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!