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.



Allison Dey Malacaria said...

Wonderful! I recently made labels for every bag and jar in my "apothecary" with names and uses. I'm versed enough in them but am also now teaching my husband how to use the area so he can discover some of his own allies. Just about to go dig up a lovely poke root for tincturing. Poke went wild in my yard this year and we have about 4 pounds of poke berries in the freezer and several bunches dried. Sometimes my husband just swallows one whole for his joint pain, but I'm thinking poke jelly would be rather nice also.

Lady Locust said...

It's so nice to know that someone else has the same pantry issue :-) I finally found a label that works for me (etsy: mistress of the house) so it's getting a little better - sorta - grin.
It always interesting what you are harvesting & what time of year.