-seeded rosehips, but when I gathered my hips from the Sanctuary rosebush after the festival, I didn’t have the energy to sit down and de-seed, so everything ended up in some glorious spiced rosehip and sloe cordial.

(Just a small aside, if you ask an American what they mean by a cordial, they will describe it as fruit preserved in alcohol and a small amount of sugar to be used in drinks or poured over other fruit/ice cream. If you ask me what I mean by a cordial, I will tell you it is made using the same method as a syrup, but a cordial is made for diluting and drinking either hot or cold, whereas a syrup is thicker and can be medicinal or eaten by the spoonful. No alcohol is involved.)

The sun was shining accompanied by an icy wind, so armed with a basket, secuteurs, gloves and wellies I set off for the Friary field around the corner from our house. The original four acres owned by the Friary was half developed for housing on the understanding that the remainder was available for the public. I go there to harvest elderflowers in May/June, horsechestnut in August, late nettle seed and sloes in the winter.

The sloes were abundant. I spent a long time looking at them and was asked by a dog walker if I made sloe gin. It didn’t feel right to collect them, so I left them for the birds, thinking that if I want to make more spiced sloe cordial I can always come back in the new year.

There was only one dog rose bush I knew about and when I climbed to the top of the bank where it grows, there were no rosehips to be seen. Undismayed, I walked around the site noting the catkins of the hazel bushes, the tree still full of eating apples and the dessicated blackberries which no-one had picked. Next year I shall be taking my new herb group, Wolf’s Meadow, to learn the art of wildcrafting in season, so hopefully the blackberries won’t go to waste again.

Looking up into the hazel trees of an original hedge, I found my first rosehips. Only a few, but it was enough to make me trust I would find the amount I needed.
As I wandered through woodland, I found myself singing carols to the holly trees while I gathered some berry-bright twigs to grace my Solstice willow garland before I headed off into bramble strewn wilderness exploring parts I’d never visited before.

If you are constantly seeking a safe way through brambles, your eyes are on the ground. I saw some dead rose briars in my path and followed them to a large bush. I talked to the bush for a few minutes, noting the thickness of the briars and the unusual red hue of the bark. I couldn’t see any rosehips, but was told to go around the other side and keep looking up.

It wasn’t a large harvest, but it was sufficient. The rosehips were huge – three times the size of the tiny hips on my Sanctuary bush. There was even a dogrose flower blooming in the bitter cold – a remnant from the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having recently.

Back home in the warm, the large hips were easy to slice in half and de-seed, but it did take a long time. I learned why it is better to delay harvesting until the hips are soft – if you squeeze the hip carefully, the entire ball of seeds and hairs can be removed through the end of the hip, leaving only the soft casing behind.

I chopped the rosehips in my grinder as I wanted them small enough to enrich the honey. The cardamoms were ground there too, but I suspect I added a whole teaspoonful rather than one quarter! I wasn’t sure how much a teaspoonful of orange peel might be so I grated a whole orange peel and nearly an inch of root ginger.

When the honey was poured on and the mixture stirred, I have to admit to licking the spoon. The taste was divine and I can’t wait until four weeks’ time when I can start making up the tonic with dog rose petal tincture and brandy.

Later yesterday evening as I sat knitting small presents for my children, I thought back on what I’d done during the day. I realised how grateful I was to be no longer working for an employer, giving me time to follow my instincts which let me trust I would find what was needed in the place I’d chosen to visit.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Springfield Sanctuary Workshop Dates 2012

For those of you who live within the UK and don't mind travelling, I invite you to join us learn more about herbs at the monthly Springfield Sanctuary workshops. Whatever the time of year or the subject matter we always have fun - drink tea, play with our new friends and chat.

Springfield Sanctuary Workshops 2012
January 14th New Year tonics - Solihull

February 11th Barks as medicine – Solihull

March 10th Herbal recognition - Sanctuary

April 21 Experiencing Herbs - Sanctuary

May 12 Experiencing Herbs - Sanctuary

June 30 Experiencing Herbs - Sanctuary

July 14 Harvesting Herbs - Sanctuary

Aug 25 Harvesting Herbs - Sanctuary

Sept 7-9 Springfield Sanctuary Festival

Oct 13 Roots and wood - Sanctuary

Nov 10 Oils and Salves - Solihull

Dec 8 Creating medicines - Solihull

The workshops are funded by donations. Each workshops costs around £40 to deliver and most people donate between £10 and £20 per session. For more details contact me or see the website

We also need help to keep the Sanctuary in good condition. I've therefore organised some days when people can come and help.

Springfield Sanctuary Work Dates 2012

February 18th – Tree felling and pond clearance
April 7 – Spring preparation
Nov 17 - Autumn clear up

Monday 21 November 2011

Last chance to apply for a Springfield Sanctuary Apprenticeship 2012

The opportunity to apply to become a 2012 Springfield Sanctuary Apprentice will close on Wednesday, 14 December 2011.

The twelve month herbal apprenticeship starts in January 2012. You are offered the opportunity to learn more about growing, harvesting and working with herbs to improve personal and family health and wellbeing.

Outcomes: Year 1

By the end of 2011, the apprentice will have:

*improved knowledge and understanding of twenty personally chosen herbs.
*grown herbs from seeds, cuttings or divisions and taken note of their development using drawings or photography.
*shared in practical tasks to manage the Sanctuary herb beds.
*harvested flowers, aerial parts, berries and roots
*made teas, decoctions, macerations, syrups, infused oils, salves, tinctures, vinegars, flower essences and elixirs
*familiarised themselves with a variety of body processes such as respiration, digestion, circulation etc and looked at several herbs which can help to balance these processes.
*participated in an online email action learning group.
*completed tasks set by the mentor and fed back the results to the other apprentices
*begun to share knowledge, enthusiasm and herbal extractions with family and friends

Outcomes: Year 2 (for apprentices who began their apprenticeship in 2011 and wish to continue)

By the end of 2011, the apprentice will have:

*studied a further ten herbs or looked at the original herbs chosen in more depth
*considered further anatomical or emotional processes e.g. fertility, aging, grief
*considered constitutional elements/energetics from a western herbal medicine perspective
*consolidated and continued all the experiences engaged in during Year 1


Each apprentice is expected to:

*choose up to twenty herbs to study during the year
*attend at least six workshops throughout the year and to attend the Herb Festival held in September.
*complete the tasks set by the mentor within given timescales
*work within the Sanctuary herb beds – digging, weeding, planting, harvesting etc.
*keep a herbal diary and/or online blog detailing activities and learning
*evaluate their personal progress at the end of twelve months

Costs: There is no overall charge for the apprenticeship. Apprentices are expected to make a financial donation when attending workshops or the Herb Festival and to offer practical physical help at the Sanctuary. Anyone considering an apprenticeship should factor in personal costs such as time, transport, access to growing space and internet plus a degree of commitment to their studies and to the Sanctuary.

Note: This apprenticeship is for personal development only. Apprentices study at their own pace. The amount and depth of work is self directed. Guidance will be given on sources of information, but handouts covering all topics may not be available. There is no accreditation from an academic body, certificate of attendance or examination process. The apprenticeship will NOT enable anyone to set up in private practice as a medical herbalist.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Working with wood

As trees finally release their leaves and the sap rests underground, the time comes when we can think about working more closely with them. Making your own energetic or meditative tools is perhaps one of the most relaxing tasks to carry out over the winter period. The article below first appeared in the Fall edition of Circle Magazine back in 2007.

Working with Wood : A Beginner’s Guide to Wand and Staff Making.

I dropped into woodworking by accident. I am not a practical person, preferring to leave anything like that to the various men around me, but I have always loved wood. When I began following the Pagan path, it became evident that if I wanted any “tools for my trade”, I would have to make them. What I discovered was, creating my own wands and staves was not an arduous task, but one which brought great peace and joy. In this article I should like to share with you what I have learned so you can begin your own way of communicating with those trees and bushes you find around you.

My first wand was a short piece of “Glastonbury thorn” –a tree which flowers and fruits at the same time, collected from a pile of prunings in Glastonbury Abbey in 1996. The same year, I began making ogham sticks, or fews, from the 20 sacred woods of the Druids, using Glennie Kindred’s book, “Tree Ogham”.

Later, I became interested in larger “sticks” and started to sandpaper them to see what difference it made. I found the more you sandpaper, the smoother the wood becomes until it has a wonderful silky feel when you touch it. This can best be achieved by beginning with coarse-grained sandpaper and finishing with a fine grained one. If you then coat the sanded wood with sunflower oil, this polishes the wood and gives it an even better finish.

This polishing technique came about quite by chance when I found a jar of home made calendula salve (double infused oil thickened with beeswax) nearby when I was sanding. I rubbed some salve into the wood to see what would happen. You would not believe how it changes the colour of the finished wand!

Gorse is a wonderful wood to work with, the dead wood turns from light brown to honey-coloured and the live wood, if you’ve sanded it with the bark on goes gorgeous shades of green, white and brown which resemble snake skin. Birch wands rubbed with salve after sanding with the bark present glows with a red tinge.

Each wood has a different spiritual property and a different affinity for the time of year. I love yew, not only for it’s soft orange colour, but because it is the gateway between this world and the spirit world. As a healer and counsellor, I often work with people who are dying or bereaved, so yew is a very special wood for me.

