Monday 8 May 2017

What are you harvesting now?

Once again, a year is racing by and the fifth month already begun. If we turn away and blink, another plant has bloomed and disappeared while others stay with us for a longer duration.

I always think of May as the green month as there are so many different tones of a single colour. Each tree has its own particular shade building up a living palette amongst the landscape. In hedgerows, crabapple has thrown a white garment over her branches and the hawthorn blossom is glistening brightly against the vibrant leaves. We’re still waiting for elder and crampbark flowers but they will soon be here along with the blushing pink of dog rose.
For me, May heralds the urge to harvest. Plantain, cowslip and ground ivy from the fields, hawthorn blossom and leaf from the hedges, daisies from the garden lawn, fresh marjoram, lovage and mint for my cooking and ground ivy to dry for green powder. Errant nettles have been thrown on the compost to add nitrogen to next year’s soil but there may still be time for another harvest from the Sanctuary’s strongest gift.

Before I gather, it is always a good idea to review my larder and decide what I actually need rather than succumbing to the overall urge to forage. I know plantain will be in my future but I’ve also made use of elder leaves from Sanctuary prunings. A tree had grown over the path, making it impossible for my father to pass safely on his mower, so we cut back branches and I have made two batches of infused oils. These could either be used in a general bruise salve but I saw a recipe recently for an insect repellent so there is an opportunity to try making something new.

Broad-leaf thyme has begun to flower and the purple sage is finally looking alive, so I shall be gathering both for a new elixir to replace the amount we’ve used recently whilst suffering from a nasty cold and cough. I am so grateful for my store of elderberry elixir, fire cider vinegar and various cough syrups. When you’re feeling ill, you need the remedy immediately rather than making fresh and having to wait for several weeks.

I am waiting for my St George’s mushroom tincture to finish the six-week alcohol extraction phase. This is the first year I have gathered this variety of mushroom which grows all over my five-acre meadow. One of my apprentices picked the first basket after April’s workshop and I gathered the second for drying just over a week ago. These will be added at the decoction stage so the water and alcohol can be combined for a full-spectrum extraction. St George’s mushrooms can be used against thrush, so I’m looking forward to adding this medicine to my anti-fungal collection.

Another remedy which is about to be made is a chamomile vinegar. This helps to guard against fungal infections in difficult to reach body crevices. The plants emerged as tiny, self-sown seedlings which I transplanted into a single large pot. Now they resemble a green triffid swaying in the breeze already over a foot high. I’m waiting for them to flower in the next week or so before I gather most of the aerial parts to infuse in cider vinegar.

Although most herbalists talk about using chamomile flowers, I have always used the entire aerial parts to good effect. Last year, I experimented in collecting only the flowers and whilst they are lovely in tea, I feel the rest of the plant is just as efficacious and shouldn’t be wasted.

May is also the last month for sowing this year’s herb seeds. A second batch of ashwagandha have been scattered from a single cherry in case the germination of those planted at the beginning of April is not sufficient. It took me a while to find where I’d hidden the holy basil seeds, still on their dry stalks but hopefully they will be showing themselves in a couple of weeks.

With the very cold weather, germination this year has been horrendous. Only two of my motherwort seeds grew and none of the pleurisy root. Someone in Manchester offered to share her woad seeds and those are now good sized seedlings which will be planted out at the Sanctuary in a few days, along with Californian poppy and self-sown chamomile. I have still to decide what to do with milk thistle and the plague of borage seedlings. Both are too large to remain in the vegetable beds for much longer.

As each year progresses, time available to describe what is happening diminishes as necessary practical tasks increase. Even though we may not be able to capture each action in words, memories continue to store treasures against more difficult times.