Monday 25 October 2021

Combing the hedgerows


My favourite place to forage in autumn is amongst the hedgerows. Whilst horse chestnuts and some of the elders are already losing leaves, other trees are turning beautiful shades of red, yellow, and purple. Garlands of crimson woody nightshade berries adorn their branches but must never be picked or tasted.

Rowan/Mountain Ash and crampbark/Guelder Rose are still holding on to their glorious red berries alongside the pink and orange clusters of the spindle tree. The first two can be made into jellies with crab-apples. Both berries are nontoxic if cooked before eating.

Rowan jelly is sometimes offered as an accompaniment to game. I have only tried the jelly once. It was too bitter for me. One of my apprentices experimented with a crampbark and crabapple jelly which was declared delicious by everyone who tasted it. It is on my list of future experiments.

Never pick spindle berries. They are poisonous.

Rowan is known for its protective properties. Crosses made from the wood are fixed with red ribbons and hung on cradles to stop the fairies from stealing or exchanging babies. The berries can also be threaded into necklaces or onto pieces of wire to strengthen the cross. They need to be dried once threaded for preservation. Strings of dried berries can also be hung on cradles, out of reach of tiny, enquiring fingers and mouths!

I have been wanting to make a rowan berry string for the past ten years, ever since Charlie Farrow first showed us how to make the rowan cross during a festival workshop. There were no berries available that year, so we made do with haws. When I finally foraged some late hanging rowan berries this weekend, I was delighted to find how easy it was to push a sharp needle through the berry and draw the thread through. My string is now hanging against a hot water tank to dry over the next few weeks.

Each autumn, I harvest rosehips, haws and purple sloes. The rosehips are full of vitamin C, their bright, scarlet clusters shine in a tantalizing glow amidst the briars. Like blackberry brambles, you forage carefully. If you don’t pay great attention, the backward thorns will extract their drop of blood or threads of fabric when you least expect it. Once caught, you cannot wrench yourself free, but must work backwards to remove the thorns before they claim a larger price.

Some of the rosehip harvest will be dried for use throughout the year. I’m not making rosehip honey this year as I haven’t started the honey I made two years ago. I am going to make some rosehip syrup and maybe add sloes to the mixture.

This is a good year for sloes. Some people like to harvest after the first frost, but you can easily mimic the cold by placing your harvest in the freezer before processing, ensuring the skins are split. Like rosehips, sloes are full of vitamin C. Their astringent nature can also help with loose stools.

Haws have become increasingly important to me over the years. Dried, they make a pleasant tea, boosting the immune system if a handful of astralagus root and rosehips are added.

Hawthorn vinegar is one of the easiest products to make, stuffing a jam jar full of haws, covering it with cider vinegar and watching the berries turn white while the vinegar takes on the soft, rose-tinged hue. It’s one of the tastier vinegars, ideal for salad dressings or as an unusual starter with crusty bread.

One of my most well-used preparations is haw brandy. I use it daily with motherwort tincture to strengthen my heart and prevent palpitations. It can also be added to tinctures made from hawthorn leaves and flowers to produce a full-spectrum medicine.

Hawthorn is all about the heart, managing fluid levels, helping the raise or lower the heart rate depending on what is needed. It can be given by a qualified herbalist to those who already take allopathic medicine for their heart condition. Offering hawthorn to lean, tall, elderly men with low blood pressure may not be a good idea. (Don’t ask them to do breathing exercises as part of relaxation techniques either – ask me how I know!)

Hawthorn has been part of our landscape for centuries. Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “hedge thorn.” The thorns are not as long and dangerous as the blackthorn, but trees have the ability to grow close to one another to provide both a barrier and shelter from strong winds.

On an energetic level, hawthorn opens the heart to the possibility of spiritual development. Its most powerful gift is the opportunity for forgiveness, both of self and others. This is especially useful during a time of grieving, where the bereaved is completely immersed in a cycle of “if only…” Spending time with a hawthorn tree can be useful but if something material is needed, then regular doses of hawthorn flower essence (4 drops under the tongue or in water three times a day or when needed) or drop doses of hawthorn flower tincture can be helpful.