When my friend lost his parents, I made him two fews (ogham sticks), one of live gorse for hope and one of yew finished with comfrey oil, so he could sit and stroke the wood, finding comfort in their touch. Recently, I sent him an elder few, because elder helps with change and moving on. I made myself a necklace of elder beads finished with rosemary infused oil for aiding “life rites”. It is adorned with kestrel feathers to help with farseeing. I wear it during rituals or when I want a focus for meditation or visualisation.

It is best to gather wood from living trees when they are asleep during the winter months or being pruned. You should always discuss your wish to gather wood with the tree itself. Sometimes there will be a dead twig or branch which can be removed without harm or maybe you will find just what you are looking for under the canopy. It may have blown off during a strong wind or storm or left there after animal damage.

Some wood can be gathered and worked fresh (holly and gorse are good for this) but most are better left to dry for at least five weeks before you try scraping or sanding them. The tools I use for woodworking are a pair of secuteurs, a small knife, various grades of sandpaper and vegetable oil or salve of some description. I make a wide variety of infused herbal oils so I always have a wide variety of enhancing energetic properties to choose from. A woodworking apron to protect clothes can also be useful.

You can make wands with both green and dry wood, depending on what you’ve got to hand and whether you want to work with it with the bark on or off. It’s easier to remove the bark when the wood is green rather than when it’s dry. Willow will remain wet for over a year because if you drive a stick into the ground, it will grow. I have a flourishing willow hedge in my herb garden which is made from pollarded branches cut down in November 2005 and left on the ground during the winter. My father trellised the fence for me in April 2006 and they sprouted almost immediately.

A wand can be used to direct energy as in circle casting, or to aid concentration or meditation. If I am making wands in public places, I often refer to them as meditation sticks and show people how to use the property of the wood to help them relax or focus on particular concepts such as ash for connecting with the natural world or holly for experiencing universal love.

The length of a wand is historically the distance from your elbow to your longest finger, but it can be much shorter. Cut your wand roughly to size from a longer branch or twig using secuteurs or pruning shears when you start working on it. A wand does not have to be straight nor from a single branch, it can curve and twist and have Ts or Ys at the end depending on what the piece of wood tells you to do. I use my penknife when I’m working on knots in the wood, or to shape the tip or handpiece. You can also use inexpensive metal files to make whirls or spirals in the wood if this is what you feel called to do.

Sanding does take time and it can be quite hard work. Start with the coarsest grain of sandpaper and work up to the finest sandpaper you have. It’s using more than one grade which really makes the wood smooth. Once you are satisfied with the smoothness, take some plain sunflower oil or herbal infused oil or salve if you have some and smooth it on until the wood stops soaking it up. Put a little on your fingertips and keep rubbing.

When finished, you can decorate your wand however you wish, but I prefer to use fairly natural materials such as seashells, ribbons, crystals, hagstones or other small objects such as acorn cups.

Staff making is a similar process, but slightly different. Your staff should be a thickness which is comfortable to hold in the palm of your hand and a length you feel happy with. It can be shoulder or head height or taller depending on your planned use.

I have a large hazel staff with runes inscribed on it for rituals, a much shorter blackthorn staff with a monkjack deer antler on the top which I use occasionally for stick dancing in Tai Chi and a lighter willow staff which I use most of the time when we are working with sticks. Do remember staves were originally weapons and could seriously injure someone if handled carelessly.

When you have chosen your piece of wood, leave it to dry for several months, then sand it down with the bark still on it. It doesn’t need to be as smooth as a wand, just until you feel happy with the smoothness. Some people prefer to remove all the bark, but I knew someone who did this and then had great trouble identifying the wood afterwards.

If you want to decorate your staff with carving or runes, do this now. Rune carving is much more difficult than you think – take care not to cut yourself. The runes can then be coloured in with a red dye of some description. If you can make a natural dye out of madder or dyers woodruff – both of which yield a bright red colour - all the better.

Once you have decorated your staff to your satisfaction, it then needs to be sealed in some way either with varnish or a clear wood sealant. Leave it to dry somewhere away from dust and particles which may adhere to the sticky surface. It can then be decorated with hag stones, seashells, crystals or whatever you fancy.

If you have made a staff with a Y-shaped top, this can be used as a ‘stang’ or outdoor altar. The stang is placed in the ground and decorated with animal skulls, flowers and ribbons. Again this acts as a focus for personal or group rites or ceremonies.

Although my family sigh a great deal at the number of different “sticks” I have lying around the house or when I bring new ones in to work on, I love my wands and staves. I use them for workshops with my healer development group and people seem to enjoy sensing their energy or meditating with them.

I hope this article will help you to feel confident to try working with wood. It’s a very forgiving medium to work with, offering great fun and freedom from the stresses of everyday life.

Kindred, G The Tree Ogham ISBN 0 9532227 2 1
Paterson, JM Tree Wisdom Thorsons 1996
West, K Real Witches’ Year Element Thorsons 2004

Saturday 5 November 2011

Chasing the toothbrush tree

Thursday morning saw me walking to see the dentist, who practices in the row of shops fifteen minutes away from our house. I have a tooth he filled a little too ambitiously last December. The amount of filling began to kill the root and I suffered nerve pain tooth ache for possibly the first time in my life. At the beginning of the year, the dentist said there was no point in saving the tooth, so if it flared up again, the only recourse was to remove it. I like my teeth. I talked to other herablists online and then made myself some sage tea as a mouth wash. It worked beautifully and the tooth has behaved itself ever since.

The dentist was really pleased with me on Thursday, clean teeth, no pain and no evidence of gum disease. I told him about the sage tea but he didn't really seem to understand except to advise me to continue whatever it was I was doing.

This encounter let me to choose "Chasing the toothbrush tree" as my next article to post. It appeared in the February edition of Herbs magazine in 2005.


In the 2003 Summer edition of Herbs, a reader asked about a tree used by the SAS during the Gulf War for cleaning their teeth. Deni Brown replied that it was probably the "Toothbrush Tree", Salvadora persica, which grew in Oman. This peeked my curiosity as I had just started chatting to someone on the internet who was working in Oman. I asked him if he could find out all he could about the tree and whether it would be possible to send me a sample back so that this could be lodged with The Herb Society for future reference.

This was his report.

"My boss eventually arrived at work and summoned me (as always) I am 'his' Brit. No matter what I am doing part of the 'rules' are that he arrives and I must go take coffee with him. Much to his horror I drink Arabic coffee from large mugs. In their 'language', this is too heavy! I asked him about the toothbrush tree. Oh dear ! It is 'old', they are much more advanced now. I know that, but the mere suggestion that they still have recourse to 'primitive native things' is insulting. After much soothing of ruffled feathers and denigrating us Brits for having an interest in such archaic things, things calm down. Trying to explain aromatherapy and oils etc as 'hobbies' to an Arab is 'hard work'. However he eventually 'simmered down' and we spent the rest of my work day drinking coffee smoking and surfing Omannet on his computer for the appropriate tree.

It turns out that Dhofar (local county is the nearest equivalent) was the main place where it grew but when the agriculture was 'industrialised' for dates & bananas it virtually died out. My boss thinks it unlikely that I'd find one driving around the desert, plus of course there is the added danger that everything belongs to the King and taking without his express permission is theft with the dire consequences that entails (i.e. having one's hand chopped off!). However, he informed me with a happy smile that there is a conservation area, the Oryx Reserve, where they can be seen and I must accompany him and his family (well the male members & possibly small children) on a visit.

He was horrified at the idea I would approach my houseboy for twigs from the toothbrush tree and wonders how I would get it out unless I take it with me, (he would give me written permission! . I really don't understand the rigmarole, as he says it is available in the local market. Also, I have to be careful expressing a desire too strongly as it makes it sort of obligatory that they should make a present of it to me. I almost ended up with set of 'worry beads' worth about £2000 because I said how nice they were!

When I went to Saudi I stopped off at DHL in the airport and asked about sending things to UK. Personal items (like your toothbrush plant). They laughed. You need approval from Interior ministry, Environment Office, Export Licence, a "No Objection Certificate", and permission to collect! There is also a problem with taking photographs of the plant since photographing anything or anyone without permission is illegal.

I did talk to my houseboy about using the toothbrush tree twigs for cleaning teeth. He said that it had a hot, peppery taste and it often gave people mouth ulcers when they first started using it."

So, after that "on-the-spot" research, I turned to the internet and did a websearch. The Oryx Reserve can be found here and more information can be found here.

The toothbrush tree is also being grown in India and Africa, particularly the Nagar Junasagar Srisailam Sanctuary in Andhar Pradesh in India. I also discovered that the Ministry of Health in Abu Dhabi has been researching the antigastric ulcer effects of a combination of P. oleracea (purslane) and Salvadora persica (Aarak/Toothbrush tree) and that roots of the toothbrush tree is currently used, efficaciously, by the Samburu tribesmen in the Masai for expelling the retained afterbirth of camels.

I find it fascinating that so much diverse information has been revealed by one simple question, "What is the toothbrush tree?"


