Monday 11 March 2024

‘Tis the season

With the arrival of the third month of the year, things are starting to move. The quince tree is coming out in leaf. The elder leaves were possibly the first to appear but I wasn’t there to watch them. The blackcurrant bushes are bursting. Spring in finally springing. The snowdrops have seeded, the early daffodils have been waving in the breeze for a month and the main show are blooming.

Sweet violets have been spreading their scented wonder since late January in my garden. We made a violet syrup at the February workshop with a round of “Ooohs” as the lemon juice turned the turquoise liquid pink. I searched for the white violet last Saturday in the nooks and crannies of the Sanctuary bank but although the leaves were present, there was no sign of the flowers.

We have been working at the Sanctuary on the few dry days in between the constant rain. We held our first Wassail on January 6th; serenading the trees and gifting them with bread soaked in cider after a day of pruning and ivy clearance.

At the end of February we began the winter clear up. Wild cherry and crampbark trees were pruned, the large haul of twigs divided between four to debark at a later date. Half a ‘boot load’ was delivered to the Little Bird herbal apothecary in Shipston on Stour, the rest dried or made into tincture.

There are still untouched bottles of crampbark tincture in my larder from previous years, so I processed wild cherry for over an hour before my hands were too sore to do any more. It yielded three trays of bark for drying and those have filled two large jars to store for later.

A week ago, when my writers group were finalising details for our belated Christmas curry meetup, I received an email asking if I’d got any spare cough syrup. It seemed an ideal time to try out the new cherry bark, so the morning was spent decocting cherry bark, hyssop, mullein, sage, thyme and marshmallow leaves, elecampane and astralagus root and rosehips. The first five ingredients were aimed at the cough, the marshmallow to soothe any inflamed tissue and the last two to boost the immune system and Vitamin C levels. I tend to throw rosehips into any kind of winter syrup, ‘just because’.

After straining and measuring the liquid and cleaning out the pan, I let it evaporate for an hour or so, but didn’t have the patience to reduce it by 7/8ths, as you should with a medicinal syrup. After adding the same weight of sugar as the remaining volume of liquid, it made 4 jars of cough syrup and the recipient was delighted. The rest of the group received home made marmalade, made at the beginning of February.

After years of treading water thanks to Covid and various bereavements, we are now making plans and moving forward. Last year’s apprentices have settled into a community and brought a new set to join them this year. They spent Saturday’s workshop picking nettles for ChristopherHedley’s nettle iron tonic, all of them armed with thick gloves against the Sanctuary’s particularly vicious variety.

While the women used secateurs, the men took up pick axes and crowbars to remove roots from unwanted trees to make space for levelling the ground to receive flagstones for a new shed we’re intending to erect.

The bramble hedge which hasn’t been touched for the past three years and was threatening to engulf both the path and eventually the summer house was also given a serious haircut. Roots were dug up from the identifying shoots and I brought home a full basket of leftovers, which were duly washed yesterday morning, left to air dry overnight and this morning have been left in my kitchen hot cupboard to macerate with cider vinegar for three weeks. They still fought back, despite the scissors and secateurs brought in to subdue them! My previous bottle of bramble root vinegar, made around 2005, is almost empty. I’m looking forward to another full bottle in the larder to deal with digestive anxiety and upset tummies.

I have a whole article on “What to do with bramble”, written in 2015. I’ve also discovered Sally Pointer and Alex Langland’s YouTube videos on how to make bramble runner cordage. The apprentices seem keen to experiment but I’ve suggested we wait until summer when both nettles and brambles will be softer and more malleable.

This Wednesday will see my first public talk on holy wells and sacred water. I’m sure there will be a few herbs thrown in for good measure along the way.