An alternative point of comfort might be to offer a piece of hawthorn twig, sanded smooth and finished with a smear of salve or sunflower oil for the grieving person to use as a “meditation aid” or “worry stick.” The precise term is immaterial, whatever enables the individual to accept the gift or maybe make one for themselves.

Berries are not the only harvest from the hedgerows. On my way out of a nearby stand of trees, I noticed dogwood and crampbark leaves colouring the grass alongside two rowan trees. The leaves found their way into my basket, together with several bunches of rowan berries. These have been used to create two colourful plates for Samhain. It feels good to be inspired after such a long absence!

Monday 18 October 2021

October and nettle seeds

The south facing branch of the sycamore tree across the road from my suburban home has turned from green to yellow, showing autumn is finally here. The warm days of the past few weeks have brought both respite and a lengthening to the late growing season, but it is good to be reminded the wheel of the year is turning and change will follow soon.

September always fills me with panic. Have I grown enough? Has the harvest been enough? Have I foraged everything I need. Enough is such a strange concept. How many people do I need to treat? How many people will I need to feed over winter?

In previous years I could plan and estimate but these strange times make things more uncertain. Winter is coming and all I want to do is find my sheltered place, line my nest and hibernate for the duration. I know it won’t be possible but I can hope.

October is the time of roots and seeds, preferably gathered after the first frost, whenever that is. My ashwagandha plants are still vibrantly green. They were so late germinating and then growing back in July that they have hardly put out their flowers and the seed pods are still green. I will wait to see if any of them turn to orange in the next few weeks. Otherwise everything will be dug and dried or tinctured. There is no rush.

What I did find whilst I was pulling up the dead broad and climbing beans was a hidden last harvest of nettle seed. I remember finding some last seeds this time of year in local parks in the first year I gathered. I’d forgotten the time of gathering was quite so long.

Reading through foraging posts on social media, it seems everyone has finally discovered nettles make more than leaves for soup and fibre for fishing lines. The seeds carry a rich nutritive density. As with any medicinal plant, you do need to harvest and consume with caution.

The fresh seeds when eaten can send some people “high”. The American herbalist, Kiva Rose Hardin first pointed out that if you have a “dry” constitution then nettle seed will dry you out further. She lives in New Mexico, so she is very conscious of moisture and the lack of it. Another issue we have discovered is that if you have misused “recreational drugs” somewhere in your past, nettle seed will cause you difficulties.

We tincture fresh nettle seed  to support kidney failure, as first highlighted by David Winston. It is especially helpful in dealing with kidney pain when you haven’t drunk enough fluid. The dry seeds support exhausted adrenal glands. The usual dose is one teaspoonful taken in yoghurt or porridge or as a seed topping to salads.

We usually recommend they are consumed for at least three months or until the “patient” can’t stand the taste of them anymore. I have one friend with an incredibly stressful job who is still happily consuming her nettle seed two years after they were first given to her.

Dried nettle seeds can also be an aid to reducing dietary salt. They can be ground with salt crystals in a ratio of two: one to produce a useful condiment. If you want something a little hotter, add chilli flakes to the mix.

It worried me when nettle seeds at the farm were turning black and dropping off back in July, thinking I had not found enough for fresh seed tincture. The following month I found another stand of vibrant green, enough to put up nearly 5 litres of tincture. After our herb festival in September, huge nettle plants now covering all the Sanctuary like rampant triffids, dangled their seeds so seductively I was forced to pick them, even though I was there to harvest my damson tree and time, as always, was very short.

I did manage to pick my usual five pounds of damsons and these are now sitting on my jam shelves ready to eat. The quince harvest is very sparse but luckily my friend has a tree and shares her largesse with me. Two bottles of spiced quince gin and three of vodka are now infusing in the larder until Christmas and twenty small jars of quince jelly were made over two days this week.

Now, there are more nettle seeds from the garden drying in a paper bag over the kitchen radiator. I should have added another batch from underneath our hawthorn tree but I was too tired and now it is raining.

