Saturday 27 November 2021

A week in the life of a Herbwife

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 article here.)

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 thirty plants.

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 them.

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.


Monday 8 November 2021

Digging for winter health

“What can I forage now?” someone asked recently.

My response was all about roots. This time of year, dandelions tubers swell from seasonal photosynthesis, summer sweetness locked within their fibres. First year burdock, mullein and angelica can be harvested for drying or tincturing. It’s too late if you gather the remains of plants which have already flowered, the roots have sent up all their “goodness/virtue” into flowers and seeds.

Seeds can be gathered as long as they are black and ripe. Mullein seeds are tiny. It’s best to put the whole flowering stalk inside a paper bag and shake vigorously if you want to keep them or maybe spread them on the ground to encourage another harvest in two years’ time.

Burdock seeds are an investment. The seed pods are guarded by sharp thorns. They are best approached with heavy gloves and when you’ve gathered enough, find a sheltered place out of the wind, a sharp stick or chopstick to poke inside the large pod and a bowl to pour the seeds into. The seeds are both nutritional and medicinal. They are best ground daily if you’re intending to eat them or used whole  in a decoction which can be divided in three parts and drunk during the day.

Burdock, like nettles, is a blood cleanser. It can be used for eczema, psoriasis, gout, liver and kidney support etc. The root is the only part not bitter, but it is diuretic. If you chew a piece of root, be prepared to find a toilet within twenty minutes. The root is also helpful in exciting a lethargic appetite, especially one dulled by a long-lasting virus. Chop the clean root into small pieces, possibly inside a muslin bag and cook it as part of a stock, soup or stew. Remove before serving.

My next planned harvest will be nettle roots. I don’t gather the golden goodness very often, but searching the larder shelves this week for another bottle of tincture to add to my husband’s daily tonic proved fruitless, so this month I shall be attacking several clumps with a garden fork. The roots are stunning. I would never have guessed their colour. It glows in autumn sunlight, providing another aspect to nettle’s cornucopia.

I learned from a former apprentice about nettle root as a powder providing extra nutritional oomph to a diet. I’ve always used it to support the prostate gland. There have been studies undertaken which show that nettle root can keep the prostate stable for many years. It seems a useful ally for all men, especially those in middle age.

Prostate cancer is as widespread as lung and breast, so every man and women who care for them need to be alert for any danger signals and seek medical advice as soon as possible.

My other root harvests are from my garden rather than the field or hedgerow. Elecampane flowers are long gone, their long stalks brown and brittle, the huge green leaves mere husks of their former green profusion. I removed all the aerial parts yesterday to fill my green bin but their roots are safe for the moment. I still have large amounts of infused honey and tincture from last year and I suspect, if I search, there will be another full jar of dried root slices to add to cough elixirs or syrups.

The honey can be given to children over two years as a prophylactic to prevent constant winter coughing. The root smells and tastes of commercial scent but it is one of the most effective cough remedy. Like mullein leaf, it drags up debris from the depths, resolving deep rooted lung infections.

Although the frost whispered on the fringes of the lawn last week, there has been nothing to prompt me to dig up the ashwagandha roots. I’m still holding on to a vain hope there may be ripe cherries in the future but I’m not holding my breath.

Roots mean hard work scrubbing with lots of water changes. I never powder them until the time that powder is needed. Powders go off quicker than anything else but properly dried and sliced roots will last for more than two years if stored in a dark place.

Although I grow marshmallow, I don’t harvest the root. The leaves are sufficient for my needs and I value my plants. The downy stems are almost bare now so I may cut them down before the solstice, rather than afterwards.

There is one root I buy. Astralagus (astralagus membranaceous) has been on my list of immune-enhancing herbs for a very long time but I’ve only been working with it for the past five or so years. It’s a native of Mongolia and China and has been used in Chinese Traditional Medicine for centuries. I’ve never seen a plant growing so I guess it may be on my list to try one of these years.

The commercial packs are full of tiny discs with an earthy smell which is not endearing but the taste doesn’t adversely affect anything to which it is added. The roots are well known immune enhancers, antiviral and antibacterial. They can be used prophylactically against colds and upper respiratory infections.

For the past few winters, I have been adding a tablespoon of it to all my stocks, soups and stews along with homemade green powder to bring our immune systems to the maximum efficiency. Along with other herbal roots, astralagus roots need to be removed before serving as they don’t break down and can’t be chewed as part of the meal. I usually place them inside a large muslin teabag which is easy take out of the liquid.

My friend, Lynne Tynan Cashmore gave me a recipe for immune-enhancing tea which is very pleasant.

1tsp dried haws

1tsp dried hips

1-2tsps dried astralagus root

Infuse for 15-20 minutes then drink.

Lynne recommends drinking a mugful of tea every day during the winter to ward off the lurgies. If you were using fresh hips and haws then you would need 1 tablespoons of each, so it is probably more efficient to dry them before use as tea, depending on how much you have been able to forage and store.