Saturday, 6 December 2008

Preparing for Christmas

Last Sunday was the traditional stir-up Sunday when everyone is supposed to bake their Christmas puddings and Christmas cake. My Christmas pudding recipe is special to us, using carrots instead of eggs. It was my Grandmother’s recipe born out of wartime rationing (we think) or in her case, because eggs were a source of income at a time of desperate poverty; they were for sale, not for consumption. Her three children were only allowed one egg a week on Sundays as a treat.

The beauty of this recipe is that it is suitable for vegans.

Nanna’s Christmas pudding

1/2lb flour,

1/2lb breadcrumbs

1lb chopped suet (vegetable)

1lb sultanas

1lb currants

1lb raisins

8oz candied peel

1 ½ lbs brown sugar

Juice and rind of 2 lemons

1 carrot (or 4 eggs)

Milk to mix (or orange juice)

½ grated nutmeg

Mix everything together with milk until of a stiff consistency. Place in 2x 3pint pudding basins with close-fitting lids inside a large saucepan filled 2/3rds full of water. Boil for 4 hours. When cooking for eating, boil for a further 3-4 hours. This pudding will keep in a cool, dark place for several years. It will become dried up after 3 years, but can be steamed in a steamer to moisten. Serve with cream, custard, brandy sauce or brandy cream according to your preferences.

If you still have any cooking apples stored, here is a German recipe for apple cake which needs no eggs or milk.

Ischi’s Apple Cake

12oz flour (1/2 plain, ½ wholemeal)

1tsp bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt

6oz margarine

6oz dark brown sugar

2oz walnuts (or mixed ground nuts)

10oz dates (or mixed dried fruit)

½ pint stewed apples (If you fill a pint measure with apple segments, it will make ½ pint of stewed apples after cooking with the minimum of water and no sugar.)

Add bicarbonate of soda and salt to flour. Rub in flour and margarine until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in sugar, nuts and mixed fruit. Add stewed apple and place in greased 8” cake tin. Put into oven as quickly as possible. Cook Gas Mark 5 for 1-1 ½ hours.

At the November meeting of Solihull Writers Group we were talking about our Christmas "party" on 10 December. Most of the meeting is spent on the adjudication of the short story competition before we break for nibbles. In past years I've brought bottles of Spiced Berry Cordial to use as a mulled wine since we're not allowed to bring alcohol onto Methodist Church premises. Last year Tesco's didn't have any Spiced Berry Cordial, so we had to make do with cold soft drinks. I decided to be adventurous and create my own Spiced Hedgerow cordial. It was very simple to make, so I thought I'd share the recipe.

Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
1-2lbs of blackberries
1/2lb rosehips
1 large orange (sliced)
1 and a half inches of root ginger (grated)
1 nutmeg (grated)
2 large quills of cinnamon
6 cloves
3 lbs honey

Place everything in a large pan and cover with cold water (I used about 5 pints). Bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for about an hour. Strain the liquid and push any juicy bits you can through the sieve. Discard the debris and wash the saucepan. Measure the liquid and put on a low heat to evaporate for an hour or so, depending on how thick you want your cordial to be. I had 4 3/4 pints liquid, so I evaporated it down to around 3 pints. A film will form on the top of the liquid, mix this back into the cordial before you add the honey. Heat very gently until the honey is dissolved. Sterilise bottles in the oven for ten minutes, then pour cordial into bottles, seal, label and date. To make the drink, add 1 tablespoon of cordial to a small cup/goblet of boiling water. Sip and enjoy.

You could use half elderberries and half blackberries and more rosehips. I had a box of blackberries I'd picked several weeks ago in the freezer and used a mixture of fresh rosehips which had been in the fridge for a while and dried rosehips from last year. I gave the cordial to some residents of an “extra-care” residential home yesterday and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another beverage to be enjoyed is hawthorn berry liqueur, but if you make it now, you will need to have the patience to put it away to mature for about two years or more.

Hawthorn Liqueur

To a jar full of infused hawthorn berry brandy, add 1 grated nutmeg, one cinnamon stick (crumbled), the chopped peel of one orange, 4 cloves and ½-1 cup full of sugar or honey. Seal the jar with a screw top lid, place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly, then strain and pour into a sterile bottle. Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years). It really is worth the wait!

I’ve also been thinking about herbal gifts to make for various relatives or just to have as nibbles during the festive season. I was delighted to see Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley’s recipes for syrup of figs and crystallised ginger on the latest Herbmonger page on the Herb Society website.

I haven’t made the syrup of figs yet, but I have made two different kinds of crystallised ginger with interesting results.