S P Simpkin "Sumburu Camel Management Strategies" 1995
M. W. Islam, M. N. M. Zakaria, R. Radhakrishnan, X. M. Liu, H. B. Chen, K. Chan and A. Al-Attas (Ministry of Health, Abu Dhabi) Research into gastric disorders

Thursday 3 November 2011

Apples and abundance

At the bottom of our garden is an ancient cooking apple tree. It is gnarled and the apples are all shapes and sizes, but there are lots of them. They never store very well as they go rotten very quickly, sometimes while hanging on the tree, but they cook beautifully, providing a tasty filling to some favourite dishes.

The energetic property of apple is cornucopia, an abundance of good things. Our apple tree seems to radiate this property providing us with beautiful pink blossom in springtime followed by the swelling of green apples through the next three months.

I usually start making windfall provisions in August, often leaving the last of the apples for the rooks by the middle of October. This year, autumn has been so mild, I am still picking up windfalls and preparing them while I sit on our patio without the need for coat or even cardigan!

It struck me today that apples bear a secret many people never experience. I must have been in my forties before I saw my first one. If you always core your apples lengthways, you will never see it, but if you cut an apple in half, there it lies – a perfect star. The beauty and simplicity of the star makes you appreciate the sanctity of something so common, something we take for granted.

There are many folklore associations with cutting apple peel in one long thread and then throwing it behind you to discover the name of your one true love. I’ve never done this, mainly because I can’t peel an apple without the thread breaking and I don’t really need anyone or thing to tell me the name of my true love, since we’ve gone to sleep and woken in each other’s arms for the past thirty-three years.

Many of you reading this post will be experienced cooks, but some of you might welcome an opportunity to revisit some simple recipes involving apples.

Apple Sauce
Peel, core and slice a quantity of cooking apples into a saucepan. Shake a reasonable amount of sugar over the apples. Take the saucepan to a cold water tap. Quickly turn on and turn off the tap. This is the amount of water you need to cook the apple. Put the lid on the saucepan and heat the apples slowly, stirring occasionally to ensure they don’t burn. When all the apples have cooked down into a mush (this is how you can tell they’re cooking and not eating apples, the latter don’t lose their shape), turn off the heat and pour the applesauce into a receptacle to cool.

Eat on its own with cream and a biscuit, add to morning cereals or an addition to roast pork. For something a little different, flavour the apples while cooking with cinnamon or a “pumpkin spice” combination (cinnamon, freshly ground nutmeg and powdered cloves) or grated peel and juice of a lemon. Add to natural yoghurt and enjoy.

Since this is the season to remember our beloved dead, I will tell a very short story associated with apple sauce. During my gap year between school and university I lived with my cousin, Mary and her husband, Norman, in the village of Wainfleet, Ontario for three months. Mary would serve our main meal – supper – around 6pm each evening. At 8pm, Norman, who was then in his 80s, would get up from his chair in the sitting room and make his way slowly into the kitchen.

“I’ll just get myself a little lunch,” he would say, his eyes twinkling. Opening the refrigerator, he would reach inside and pull out the large Kilner jar of apple sauce and pour himself a small dish which he would eat with relish at the kitchen table.

“Are you at that apple sauce again?” Mary would call from the other room.

“I’m just having a little lunch.”

“You don’t need any lunch,” Mary would scold as she cleared away his dish and washed it up for him. Norm would just sit with the biggest grin all over his face.

They were a devoted couple and I was so pleased I returned to Canada in September 1976 to celebrate their ruby wedding as he died the following year. Mary was nearly twenty years younger than him and she died three years ago.

Apple and mincemeat pie
Everyone has their own favourite apple pie. This is one my mother used to make which is a little different. Roll out a large circle of short crust pastry twice the diameter of your pie dish. Place the pastry into the dish so the dish in the centre of the circle and spread this smaller inside circle with mincemeat. Fill the remainder of the dish with sliced apples. If you want a very sweet filling you can sprinkle the apples with sugar, but if your mincemeat layer is thick enough, there is no need. The apples cut the sweetness of the mincemeat.

Fold the pastry carefully over the top of the pie so that it forms the crust. If you don’t have enough pastry you can leave a small hole in the centre. Brush the pastry with milk to produce a glaze. Cook in a fairly hot oven (around 200 degrees C) for twenty minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.

Apple crumble
Fill the bottom of your pie dish half full with sliced apples (or any fruit. If you are using frozen fruit, defrost first) and sprinkle with sugar. Make enough crumble topping in a mixing bowl depending on the size of your dish using a basis of 4oz flour to 2 ozs margarine and 2 tblsps of sugar. Mix the flour and margarine together using fingertips and thumbs until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. When you think you’ve finished, tap the mixing bowl on one side to bring up any unincorporated lumps of margarine. Add the sugar and fold in with a metal spoon. Sprinkle the crumble topping over the apples. Shake the pie dish gently with both hands to make sure it is evenly distributed. Place in a medium oven and cook for twenty minutes or so until lightly brown.

You can add spices to the apples – cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg or a combination or grate the rind of a lemon and/or pour the juice of a lemon over the apple slices. Add blackberries to the apple if you want to reduce the amount of sugar, but it might be wise to puree the blackberries first if you are going to serve the crumble to older adults, because the pips invariably get stuck in their teeth!

Eve’s pudding (Apple sponge)
Slice 1lb of cooking apples into a greased ovenproof dish and sprinkle 3oz of Demerara sugar and grated lemon rind over them. Add 1 tblsp water. Cream 3 oz margarine with 3 oz granulated sugar together in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon until pale and fluffy. Add one beaten egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in 5 oz of self-raising flour with a metal spoon to give a dropping consistency and spread the mixture over the apples. If you have a large ovenproof dish you may need to double the quantities of sponge topping. Bake in the oven at 180degrees C for 40-45 minutes until the apples are tender and the sponge mixture cooked.

Apple soul cakes
Cream together 8oz of sugar and 8oz margarine in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon until pale and fluffy. Add four eggs, one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition. Add one tsp powdered cinnamon and half a grated nutmeg together with wafer thin slices from two cooking apples which have been peeled and cored. Mix these into the mixture with a metal spoon. Fold in 8 oz of self-raising flour, adding a little milk if necessary, until the mixture reaches a dropping consistency. Using a dessertspoon, spoon the mixture into small paper cake cases (fairy cake size). This should make at least two dozen small cakes. If you want to use muffin cases, place two tablespoonfuls of mixture into each case, making around a dozen muffins. Cook in a medium oven at 180 degrees C for 15-20 minutes until you cannot hear the cooked cakes “singing” when you hold them to your ear.

Apple jelly
Gather an amount of small windfall apples. Wash them well and cut into quarters without peeling or coring in your largest saucepan. Cover with water and cook with the lid on until the fruit is completely mushy. (Usually if you are only using apples, you would only need to simmer for 1½ hours, but since I had added quince and rosehips to my apples, I simmered for two hours until the quinces had changed colour from yellow to pink). Strain through a jelly bag or butter muslin tied to something high and leave to drip for several hours or overnight. Discard the contents of the jelly bag (preferably onto your compost heap!) and measure the amount of liquid extract.

Wash the saucepan and return the liquid to the pan with 1lb of sugar for every pint (20 fl oz) of liquid. Heat gently until the sugar has all dissolved, stirring continuously. Bring the jelly to a rolling boil for ten minutes and then test for a setting point. (I usually pour a couple of tablespoons of liquid onto a pyrex saucer and place in the freezer for five –ten minutes. When cold, if a skin forms when you run your finger very slowly through the jelly it is ready.) If setting point isn’t reached after ten minutes, continue to boil and test every five minutes until a setting point is reached. Pour into heated sterilized jars, cover and label.

Apples are such a versatile fruit but we should never forget to be grateful for their abundance.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Colours of autumn

I'm currently in the process of revising my CV/resume as part of my search for new work opportunities. I'm including all my published articles and thought I would post all the herb ones here.

Colours of Autumn first appeared in the October edition of The Essential Herb Magazine in 2008.

As nights draw in and the sun’s warmth diminishes, colours of harvest flood the land. Amongst hedgerows, reds of rosehip and haw shine brightly with subtle shades from bright red to deep crimson. High above, vermillion rowan berries hang in tantalising bunches. Single crimson leaves from cramp bark branches, thrust colour into fading grass.

I use a lot of hawthorn products during the year, making tinctures from flowers with vodka and haws with brandy. I gather ripe berries wherever I am - from trees along my field edges in the Cotswolds, my garden hedge in Solihull and trees from as far apart as Yorkshire or Bristol, depending on my travels. I’ve also made hawthorn vinegar, so people who don’t like to use alcohol, can have an alternative format to choose from.

I rarely collect rosehips. The problem is the time it takes to process the hips before drying. You should cut them in half with a sharp knife, then thoroughly deseed before putting to dry in a warm, airy place. The seeds are very effective itching powder. My long-suffering husband, when offering to help, soon complains his t-shirt is uncomfortable and his hands itch. I don’t suffer quite as badly, but holding the individual hips make my thumb joints ache, so very few get put to dry. The majority lie abandoned in a bowl to shrivel into hardness in their own time until I can pour them into a glass jar to use in syrups and decoctions throughout the winter.

Another red comes from apples. Usually the wild crabapple goes from green to yellow once it is ripe and falls from the trees. Along one Cotswold wall is a red crabapple tree, its fruit shining above green brambles and speckled stone.

