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.