I made the syrup by heating a cup of sugar in 4 cups of water, then added ginger root cut up into small segments. (I couldn’t work out how to cut cubes!). It seemed to take about two hours to simmer the root until it was soft and the syrup had reduced quite a lot, so I left it overnight in the saucepan and then lifted out all the ginger, hoping it might dry. It tasted wonderful, sweet and not so powerfully ginger.

I then cut up and diced another large root of ginger, using the peelings to make ginger tea. This time I reconstituted the syrup with a large chunk of brown sugar and another 1/2pint of water to try and make it back up to the original volume. Once the sugar had dissolved into the syrup, I added a handful of frozen elderberries, a quill of cinnamon, 4 cloves and half a grated nutmeg. I stirred it well as I added the diced ginger and left it to simmer for another two hours.

If I had thought about the logistics, I would have cooked the syrup for half an hour and then strained it before adding the ginger, but I didn’t, so when I came to remove the ginger pieces, I had to pick it all out carefully, discard the bits of cinnamon stick and elderberries and then wash the ginger pieces before putting them into a sterile glass jar. The spiced elderberry ginger was much hotter than the plain crystallised ginger, so I left it in the strained syrup and will use it for tasting during workshops or to cook with.

Finally, if you’re looking for a really nice aperitif to serve before your festive meal, try Rebecca Hartman’s Grapefruit Bitter Liqueur.

Slice up some grapefruit peel and remove most of the white pith. Put the slices of peel in a pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add a pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 15 minutes or so. Drain the peels and set aside the cooking water to make liqueur. Return the peels to the pot, add fresh water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for another 15 minutes. Drain again (don’t forget to reserve the cooking water).

Bring all the reserved cooking water to a boil and reduce it by about a third. Now add 2/3 cup sugar per cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Let it cool and then add 1 cup of vodka per cup of liquid.

You need to allow plenty of time both for the reserved cooking water to reduce and for the sugar water mixture to cool. Pour finished bitter into a glass jar with a screw top lid, label and date.

When using, take about a shot glass full or less and add fresh grapefruit juice. It tastes wonderful!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Boring Bits

Pick up any cake recipe and it will tell you to prepare the cake tin before you start measuring or mixing ingredients. You wonder why until you’ve ignored the instructions a few times and realise how annoying it is to arrive at the time when you pour the cake mixture into the tin and it isn’t there. Then you have to mess around with cake tins, greaseproof paper and scissors when your hands are covered with flour and fruit and other odd bits.

It’s the same with herbs. You’ve gather large amounts of various herbs and you need glass jars to put them in so each herb has its own jar in which to macerate and you realise that there aren’t any empty jars around. Or you’ve made a wonderful syrup and you need more than one bottle to store it in.

Several times this year, when I’ve scheduled a particular amount of time to sort out herbs or tinctures or dried herbs, I’ve had to spend the first hour finding jars, washing them and then scrubbing off the label. This process can make me very frustrated! However, if you can approach the washing and de-labelling task without gnashing your teeth, you do end up with a load of sparkling glass with their attendant lids ready for their next appointment with a herb or its extraction.

Do be careful if you’re washing jars and lids which have contained strong smelling items like Branston pickle or mango chutney. Make sure you wash both items until the smell is removed. Sometimes a single hand wash is not enough. You don’t want your herbal product tainted with curry or something similar!

It is best to take the label off before you put a jar or bottle inside the dishwasher, if you use one, because the washing process will only remove part of the label, which then gets lodged in the filter and bakes the rest more firmly onto the glass. If you are methodical, you can put each jar in a series of hot water baths (plastic jugs are good).

Most glues will dissolve or start to dissolve after 30 minutes or so. At this point the label will either peel away completely or you can rub gently with a wire saucepan scrubber and some washing up liquid until the glue is completely removed.

Sometimes you need to score the paper to allow the hot water to reach the glue. Some modern glues are vicious and won’t dissolve no matter how long you leave them. These will respond to brute force and washing up liquid, but you have to rub away like crazy until all the patches of glue are removed, otherwise you are left with sticky globules which are not aesthetically pleasing!

If a jar has a label both back and front, both need to be removed, otherwise you can fall into the “Can you bring me the mustard, it’s in the coffee jar” trap.

I once had to snatch a jar of St John’s wort oil from an unsuspecting workshop participant who was about to pour it into her herb tea. The oil was in a honey jar and I hadn’t removed the honey label! We all laughed about it at the time, but it would have been dreadful if she had poured it into her tea and then drank it!

The moral of the story is: you might know exactly what is in every jar or bottle, but unless you live in total isolation, you need to ensure there are ways for other people who may come in contact with those items to be sure what they are handling is really what it says on the label.