St John’s wort oil is another bright red influence on my life over the summer, sitting on the kitchen window ledge beaming scarlet rays when sun shines. The beginning of October is time to strain the flowers out of the oil and put it all away in a cold larder.

The other major colour of autumn is black – blackberries, elderberries and the deep black/purple lustre of a copious sloe harvest hiding behind the thorns of the blackthorn trees.

We usually think of blackberries as something to put in desserts, either pies or puddings, but blackberries, like rosehips, are a good source of Vitamin C and can also act as an astringent along with cinnamon if you’re suffering with loose bowels that won’t respond to usual treatments. They make a delightful tea with other herbs such as Echinacea and elderberry - a pleasant immune enhancer to ward off any lurking virus.

I continue to wax lyrical about elderberry and its anti-viral properties. My parents help collect large amounts of berries so we can try new recipes. Elderberry Elixir is made with brandy and honey, taking at least two months to mature. I also put up several jars of elderberry tincture and make elderberry syrup using leftover elderberries. There are elderberries waiting in the freezer to be made into more syrup when the need arises.

Sloe gin is not something I make every year, but when juicy, purple, blushing sloes beg to be picked, I acquiesce, buying enough gin to make up a bottle and a half of liqueur to sit in the hot cupboard in my kitchen beside infusing vinegars of motherwort and sage to be ready for Christmas.

We should never forget gold and orange. Calendula flowers are prolific rays of sunshine to cheer everyone up after constant rain. Someone once told me she was convinced calendula was helpful in combating her winter blues and judging by the delight the flowers bring to everyone who sees them, I totally agree with her. The softness of the petals makes them a joy to harvest, while the resin coating your hands afterwards reminds you what you’ve been picking. We have been able to make a fresh flower tincture while sun shone and on less bright days, the golden heads dry by the kitchen stove.

All herb flowers take a long time to dry; the processing itself is an exercise in patience. It can take an entire October weekend to process herbs I’ve dried during the summer. This includes taking petals off all calendula flowers, spending up to two hours sitting at the kitchen table balancing a bowl on my lap before pouring them into their glass jars and hiding them from the light in paper bags. The prize is using the dried petals for tea during the darkest days, warding off infections and bringing enjoyment with every sip.

Gold is also found in the most unexpected places – hidden in roots of some of our most helpful plants. Goldenseal, useful for its action supporting mucous membranes is known for its golden roots, but dyers woodruff roots also shine with gold before offering up a red colour to the dye. Nettles, too, have tangled golden roots which, when processed, offer support and treatment to aging prostate glands.

Finally, there is always green. When the marshmallow in my garden starts to seed, I go down with my basket and strip stems of as many soft, green leaves and pale green seeds as I can. These make dark-green, silky oil to use for lubricating dry or diabetic skin and other hidden places. The dried leaves are kept for teas to sooth irritated bowels or dry lungs.

Vervain grows profusely during most of the year. Infused oil can be made with either fresh or dried aerial parts. The oil comes out dark and green with no distinctive smell. This is an anointing oil to help assist an understanding of the passing of the year, allowing us time to rest before growth begins again.

Every season has its own unique array of colours, shapes and scents. As sun sets to bring evening dusk, so brilliant colours of Autumn lead us towards both quiet and chaos of winter.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Syrups and Soup

Shortening days and cooling temperatures bring both a sense of panic to gather in the last of the harvest and provide comforting warmth and reassurance for the coming winter. Last weekend we visited my parents and spent an hour or so picking quinces from the tree and off the floor and collecting calendula seed ready for next year’s planting.

There were also a number of sorry-looking red roses. Most of them were water damaged and past their best, but they all retained a strong rose scent. I couldn’t leave them, so I picked them all and brought them home. I wondered about making some more rose elixir, but there are still several full bottles from two years ago, so a syrup seemed more in order.

The original Farmer’s Weekly recipe for nettle and rose petal syrup suggested it be used for sore throats during the winter when added to milk. Neither plant are those I would normally turn to for a sore throat but the housewife who offered the remedy would not have done so if she hadn’t found it helpful. I love roses for their ability to raise the spirits – something I’m very much in need of at the moment- so I thought I would add another supportive nervine herb, evening primrose flowers and something to ease the throat/chest – marshmallow leaves.

The marshmallow and evening primrose were gathered from the garden and covered with cold water along with some dried nettle leaves. If I had had time and patience, I would have left them to macerate overnight, but this wasn’t possible as I was leaving for two days in London the following morning. The infusion was brought to a simmer for twenty minutes then strained. After washing out the saucepan, the liquid was replaced and slowly evaporated on a low heat to bring it down to two pints.

Then I added 2lbs of sugar and all the rose petals and brought it slowly up to the boil, stirring continuously for ten minutes while my bottles sterilised in a hot oven at 100 degrees C. Again the syrup was strained to remove the rose petals and could have been simmered further to thicken, but I decided it was fine as it was, so I poured it into the bottles and left it to cool. The taste, when added to cold milk, was very pleasant with a definite note provided by the evening primrose.

When we returned from visiting family in Woking on Wednesday afternoon, I set to work making a sloe and rosehip cordial. The rosehips came from the Sanctuary and the sloes from the farm yard. I covered them with cold water, adding 2 quills of cinnamon, a grated inch of root ginger, a grated nutmeg and several cloves. The mixture simmered for half an hour, then I removed the whole spices and blitzed the syrup in the saucepan until it was fully liquidised.

Then came the arduous task of sieving the entire contents to remove the stones and skins. I was surprised how thick the syrup was despite the amount of debris. After measuring the amount of liquid I added an equal amount of sugar and brought it back to the boil stirring continuously until the sugar was completely dissolved. It tasted wonderful, although a mug of boiling water required at least a tablespoon of syrup to make a really nice drink.

Ever since we returned from holiday, the tomatoes have been prolific. It’s wonderful when there is enough to make fresh tomato soup. The recipe I normally use is from my Good Housekeeping cookbook, but I’ve doubled the quantities and left out the rasher of bacon as I didn’t want to defrost a whole packet just for one rasher. The first recipe was the most delicious, but I’ve made others since which have been very tasty.

Tomato Soup
3lbs fresh tomatoes
1 large carrot
1 onion
2 celery sticks
1oz butter
1 dessertspoon of sugar
Water or stock
Bouquet garni of fresh herbs – thyme, parsley, rosemary, winter savory
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel and dice the onion. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and sweat the onion for five minutes on a low heat, covered, until soft. Wash and dice the celery. Scrape and slice the carrot. Add the vegetables to the saucepan and mix in with the onion. Add in the tomatoes, chopped and the sugar. Cover with water or stock. Chop the herbs and add to the soup together with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer, covered, for one hour. Liquidise, then sieve to remove skins and seeds. Serve the soup hot with fresh bread.

One thing which really surprised me, was the profusion of fresh, young nettles growing in the garden. This was too good an opportunity to miss making fresh nettle soup for possibly the last time this year. I’ve also grown chillis for the first time this year so I experimented with a red one!

Spiced Tomato and Nettle Soup
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
3 lbs of fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 carrot, scraped and sliced
4 sticks of celery, washed and sliced
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 large handfuls of dried nettle leaves or one basketful of fresh nettle leaves removed from their stalks
1/2oz butter plus 1 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp sugar
Bouquet garni of herbs – thyme, winter savory, basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the butter and olive oil together, then sweat the onion and chilli until soft. Add the vegetables, herbs, sugar, salt and freshly ground pepper and cover with water or stock. Bring to the boil, simmering for forty minutes. Add nettles and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Liquidise. Sieve to remove skins, seeds etc. Reheat and serve with fresh bread.

This is a very tasty and nutritious soup with real heat which doesn’t impede the flavour.

For some time now, I’ve been adding vegetables to macaroni cheese. This lightens what can be a very heavy meal and adds extra flavour. I couldn’t resist sharing both the recipe and photo of the last offering as the fresh tomatoes made it so beautiful! The cheese sauce is made without fat and is the method developed by my mother when she had a duodenal ulcer. I use it to make all white sauces, including parsley sauce and brandy sauce.

Vegetable Macaroni Cheese
Fresh tomatoes
3oz of dried macaroni per person
8oz plus 2oz Cheddar cheese grated
1pt (UK) milk
1 tbsp. flour plus extra milk to mix
Bring a large saucepan of water plus salt to the boil and add in the macaroni and any vegetables, excluding the tomatoes. Simmer for fifteen minutes until cooked. While these are cooking, put 1pt milk into a wet saucepan and heat. At the same time, mix the flour and milk into a paste in a cup. As the milk comes to the boil, add the flour paste and whisk until the sauce boils and thickens. Add salt. Stir for two minutes until the flour is cooked. Turn off the heat. Add grated cheese to the sauce and stir until all the cheese is melted. Taste. Add more cheese if necessary. Strain the macaroni and vegetables when cooked. Mix with the cheese sauce and place in an enamel or glass serving dish or in individual bowls. Sprinkle grated cheese on the top of the dish together with halved small tomatoes. Place under a hot grill until the cheese melts and browns to your liking. Serve.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Frost Place and leaves

One of the aims of this holiday was to experience glorious autumn colours as we travelled along. There was very little change as we drove down into New York state until the road began to climb into the Adirondack mountains. Then came the yellows, golds and a touch of heart-stopping red.

