Winter stores are hard to quantify. I know in my head what lies on each larder shelf. There are two for oils, one for infused honeys, four for dried herbs, two for vinegars, half a shelf for flower essences, and the rest are tinctures, elixirs and liqueurs. Once upon a time, everything was in alphabetical order but that disappeared when space was at a premium or others helpfully returned jars to gaps rather than their homes. Most bottles and jars are labelled with a date of production but there are still a couple I have yet to either identify or throw out.
Some herbalists were talking recently about using the quiet
time of winter to catch up on their herbal inventories. This has been one of my
goals for many years but I doubt if it will be crossed off the list any time
soon. My larder is full. The only way a new jar finds a place on a shelf is if
another is removed. Any new preparation takes twice as long because something
else must either be emptied, amalgamated or thrown away.
Saturday and Sunday were spent digging more roots. My
long-suffering husband volunteered to do battle with nettle roots, which seemed
only right as the prostate support medicine is for him. I attacked the first
year angelica plants, removing six and leaving others to grow for another
season. Then I tackled Solomon seal, quite a feat when the whole neglected bed
is covered with nettles, hogweed and other unmentionables. I unearthed six
roots, leaving the rest for another year.
One thing you notice when harvesting roots is the condition
of the soil. The angelica was covered in a sticky, wet, dark brown, not
surprising when the bed is below the spring line where clay meets limestone.
The horseradish was in a completely different medium, the dry, light brown particles
falling away from the stones as I dug down beside the wall.
Two hours spent removing four kinds of roots followed by
another two on Monday scrubbing horseradish, Solomon seal and angelica before
leaving it to air dry overnight.
The plan was to make tinctures with angelica, Solomon seal
and nettle and a new batch of fire cider vinegar with the horseradish. I’d
forgotten angelica needs overproof rum for its menstruum but luckily two
bottles arrived back with the Monday shopping alongside more vodka. Anyone who
didn’t know me would think I had a problem…!
Tuesday morning began with decanting two jars of hawthorn
berry brandy and last year’s angelica root harvest. One of the hawthorn jars contained quite a lot of
gelatinous precipitate which I wasn’t expecting as the haws had been harvested
before any whiff of frost. After discussion, it appears that hawthorn contains
more pectin than either apples or lemons. So much so, the scientists are preparing
to use it in developing new food preparations and drugs. (Take a look at the
To alleviate the problem, I washed the haws with extra
brandy and added it to the tincture, which seems to have settled into liquid
form. Hawthorn jelly is now on my list to make.
Every decanted tincture needs to be tasted. When you first
start making medicines, this really helps to identify new tastes but it’s also
helpful in deciding whether the season is a good one for that plant. This was
my first ever batch of angelica root. It was possibly the worst tincture I’d
ever tasted, probably not helped by leaving the roots in alcohol for a year.
(We weren’t ill last year so I didn’t need it.) It was bitter, incredibly strong
and tasted “black” with no discernible sweetness from the rum and not a great
deal of the expected angelica scent. Interestingly, half an hour after
swallowing the disgusting liquid, I realised my mouth was no longer burning and
I really felt quite well!
A spare half-hour between piano lessons found me desperately
scrubbing nettle roots in failing light wishing I could see better!
Nevertheless, the amount I laid out to air dry on the kitchen table overnight
was just enough to fill two large jars the following morning.
The final preparation from the weekend haul on Wednesday was
a nasturtium leaf tincture, from a chance visit to my aunt and uncle the previous Friday. Nasturtiums
have been very late growing this year and I only had one plant self-seed, which
wasn’t enough to do anything with. Nasturtiums not only provide colour in a
garden, peppery leaves for salads and seeds for false capers, they are a
powerful anti-viral and have a special affinity for respiratory issues. My aunt
had two plants curling their way along her beech hedge. She had no
objections to my harvesting the hand-sized leaves which yielded enough to make
a small jar of tincture.
Next on the list were ashwagandha roots from the garden. The
forecast for the end of the week was very cold with the possibility of snow as
well as frosts. Thursday sunshine dried the washing and threats of overnight
rain decided me to grab a thick coat and wellingtons as light faded. The
ashwagandha plants were happy to be removed. Those planted late into the middle
raised bed were already leafless with small roots. They never grow as well in
this cooler environment but even an inch of root provides a useful yield from
Most leaves of the plants in the large pots on the patio were
still vibrantly green with secondary leaves already growing. Their roots were at
least two inches long with a frenzy of rootlets. The cherry shells were nowhere
near ripe, so those stems were cut to live in the kitchen window sill until
they transform. Friends came to play with the model trains in the loft on
Friday and they were more than happy to take part of the root harvest home with
A busy week beginning with roots and ending with spices when
I prepared two curries from scratch for our Friday night meal. They all provide
harvests to sustain us through the winter and hope to see us through the long,
cold months ahead.