Everyone has their favourite jar or bottle in which to store a particular item. I tend to use 1lb or 2lb clear glass jars for my dried herbs, covering the most fragile herbs with brown paper bags to exclude light. Tinctures I am trying to ensure go into green or brown glass jars. Oils go into clear glass jars, as do vinegars. I love putting syrups into salad dressing or oil bottles or the 'one glass' wine bottles. Somehow it makes them look more official that way.

Where do you get all these glass jars and bottles from? I hear you ask. Most of them have been household items I’ve kept after using – large and small honeys jars, sauce jars etc. Every time we go and stay at a hotel which provides jams and marmalade in individual glass jars, I make a point of asking for any spares.

The last time we stayed at a hotel in Cheltenham during the February Folk Festival, I came back with 16 little jars which I’ve only just got around to cleaning out and washing. Now I feel secure in having sufficient jars to use for salves – mostly for workshops, but some to give away to family and friends when needed. Pickled mussel jars from the chippie are another great source of beautiful glassware in which to display larger amounts of salve.

Just occasionally I will buy glass items which are specific to requirements, but only if I can’t obtain them through any other form of recycling. A recent purchase was dropper bottles. They were handy to carry around during my recent cold and it didn’t look too strange dosing myself with a dropperful of elixir every half hour. I could have done it with a teaspoon, but the dose is more accurate and when you’re ill, you want to make things as easy as possible!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Quince – A Tale of Abundance

Many authors mention the ancient nature of the quince tree, Cydonia oblonga. They refer to biblical references about apples actually referring to quince, showing how the fruit of this small, deciduous tree has been valued for thousands of years.

I first came across quince when my friend, Jean, who was my child-minder for many years when Stephen and Kathryn were small, talked about making quince jelly for Christmas. My second experience was at a Herb Society AGM at Sulgrave Manor in 1998, when Jan Greenland produced a quince cheese. I was instantly hooked and the following year I planted a quince tree in the Sanctuary next to the main herb bed along with a meddler, an ancient pear.

Quince is related to both apples and pears. The five-petalled flower is pink tinged and as the year progresses, it turns into a small, green, lemon shaped fruit which eventually grows into a large yellow aromatic pear.

During my tree’s first year, the flowers dropped off and the leaves drooped. It wasn’t happy. Over the following years, it grew in size and always flowered, but produced no fruits.

This year was different. During one summer visit, I discovered a small fruit forming and was overjoyed. The next month, my father asked if I had seen my five quinces. This time I took pictures to record the momentous event.

At the end of October, one of the quinces had fallen off onto the floor, so we knew they were ripe to pick. The five quinces were reverently laid in a basket and more pictures taken. Then we brought them home and left them in the cool section of the fridge to wait until I could concentrate on turning them into jelly and cheese.

It would have been better if I had stored them in a cool, dark, dry place as they would have kept indefinitely. One of quinces was starting to go bad when I took them out of the fridge.

Surprisingly, Mrs Beeton doesn’t have any recipes for quince jelly, neither does the 1960s picture version of Good Housekeeping (my mother’s standard cookbook). I knew I’d seen recipes in my Good Housekeeping cookbook which I’ve had since before we were married, so even in the 1970s, people were using quinces.

I found another recipe on The Cottage Smallholder website which suggested cooking the quinces for many hours and using the juice for jelly and the flesh for cheese, which she referred to by its Italian name, membrillo. In the end, I used a combination of both recipes which yielded around 4lbs of cheese and 5lbs of jelly – not a bad quantity from 5 quinces!

Quince Jelly and Cheese

Wash the quinces. Chop into small pieces using a sharp, heavy knife as they’re very hard. I cored mine as I didn’t want the pips in the cheese, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to peel them either. Add the juice and grated peel of two large lemons. Cover them with cold water (I used 3 pints of water for 5 quinces). Bring to the boil and simmer on the lowest heat until the quince flesh is tender (between one and three hours). Strain.

You should use a jelly bag and strain overnight to ensure the jelly is cloudless. I didn’t have the appropriate equipment so I strained the juice into a plastic bowl and left it for a couple of hours so all the sediment fell to the bottom. Then I measured the juice and poured it back into the cleaned saucepan after I’d finished making the cheese, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the bowl.

Add 1lb granulated sugar to each pint of quince juice. Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved stirring with a wooden spoon continuously. Then heat to a rolling boil for ten minutes. Spoon several spoonfuls of jelly on to a pyrex saucer and place in the freezer to cool for 5 minutes. Keep doing this every five minutes until the jelly has a wrinkled skin over the top of it when you gently push it back with your finger nail. This is the setting point. Take the saucepan off the heat and pour jelly into sterilised glass jars heated in a low oven for ten minutes. Seal with jampot covers.