We see very little red in our UK colours each year. Apparently it has more to do with the amount of sugars in the leaf rather than the species of tree, so the better the summer, the more reds will be seen. It does depend to some extent on the tree. Crampbark has beautiful red leaves in the autumn, yet is almost unknown as a UK tree. I was fascinated to learn that it is now included in new woods being planted with UK deciduous species, so hopefully soon we shall see the distinctive crimson trees begin to make their mark during September and October.

The tree everyone associates with red leaves is the maple. It is native to the American East Coast with long established harvests of spring sap to turn into maple syrup - a long and laborious process resulting in a scrumptious sugar treat.

One of my favourite Grandma Moses paintings is "Sugaring off". She is my inspiration for developing a new creative career when you are in your eighties. She started to paint when arthritis in her hands made quilting impossible. She finished her last painting, a beautiful rainbow, at the age of 101, a week before she died. I was very fortunate to see an exhibition of her paintings when I was in Portland, Oregon several years ago and was blown away by the beauty and vibrancy of her work.

We loved the colours and calm of the location of our hotel, The Woods Inn, which was situated on the shores of a mirror-lake surrounded by turning trees. We weren't appreciative of a complete lack of welcome when we arrived and having to walk up three long flights of stairs to find our room. Poor Jacce, who is arachnophobic, had a terrible time with the myriad of spiders inside and outside the hotel, but their verandah and view provided some compensation.

The following day we crossed from New York State to Vermont over Lake Champlain. Talking to the elderly lady manning the gift shop about the beautiful colours in the hills behind,

"You haven't seen anything until you see Vermont," she said.

Unfortunately, the trees in the Burlington valley had yet to change and the only thing of note was the wealth of fraternity and sorority houses we passed in the university town while waiting for rush hour traffic lights to change.

The following day it rained. Heavily. Driving through Vermont was not a pleasant experience until we stopped at a diner in Franconia, New Hampshire. Herb tea and a pleasant lunch made everything seem more bearable.

As Peter turned the car to pull back onto the freeway, I suddenly caught sight of a sign to The Frost Museum. My plaintive cry from the back seat to follow the sign was actually heard and we drove off in the opposite direction.

It seemed strange to find a museum in the middle of a winding road filled with ordinary houses and the house and barn we eventually stopped at was nondescript and humble except for the sign which said, "The Frost Place and Poetry Centre".

Robert Frost's poem, "Driving through the woods on a snowy evening" has always been a part of my life. I can't remember when I first read it - probably at school, when I read hundreds of poems. It's different now. I read few and write fewer.

The lady who welcomed me was lovely. Pete and Jacce stayed to watch a video of Robert Frost's life while Chris settled himself on the house porch capturing white wraiths of cloud wrapping themselves around the opposite mountains with his camera.

I toured the house. I knew nothing of the poet's life beforehand. I'd always thought him a Victorian Englishman - a lack of knowledge understandable since his success as a poet came from two years he spent in England, but now seeing his home and letters written in his own hand brought him that bit closer. Brought up by his widowed teacher mother and mostly homeschooled after his father's early death from TB, Frost wanted to farm, but ultimately gave himself up to a career as a poet.

The best part for me of the The Frost Place was the poetry walk - a quarter mile colour-strewn leaf path through trees with Frost's poems clearly printed every so often for the pilgrim to read and enjoy. He is an "easy" poet. His phrases talk of simple things painting clear, accessible pictures for the reader. We are given a window into his world - whether it is apple picking, haymaking or watching birch trees bend in a strong wind.

It was a wonderful visit - a place to feed the soul whilst others rested. I saw milkweed shedding seeds, ripe red raspberries on wild canes and wet,red apples glinting in the afternoon sunshine. I was so pleased we turned and followed the sign.

The Frost Place
Your woods I walked today
Red apples shimmering in the sun
Birch and fir tall sentinels
Maple and alder lining the ground with red and gold.

Fat raindrops fell glistening from branches
White stoles wrapped themselves around mountains
As we sat on your porch
Edged with purple aster
Four years of your life laid out within the modest home.

You found it too cold to grow
In dark, New Hampshire winters
Forty four acres not enough
To feed your growing family

You thought to farm
Bur your successful pen brought better fruit
Sat beside the fire
Writing of bending birch
Discarded apples on trees
Your arms and shoulders aching from their picking.

Yet you knew your fields
Sweet whispers of scythes
Penned for your posterity
You left the hay to make itself
Hopeful of summer's heat

As we stood
Grateful for sun,
A welcome respite from torrential rain
Allowing us to walk in your woods
Share in your works
Drinking the colours of fall
Amidst white mountains.

11.15am 3/10/11.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Colours through the mist

It seems strange a whole week has passed since I last posted. It feels like a lifetime. This time last Sunday we were happily visiting my Canadian cousins, catching up on nearly thirty years of news in a few hours. It was wonderful to realise I still held a place in their memories and photos, even though their children and grandchildren have never met me. The new generations drift further apart no matter how much we try to keep the threads of family together.

It was good to be back in Canada, even if time was painfully short. It felt like home. The sun was hot, the purple and blue New England Aster were a perfect counterpoint to the vibrant yellow of the goldenrod. It seemed fitting the latin name for goldenrod is solidigo canadensis - something our host didn't know. She saw her colourful bank as merely untamed weeds, including the wild grape vines which ran down to the creek. I didn't like to mention how they might support her chest in times of trouble while the grape leaves could give her food a Grecian feel.

There is something about the smell of Ontarion grapes which is quite unique. I have never found it elsewhere. Another cousin's husband had to leave early to tend to his harvest - making ready to produce the local wines the area now specialises in. Crops and harvests have changed since I lived with them. Then the grapes went to large wineries, now those have gone and locals make their own wines. Good ones too if our tastings that afternoon were anything to go by.

It felt wrong to pass by the offer of supper and more conversation, but as the light faded we drove along the Niagara River to watch the calm waters and marvel at the beautiful homes built along the shore line.

The following day we crossed over the border again to view Niagara Falls and experience them from the Maid in the Mist - or Smurfs in the Mist as Chris christened them, because of the blue ponchos everyone was given to wear.

Journeying close to the base of the waterfalls taught me so many different things. The sound of thunder which grows louder as you sit and listen to it. The overwhelming mist which envelops you as you get closer and closer to point of droplet fall. You can see, you cannot hear, you are immersed within the waterfall and there is nothing else. I have so much more to add to my River of Life story now the Falls have shown me part of their reality.

Niagara Falls the town was so different from how I remember previous visits. I don't think it was just the beautiful flowers and impressive night lights from the skyscrapers. Maybe it was the ability to take our time and sit and watch the water for however long we wished rather than trying to do everything there was to do. It was so good to come back and find everything better!

Afterwards we wended our way south along the Niagara Gorge, stopping to admire the whirlpool, having lunch at a farm stand, then experiencing the streets of Niagara on the Lake - my first visit, made all the more special by tea in pots which tasted as tea should!

Dinner that night was at the Seneca Casino - a fantastic buffet for $18 each and $9 from the slot machines to take away with us. The final visit of the evening was to experience the Falls from the American side. Few people, a barmy night and coloured lights shining across from a Canadian tower onto the Horseshoe torrents. It was breathtaking to be so close to the fast-flowing rapids and watch each droplet cascade over the edge. A perfect end to a wonderful day.

Sunday 25 September 2011

A quick wave from the other side of the pond

As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently touring the East coast of the US with Chris and our two, long-term holiday partners, Jacce and Pete Jeffreys. In fact, "Jeffrey's tours" have taken us around the West Coast of America, Spain and several other sites within the UK.

We were visiting some friends in Fredericksburg last Sunday and Nicole asked me how we'd all met up. It was all down to Jacce's boss getting married in 1980. I wanted to go and see "Hot Gossip" a very riskee dance group from the Kenny Everret show on BBC1 who were appearing in a Birmingham night club. Jacce agreed and soon afterwards, we decided to share a holiday to Scourie in the north coast of Scotland followed by a week in Balmacara near to the Kyle of Localsh where the ferry used to cross to the Isle of Skye. We survived two weeks together knitting and playing bridge and have spent every holiday together since. Between us we've produced seven children, so our holidays for over 20 years in Cornwall have been both noisy and memorable. Next year, when we're back in Cornwall, it will be a beach holiday for the next generation who will be nearing his first birthday!

Returning to America, while Chris has been taking photos of policemen's motor cycles and railroad tracks, I've been searching for herbs. Nicole said she'd been told her native dandelions were poisonous, yet I found our usual dandelions on the "grass" next to the White House in Washington. I also found some violets growing around the base of a tree in the White House grounds and an American conker which is now stashed in my suitcase!

New York was fairly devoid of green - even the trees along the street looked sick and weedy- but Central Park in the rain was wonderful. I even found a first year burdock plant - but it was too wet to take a picture!

Now we've left the cities behind for a while. Today is a family day with my cousins in Fonthill, Canada. It's strange to think that I could have been either Canadian or American if my Grandfather had not returned home to Stratford on Avon from his job as a logger in Winnipeg to fight in the Warwickshire Yeomenary during the First World War. He saw service mainly in Egypt and Galipoli, but shared something in common with my other grandfather - they had both ridden the length of the Rheine at some point during the war!