What I did pick was an orange flourish of calendula, waving from underneath the runner beans. I’ve lamented the lack of a dedicated calendula bed for the past two years, but collecting a few flowers here and there, self-seeded in the vegetable beds have given me a few to dry for anti-viral tea and enough to turn into oil for skin salves when next needed. There was even a rogue chamomile plant this year, providing enough to fill a tiny jar for emergency use in the future.

This gentle week at home has given me the time to decant this summer’s St John’s wort oil. Only two jars this years, but still plenty in the larder from previous summers. The dried vervain, yarrow and sage have also been poured into glass jars, labelled and put away. The vervain will be mixed with chamomile and lemon balm for IDGAS tea, yarrow for colds and conditions which require an anti-inflammatory and sage for mouth/tooth infections.

There are still bags of St Johns wort flowers, plantain leaves, red clover blossoms and other mysteries to emerge from the “hot cupboard” and put away but not today. I still have tomorrow. 

Thursday 7 October 2021

Plantain and Stings

Anyone would think from the paucity of posts on this blog in the past couple of years that I have given up on herbs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly, most of my energy now goes into creating new fiction since the pandemic restrictions made it impossible to continue holding workshops and taking on new apprentices. Herbs are still part of my life and help me cope with the myriad of challenges we have faced this year.

Plantain continues to sustain me. Both the greater and narrow-leaved varieties have set themselves up in my garden. I was very surprised to see them edging the flower beds and snuggling up to the lovage in the middle of the largest raised bed underneath the laurel hedge, but I have been so grateful they are there. Every time my husband bruises himself or strains a muscle, the plantain is there, either to chew up for a spit poultice or to gather for another batch of double infused oil for salves. It never disappoints.

This past month has brought several wasp and bee stings. It was interesting to see how my sister’s leg swelled and produced a crimson patch bigger than a hand when she was bitten by two wasps at the same time. I’d made sure she knew what plantain was but the pain was too much for her to move and her husband had recently strimmed the whole garden, thus removing all the easily accessible plants. She finally succumbed to anti-histamines three days after the stings but the angry, crimson swelling took at least two weeks to disappear.

My first bee sting happened at our festival, over a month ago. The poor bee must have mistaken my green sleeve for a plant and didn’t appreciate being squashed when I moved my arm. I managed to poultice it straight away but didn’t renew it until the following day, so there was a red, angry patch for about a week, but no swelling or heat.

You would think I might learn from experience but no. My father’s house has been plagued by wasps these past few weeks. One decided to crawl up inside my trouser leg whilst I was interviewed a lady to become part of my father’s care team as he is now very frail and has difficulty eating.

Of course, the wasp stung me when I touched it to see what was tickling my leg. I’ve done a lot of interviewing in my lifetime, but this was the first times I’d ever had to say, "Excuse me for a moment while I go outside into the pouring rain and find some plantain to chew for a spit poultice." 

The poultice was duly fixed, but I was too busy to change it until the following day, which wasn’t enough so again I had a nasty red patch. This time I treated it on the evening of Day 2 with a salve made from fresh plantain and yarrow. I’d made it for my father, gathering the plantain from the field and the yarrow from an overlooked patch behind a stone wall.

Those double infused oils took up one day, then the following morning I melted some gifted raw beeswax, poured it through one of my late mother’s stockings and then left it to set. It produced 12oz of wax, admittedly still attached to some honey, but it will all get used.

The salve was made especially for my father’s itchy legs but after one application he complained it made them worse so I took it home. I was very grateful it was there to address my wasp sting. Five days later of applying it night and morning there is just one tiny, raised spot when the venom was injected. The red area which must have measure 2-3 inches has disappeared.

I love herbs!

Many years ago when I was trying out some stories about herbs for children, I adapted an English translation of Plantain’s portion of the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herb Charm.

Plantain growing on the floor,

Rib-shot leaves you grow so small

See how we dance over you

See how bulls prance over you

Carts rumble over you

Ladies ride horses over you

Small you may be

But strong your leaves

You draw out poisons

And stings from bees

Special plantain, mother of herbs

You help us heal, all over the world.