Tomorrow we shall be visiting Niagara Falls, then on Tuesday we travel south again to Boston through the Adirondacks. I shall be looking for more plants along the way.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Transcendence : A Review

Several months ago, a random email appeared from a Californian publishing house. Would I like to read a copy of Transcendence by Norman E Rosenthal, M.D. If I were agreeable they would send two copies and maybe I could review the book for them.

Normally, I ignore random emails but this one intrigued me. I know the universe sends me books occasionally. The first was a book on bereavement from an online bookseller when I’d ordered one about dandelions. I offered to return it but they asked me to keep it in compensation for dispatching the wrong order. The second was a pink book of poetry left behind by a fellow passenger on a train. Transcendence is the third.

Norman Rosenthal is a South African by birth, but now holds the position of professor of clinical psychiatry at Georgetown Medical Centre with a private practice in Washington DC. His previous research has been in Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD).

It seems strange that Dr Rosenthal’s life and my own have run parallel in several ways. When he was a young undergraduate in Cape Town in the early 1970s, he was invited to an introductory talk on Transcendental Meditation. He was interested but did not take the offer of paying a fee and learning more.

Halfway across the world, about twelve months later, I was sitting in a room at the Christian Union of Birmingham University listening to the same introductory talk, probably with a similar level of interest, but I did not feel able to take the next step, pay my dues and be given my mantra.

Both of us took a similar path towards mental health, Dr Rosenthal from the professional viewpoint whereas I was educated by service users spending sixteen years with my local MIND group, five years chairing the West Midlands Regional Council of MIND and five years as a Mental Health Act Lay Manager with a stint as Lay Chair of the Regional Appointments Committee for junior psychiatric doctors before they got fed up with my radical views and found someone more acceptable!

Where Dr Rosenthal has spent his professional life treating people who suffer from mental distress, I spent fourteen years monitoring our local mental health services from the viewpoint of the consumer. I watched the change from the old system to the introduction of a home treatment service and a radicle new approach using mainly psychology to help young people recover from early onset psychosis. Never let it be said deprived inner city Birmingham cannot herald ground-breaking national innovations! I even lectured about them to a Grand Round at Oregon State University Hospital in Portland when I was doing a study tour of diversion from custody in 1995.

Now, I offer support to those who suffer mental distress through my herbs and healing and I teach sessions on how the NHS mental health services work to carers and other support workers.

Dr Rosenthal did return to Transcendental Meditation (TM) and now faithfully meditates twice a day. His book is divided into four sections – Transcendence, Healing, Transformation and Harmony. Within each section he describes the introduction of TM into the West through the visits of the Beatles to Marashi Yogi in the 1960s, provides scientific research to show how TM affects the brain and then gives comprehensive examples of the positive effects of TM with groups and individuals everywhere from schools, to prisons and well known media stars.

It is a fascinating book. I was amazed how the simple act of reading brought on a state of calm which I really appreciated. It is not a book which makes you want to read from cover to cover in one go, but it is perfect for dipping in to whenever you have a spare moment.

Dr Rosenthal has an easy, lyrical style, explaining his points in a simple, digestible format. Points are well illustrated with case studies; each story making the learning more memorable. I was slightly disappointed that most of the case studies related to men rather than women, but I presume this was to emphasise that even hardened male criminals or schoolboy yobs growing up in the most disadvantaged and violent neighbourhoods can become relaxed, reformed, constructive members of society, fully able to take control of their own lives and futures.

I particularly found the research carried out in prisons and schools to be exciting and ripe with possibilities. The outcomes seemed so positive, I truly hope this book serves to publicise the potential of providing TM to the most disadvantaged groups, giving them opportunities currently beyond their grasp.

Personally, I felt the stories involving film producers and other media stars did not strengthen the book in any great way, although I can understand Dr Rosenthal wanting to show how TM can enhance creativity in those whose profession is mass entertainment. The inclusion of Russell Brand left a sour taste in my mouth after his distasteful escapades with Jonathan Ross on Radio 2, but I suspect Dr Rosenthal may not have been aware of his elder abuse on this side of the pond.

It is always a pleasure when a book brings me new information and ideas. Transcendence is such a book. The notes are constructive and highly informative as one would expect from an experienced professional with an acclaimed academic background, but this is not a book just for professionals. It should be welcomed by anyone who wants to know more about this practice.

I gave my second copy of the book to a friend who is a fellow writer. A painter and decorator by trade; he follows the Buddhist path and meditates daily. Like me, he was disappointed the book did not include a full disclosure of the TM technique, but Dr Rosenthal is faithful in keeping the secret of the “movement”. My friend was fascinated by the studies on brain activity and was looking forward to reading more about TM’s applications.

Tomorrow, I leave for Manchester and on Saturday I will fly into Dr Rosenthal’s home city, Washington D.C. In a perfect world, I would love to be able to offer Dr Rosenthal the experience of receiving healing and be able to discuss how this can also produce the state of transcendence he ascribes to TM. I have been very grateful for the opportunity to read his book and I wish him well as his words reach out across the world.

Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation by Norman E Rosenthal, M.D. is published by Penguin at $14.74 and £12.18 from Amazon.

Monday 12 September 2011

Another successful festival!

It's always satisfying to see happy faces when you hold an event. This weekend was no exception. With herbs to gather from the fields and hedgerows then turn into medicines to take home, theory was turned into confident practice.

Springfield Sanctuary Festival is a relatively small festival, but this means we are able to share time, food and laughter. The weather made things very difficult, but it rained during talks when everyone was in the dry and the showers were short with lots of dryness and an incredible full moon!

For me, a festival is never about one thing. There has to be music and for Chris, there has to be kites. He and Dave Salmon, a fellow member of Sky Symphony display team performed the almost impossible - three kites flown by two people in a synchronised display! Dave was the wizard, not only controlling two kites but also calling the manoevres!

If you would like to see more about the weekend, please go to the Facebook album.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

New garden poem over at Mercian Muse

If you fancy a quick tour of my summer garden in verse, hop over to Mercian Muse

Monday 22 August 2011

Lady's mantle - a herb just for women or everyone?

For the past five months I have wanted to write a blog post about Lady’s mantle, ever since the plant emerged from the long, cold winter in a new and vibrant form. During this time, exciting pieces of information about her uses were brought to my attention which is usually a sure sign I should take closer notice and make a written record of what has been learned.

If you talk to someone about lady’s mantle they will usually comment on its structural beauty - the edges of the leaves resembling a cloak and about the perfect water droplets held in the deep cups of the leaves – giving rise to one of its common names as “Dewcup”.

According to American botanist, Ryan Drum, the 'dew' that collects on the tips of the leaves and in the well of the open leaves is actually a vascular secretion that rises up to the tips of the leave's margins at night, then rolls down into the cup to be reabsorbed in the late morning.

Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir, who runs the Scottish Academy of Herbal Medicine in Eugene, Oregon, says, “I've been using these vascular secretions (dew) for over a decade now directly on the surface of my eyes. As a vulnerary it is soothing to tired, dry and blood-shot eyes. One client used it on a broken capillary in the white of her eye that had been there for years. Within weeks of daily applications the capillary had disappeared.”

Mrs Grieve tells us that Lady's Mantle belong to the genus Alchemilla of the rose family, most of the members of which are natives of the American Andes, only a few being found in Europe, North America and Northern and Western Asia. In Britain, there are only three species, Alchemilla vulgaris, the Common Lady's Mantle, A. arvensis, the Field Lady's Mantle or Parsley Piert, and A. alpina, less frequent and only found in mountainous districts.

Mrs Grieve says, “The Common Lady's Mantle is generally distributed over Britain, but more especially in the colder districts and on high-lying ground, being found up to an altitude of 3,600 feet in the Scotch Highlands. It is not uncommon in moist, hilly pastures and by streams, except in the south-east of England, and is abundant in Yorkshire, especially in the Dales.”

The local abundance of Lady’s mantle is probably why Hill wrote in 1740, “The good women in the North of England apply the leaves to their breasts to make them recover their form after they have been swelled with milk.” This local use was subsequently proved by Matthew Wood in his practice showing how Lady’s Mantle “lifts tissue and structures that have been bogged down: sagging breasts after lactation and abdominal tissue following childbirth.”

Wood believes it is the presence of salicylates and tannins within the plant which enables the plant to be used to drive water from tissues that are damp and weak as well as strengthening fibres, bringing them back together into a health, toned condition.

The part of the plant used was originally the entire plant – aerial part and roots, but use of the roots has almost been forgotten as the overall use of the plant has changed from being a general “woodwort” to “a woman’s herb”. Mrs Grieve mentions that the fresh root was often employed.

Wood has written two useful sections on Lady’s mantle in his books, The Earthwise Herbal and The Book of Herbal Wisdom. He writes at length about the relationship between Lady’s mantle and the kidneys, showing how they both suck liquid from tissues as well as managing the concentration of fluids within individual cells. He says that the herb is indicated in “purulent discharges and infected passageways (e.g. ears, vagina) where there is pain”.

We have to turn to early herbalists to learn more about Lady’s Mantle’s use as a woundwort.

Culpepper says “Lady's Mantle is very proper for inflamed wounds and to stay bleeding, vomitings, fluxes of all sorts, bruises by falls and ruptures. It is one of the most singular wound herbs and therefore highly prized and praised, used in all wounds inward and outward, to drink a decoction thereof and wash the wounds therewith, or dip tents therein and put them into the wounds which wonderfully drieth up all humidity of the sores and abateth all inflammations thereof. It quickly healeth green wounds, not suffering any corruption to remain behind and cureth old sores, though fistulous and hollow.'”

William Salmon writing in 1710, says “It is amazing how Lady’s Mantle can restore the integrity of torn, ruptured or separated tissue as seen in hernias or perforated membranes. “

Wood gives two case histories where Lady’s Mantle restored a perforated ear drum and comments wryly that he believed it would also restore a damaged hymen, which was apparently one of its uses in folklore medicine.

David Hoffman sums up the use of Lady’s Mantle as a “woman’s herb”. He says, “Lady's mantle will help reduce pains associated with periods as well as ameliorating excessive bleeding. It also has a role to play in easing the changes of the menopause. As an emmenagogue it stimulates the proper menstrual flow if there is any resistance. However, in the often apparently paradoxical way of herbal remedies, Lady's mantle is a useful uterine astringent, used in both menorrhagia and metrorrhagia. Its astringency provides a role in the treatment of diarrhea and as a mouthwash for sores and ulcers and as a gargle for laryngitis.”

Lady’s mantle is normally taken as a tea or tincture made from plant material gathered in early summer. David Hoffman’s instructions are “Infusion: pour a cup of boiling water onto 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb and leave to infuse for l0-l5 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day. To help diarrhoea and as a mouthwash or lotion, a stronger dosage is made by boiling the herb for a few minutes to extract all the tannin. Tincture: take 1-2 ml of the tincture three times a day.

Matthew Wood prefers macerating the plant material in brandy rather than vodka and recommends a dose of 1-3 drops

Wood gives a much more detailed account of different mediums for administering Lady’s mantle, saying the most extensive information about various kinds of preparations in alcohol, vinegar, water, oil and salt comes from William Salmon. He used all forms internally, observing that the vinegar “..opened more and removes obstructions. … Taken continually all day, so that the amount equals at least four or five tablespoonfuls, It is a most excellent thing against a virulent Gonorrhea in Men.”

Andre Chevalier in his Encyclopaedia of Medicinal plants also quotes Andres de Laguna’s translation (1570) of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica which recommends two preparations of lady’s mantle – the root, powdered and mixed with red wine, for internal and external wounds, and an infusion of the aerial parts, for “greenstick” fractures and broken bones in babies and young children.

It was Karen Lawton, commenting on the Herb Society forum who mentioned Lady’s mantle’s energetic use. She said, “Ladies mantle connects to the whole history of the matriarchy - I use it a lot with patients who have unresolved issues with their mothers and grandmothers. If you observe the structure of the flowering plant you can see lots of differing delicate layers of depth. I harvest her and work with her with my daughter as I am trying not to pass on the female knots of my lineage to her!”

I think she may have picked up this use from Rosemary Gladstar, since Rosemary quotes from Peter and Barbara Theiss in her book, Herbal Healing for women, “Lady’s mantle is associated with the qualities of gentleness, elegance and grace in combination with powerful authority. If a woman finds difficulty in accepting a maternal role, is troubled by thoughts of abortion and suffers from morning sickness and other disorders during the first months of pregnancy, depression after birth and so on, Lady’s mantle is her herb.”

I was recently standing over my patch of Lady’s mantle with a newcomer to the Sanctuary who wanted something for a friend of hers who was experiencing heavy menstrual flooding at the same time as having to come to terms that she would probably never be able to experience motherhood in this lifetime. We picked some new leaves for her to make tincture for her friend. I shall wait to hear whether she finds it helpful.

Karen Lawton also shared a general women’s tonic she makes made from equal parts of raspberry leaf, nettles and Lady’s mantle. The dose is three drops three times a day. Her original recipe used a nettle syrup rather than a tincture and when I asked her why, her answer was that the syrup was what they had large amounts of at the time of creation and it seemed a good thing to add to the mixture!

Lady’s mantle was also used in a recipe for a hand lotion given by Lesley Bremnes on the Herb Society Forum some years ago.

30ml.glycerin 10 drops of essential oil of lemon, rose, geranium or sandalwood
10g carragheen moss dissolved in a little hot water
30ml strong infusion of lady’s mantle
60ml alcohol (Vodka)
1 Stir the glycerin into the dissolved moss
2 Add the essential oil to the vodka mixing well, and then blend the two mixtures. Stir in the herbal infusion, blending well.
3 Pour in a screw-top jar and label. Shake before use if necessary.

I have to confess that I have never had the need to use Lady’s mantle myself, although I have the tincture in my larder and I have encouraged others to make the “women’s tonic” macerated either in vodka or vinegar. Studying the plant in more depth leads me to feel she could be a useful ally during difficult times in a woman’s life, but that her more ancient use as a woundwort should not be forgotten.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Three weeks left!

Only three weeks until the Springfield Sanctuary Herb Festival 9-11 September. Come and join us for two fun-filled days of herbs, kites, stories and songs! Learn how to dye your own wool from natural dyes harvested from the Sanctuary in Kristina's magical dyeing glade. Join the Sanctuary Apprentices to make your own medicine and Denise Fiddaman for herb walks. If you want to gather your own wild foods, Ian will help you identify what is available at this time of year.

Lucinda Warner and Ali English will be furthering our knowledge of using herbs externally and making tonics from local herbs. If you want to know more about propogating herbs, Sam and Louise from Garden Organic will show you how to do it.

Sky Symphony Kite team will be displaying four times over the weekend. Check the online programme to make sure you don't miss their stunning new kite ballet.

The field will be open for camping and to set up stalls from 3pm on Friday and the festival will kick off with an open mic at 7.30pm.

We're trying to keep costs at a minimum, but we'd welcome your donations to help us pay for the loos and cover expenses. Suggested donations are £40 for the weekend and £20 per day. Email sarah at headology dot co do uk for more details and directions to the venue.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

The Cycle of Life

It is difficult to write when you are constantly away from home and the travelling leads to exhaustion, no matter how enjoyable things might be along the way.

July/August was supposed to be a fun month – a reward to ourselves for all the hard work we had accomplished beforehand. Friends were joining us for the storytelling festival at Much Wenlock. The weather was much better than forecast – only a few heavy showers and some sunshine. The stories were wonderful and the music lovely, but my mother (who is registered blind and has vascular dementia) decided to go for a walk on her own and had to be returned home in a distressed state by a passing neighbour. She then refused to enter the house for several hours, necessitating calling out the doctor and the ambulance.

When I rang my father to tell him we’d arrived at the festival, it was all over, but I could hear the fear in his voice. He’d been taking a nap when it happened. I had to phone my sister in Italy to brief her on events and she visited the following weekend to make sure everything was safe.

The next weekend I was presenting at Herbfest. It was a wonderful weekend full of enthusiastic herb lovers who welcomed the opportunity to make their own herbal concoctions and wanted to expand their experiences.

It was a long and exhausting journey to north Somerset and I was wiped out with the stress of it all when we returned.

The following Tuesday, my cousin rang me to say my aunt had died. Although it was not unexpected news, it was very sad to share the pain of his loss and worry about breaking the news to my mother. The two sisters had been estranged since my grandmother died forty years ago, but I’d tried to keep some level of communication between the two families and was grateful I’d taken time to write to my aunt and sent photographs just before her death which she had been able to take comfort from.

At 7.15am on the Thursday my eldest son rang to say his wife’s waters had broken and she was in labour. I went into work to be told that because I am managed from the Sheffield office and worked mostly from home, I would no longer have a desk or any shelf space. I was devastated.

To put this in some kind of context, it must be explained that although we have a fairly large and comfortable house, in the past month we have finally, after thirty years of no maintenance, had the roof insulated along with the cavity walls, the gutters and facias replaced, the front door, back door, garage doors and porch replaced and the lounge furniture recovered and the lounge redecorated.

This has meant Chris had to clear several spaces including the roof, box room and our daughter’s bedroom as she decided to come home to live permanently after four years away. The front room which houses both Chris and my computers and the piano where I give lessons is completely filled with extra furniture and piles of books and papers. There are only tracks through the debris and I can’t turn my chair round without hitting something.

The thought of bringing the contents of my work desk and two bookcases/shelving units home was too much. I spent the following week in tears. It brought back all the grief from being made redundant eight years ago when I had to literally put fourteen years of work into black rubbish bags to be thrown away when we cleared my office.

At 5.50pm on Thursday 28th, Richard rang us to say we were now grandparents to a 7lb 14oz boy called James Michael. We heard the first baby snuffles as he lay on his mother’s tummy in the labour ward of St Peter’s hospital in Woking. Laura followed the family tradition of short deliveries, only being in established labour for 5 hours and managing with gas and air.

After a two hour journey and then a further hour wait in the hospital the following day, it was wonderful to finally hold the tiny, warm bundle in our arms and marvel at the tightness of his grip. Everyone else remarked how much he looked like Richard, but I could only see the face of someone I’d never met before, a new person to welcome into the family and learn more about.

The Warwick Folk Festival was very enjoyable, with stunning performances from The Spooky Men’s Chorale and Show of Hands. We also appreciated the lazy days last weekend spent with our friends in The Lake District finalising the details of our American holiday in a month’s time.

The joy of all these events has been tempered by the sadness of my aunt’s death and my mother’s increasing frailty. Every time I speak to her she asks me when I am coming to visit. It doesn’t matter I have been there every three weeks for the past year and will be there again tomorrow and every two or three weeks for the rest of the year. It will never be enough, but it is all I can manage.

Monday 11 July 2011

Summer abundance

I have never grown as many plants from seed as I have this year. Tomatoes, salad leaves, peas, runner and French beans, basil, two types of spinach, radishes, courgettes, butternut squash, ashwaghanda, holy basil, sweet clover and pokeroot from home produced and bought in seeds.

I’ve also never given away quite so many plants as well – runner beans,
St Johns wort, Michaelmas daisies and other assorted herbs. It was when I was potting up the third batch of St Johns wort plants from the garden and handed over a particularly succulent marshmallow plant that the thought crossed my mind, “If I give away so much, will I have enough for myself?” The compulsion to give was too strong. The plants must go.

There is a Native American tradition which Stephen Buhner describes in his “Secret Life of Plants”. When the tribal medicine man arrives at a home where healing has been requested, tradition demands that the spouse of the person should give away all possessions as gifts to other members of the community. The act is performed before the healing commences in anticipatory gratitude.

Other beliefs teach there is no need to hang on to possessions, because whatever we need will be provided by the universe. I know I don’t have the confidence yet to practice this philosophy, but this year is showing how abundance can be the flipside of gifts freely given.

In response to my plants, I have been given new varieties of tomatoes and lots of chilli plants. The basil seeds which grew so easily and magnificently were a gift during a workshop on seed planting and propagation during a Mercian Herb Group meeting in March. Sharing the runner bean plants has brought me closer to many people I value as friends.

I really should not have worried about having enough St John’s wort. The main bed of plants flowered on June 12th, almost two weeks before their normal day of 21st June. There are already three jars of oil infusing on the sunny windowsill in the kitchen and my first batch of tincture is already a glorious shade of crimson. The recent torrential rain combined with ten days absence in Northumberland and Newcastle has played havoc with my ability to pick the flowers every day, but I know there will be enough for my needs and to give away.

Spending the weekend with my parents enabled me to visit the Sanctuary and see which herbs were ready for harvest there. I missed the last of the apothecary’s rose petals (and Chris wouldn’t let me gather from the three briar rose bushes heavy with blossom at Beamish Museum!), but the William Shakespeare were still blooming even though the petals were heavily waterlogged. I gathered as many as I could and dried them by the kitchen rayburn. They are now infusing in cider vinegar waiting to show their colours at Herbfest on 23rd July.

The walk down to the Sanctuary was also a kaleidoscope of colours provided by ladies bedstraw, red & white clover, knapweed and plantain accompanied by a variety of butterflies, damsel flies and grasshoppers. I watch so many wildlife programmes bemoaning the loss of native habitats. I am so fortunate to have a meadow blooming at my feet!

I’ve already dried two harvests of catmint and ox–eye daises, but more was waiting for me along with a palette of colour provided by weld, wood betony and hyssop. Helped by the three people who attended the Saturday workshop, we picked purple sage, SJW, betony, goats rue, motherwort and enjoyed a wonderful tea of lemon balm and calendula flower.

Janey brought her carding pads and set to work on the wool we boiled for lanolin over Easter. The conclusion was that the wool was really only fit for felting rather than spinning, but it still leaves a wealth of possibilities for future crafts.

I had less than two hours on Sunday to complete my gathering and weeding after preparing Sunday dinner and before we had to pack everything up to come home. I intended to remove the last few docks from the new herb bed, but found myself harvesting and weeding skullcap instead. I also gathered a tiny basket of heartsease which I set to dry for a “hope” tea in the future.

Bees were everywhere – white and yellow/orange-bottomed bumblebees and honey bees. I watched them feeding from red clover and motherwort, climbing around the plant to suck the nectar from each individual floret. Their activity was so different from their sister bees collecting pollen from wide open evening primrose flowers or even St John’s wort flowers, where they appeared to brush their tummy over the pollen or wrap pollen strings around their whole bodies – something I’d not seen before.

The stand of motherwort was so beautiful. I kept looking at it wondering what I could make with it. I’d already gathered enough for vinegar. I have tincture and oil left from last year and it was far too hot and my time severely limited, for me to gather any more. So I left the strawberry and cream pink motherwort and the deep blue of the hyssop to the bees.

It is hard to accept you can’t do everything, especially when colours and scents call seductively to gather and process. There will be further opportunities. The calendula and bergamot are still a long way from flowering, so they and the tansy will greet me when I return in August.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Violet: friends and family

The last time I wrote about violets, Henriette Kress left me a comment saying, “See, I don’t get violets. We have v.tricolor and that tastes ghastly. No “gentle mucilaginous green” taste, no, it’ll clobber your tongue to tell you to fxxx the hxll off. V.odorata, gentle mucilaginous, check. The rest? The wild dry ones? Most emphatically not.”

This had me worried. I’d never tasted heartsease but it was on my list of things to do with violet’s relations. I’d already chewed a dog violet leaf and that was basically tasteless but more mucilaginous than the odorata. I was intending to do the same with heartsease, but Henriette’s comment did have me wondering. Would it be bitter? Would it be as unpalatable as she described? I would have to “bite the bullet” or rather, leaf and see for myself.

I haven’t found any heartsease growing in the garden this year. For the last five years or so they have wandered around the various beds popping their beautiful flowerheads up out of various beds from late spring to summer. I think I killed them all off by replanting some in the old wheel frame which acts as my sole hanging basket – sometimes I forget to water it and after last winter, nothing survived.

I thought I would have to buy new seeds this year to repopulate the heartsease, but the plants in the Sanctuary had other ideas. They reappeared in March and have been blooming beautifully for the last three months. You may have seen the photos on Facebook.

Last weekend was the menopause workshop where fourteen women got together to discuss, laugh and create amongst the stunning flowers and herbs of the Sanctuary, ending with a beautiful healing circle.

I was standing by the bottom bed while others searched for motherwort, lady’s mantle and nettle to put in their tonics and decided it was time to test the palatability of heartsease. I picked a leaf, chewed and waited to be told to “go away”. It didn’t happen. From the virtually tasteless tiny leaf developed the most amazing amount of mucilage – soothing, calming and definitely welcoming to the tongue.

I picked a bunch of aerial stems and gathered the other women together – presenting them with a leaf each to chew and experience. They all agreed it was pleasant, very mucilaginous and a fascinating experience as most of them had not known the term mucilaginous before.

We discussed Henriette’s comments and agreed that environmental conditions must dramatically affect a plant’s makeup. Finish plants must have a sterner outlook on life than our own as they have to survive in colder conditions with a much short growing period.

I’ve not seen viola tricola growing wild in the UK, but I saw it everywhere when I was travelling from Oregon to California three years ago. I shall look for it again on the east coast when we return to the vast continent to explore from the Canadian border down to Boston in September. There they call it “Johnny jump up” because of its proclivity.

My first awareness of heartease medicinally came from an Israeli herbalist on Henriette’s email list. She talked about using heartsease for childhood eczema, so I steeled my heart to their beauty, gathered a bundle in the garden and made an infused oil. Those I gave it to reported it was helpful, but I might do many other things before handing out a salve now, including using a chamomile water to reduce the heat in an inflamed condition before applying any kind of oil.

James Wong also likes heartease. He talks about using heartease as an anti-inflammatory for eczema and combines it with chamomile in a cream.

Viola eczema cream
Makes one 150 ml pot
2 tbsp (20 g) viola flowers, stripped from their stems (heartsease, viola tricola)
2 tbsp (20 g) Roman or German chamomile, dried (you could use 4x the amount of fresh)
1 tsp beeswax
2 tbsp almond oil
1 tsp vitamin C powder
1 tsp glycerine
2 tsp emulsifying wax
250ml freshly boiled water
1. Place the violas and chamomile flowers in a glass bowl. Pour over the water to cover. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Put the infusion into a medium-sized pan (this will form the bottom of your double boiler or bain-marie).
2. In another glass bowl, add the beeswax, almond oil, vitamin C powder, glycerine and emulsifying wax. Place on top of the infusion pan, and warm over a gentle heat, stirring until melted. This takes about 10 minutes.
3. Strain the infusion, then slowly whisk it into the oil mixture until incorporated – the texture should be smooth, like mayonnaise.
4. Pour the mixture into a sterilized dark glass ointment pot, then seal.
USE: Apply to affected areas morning and night. Ideally, apply within a few minutes of bathing, to keep moisture in the skin.
STORAGE: Keeps for up to 6 months in the refrigerator.

Personally, I can never get a cream not to separate, but then I haven’t tried an emulsifying wax. Maybe I should.

My harvest of heartsease this year is infusing into cider vinegar. I thought long and hard about how to preserve it and what I would find most useful. I already have some wonderful oil from the odorata in the garden and the infused vinegar is being used up on salads, so a vinegar to extract all the minerals from the plant seemed to way to go.

If you would like to see many of the other plants growing in my gardens this month, take a look at Facebook.