To make the cheese, place the quince flesh with a small amount of liquid in a liquidiser until you have a puree. Weigh the puree and return it to the saucepan with an equal weight of granulated sugar. (5 quinces produced 2 1/4lbs of puree and 2 ½ pints juice.) Cook on the lowest heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick or burn for another couple of hours. (I went away to start writing a new short story and returned for a stir every 15-20 minutes and it was fine.)

The cheese will turn a deep crimson and have the consistency of a thick soup you can stand a spoon up in. Apparently membrillo is cut into slices, so to achieve that consistency you need to cook it for at least three to five hours. I only cooked mine for two. You don’t need to cook at a rolling boil because you aren’t looking for a setting point. When the cheese is thick enough for your liking, pour into sterilised glass jars and cover in the usual way.

The cheese has a slightly gritty texture because of the stone cells which are also found in pears. It tastes aromatic and unique and very moreish! I’m looking forward to trying it with feta or other salty Greek cheeses. The jelly tastes very much like an aromatic pear and will be wonderful as an accompaniment to meat, cheese or just spread on toast.

Apparently the energetic properties of quince are linked to purification, protection and exorcism, but I prefer to look to the energies associated with apple – abundance. Quince is a veritable cornucopia and I am so pleased the tree has finally gifted me with its fruit.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

My first award and other excitement!

Debs Cook, who writes Herbaholic's Herbarium kindly awarded me the Uber Amazing award last week, which was a wonderful surprise. I love knowing that other people read my blog and enjoy sharing the information and experiences I post about.

The rules of this award are:-

* Put the award logo on your blog or post (right click on award, save as)
* Nominate at least 1 blog that you consider to be Uber Amazing!
* Let them know that they have received this Uber Amazing award by commenting on their blog
* Share the love and link to this post and to the person you received your award from.

I'm going to nominate Tammy from The Witchen Kitchen Beginner Herbal for inspiring me to try making herbal products I hadn't thought of before and Cathy from Growing Curious who isn't afraid to mix emotions with her developing knowledge of the growing world.

I have another piece of exciting news I wanted to share. My first book of poetry was published by Romance Divine on Friday 8 November. It's very rare for poems to find a publisher, so I'm grateful to Greg Causey for giving me the opportunity to share my poetry more widely.

The book is available as an ebook, a paperback and an audio CD featuring my dulcet tones(!) reading and singing plus my daughter, Kathryn, playing a couple of my tunes on her flute. You can find it on if you're interested in purchasing a copy. The paperback is also available on

Email me at if you're interested in details of my other published books, which include an Arthurian Romance, an Iron Age romance and a book of short stories from the dark side!

Friday, 31 October 2008

Song for Samhain

Remembering the dead

“They will always be there, it is our sight that grows weaker”

Drummer beat the measure slow
Soft the pipes let horns sound low
Then rise to greet all those who come
Drawn now towards us by the drum.

All around they wait for those
Whose sight has faded with their woe
Who cannot hear the loved one’s call
Who weep for those who went before

We bear their love, their pride, their joy
Upon ourselves until that day
When, as the sparks, we too will rise
To join our loved ones in the skies

Then beat the drum and blow the horn
Remember we are always one
With those before and those to come
A universe of light and love.

SJH 1995

At this time of year, when the earth is preparing for the long sleep of winter, I find it helpful to spend time thinking of endings and beginnings. All change is scary, but it is the one constant factor of our lives. Nothing stays the same, no matter how much we wish it to do so.

So many times I find myself paralyzed considering what may happen or what needs to be done, only bringing myself back to normality by realising I don’t have to worry about that particular event or issue at this moment in time. What is important now is what is happening now or what needs to happen to enable me to do the next small thing which has to be completed in the immediate future.

Herbs are great allies in helping me focus. Not just medicinally when I’m feeling emotionally fragile or stressed, but reading or thinking about them helps to calm me down after dealing with a difficult situation.

Last Tuesday night I decided to pamper myself with a long, hot bath after a draining four hour car journey following a workshop where I’d been on my feet for most of the day. My brain decided to target a particularly frustrating argument I wouldn’t be able to engage in and I found myself becoming increasingly agitated rather than relaxed!

Then, out of the blue, I suddenly realised I did have the ingredients to make a nettle and rose petal cordial I’ve been wanting to try for two years. I was so happy, all the negative emotions completely disappeared and I felt sufficiently content and relaxed to fall asleep once I got into bed.

For the second year running, I have no special celebrations to attend this weekend, but I know many family members will be dropping by. There are two large bags of nettle and horseradish roots waiting to be scrubbed clean and processed along with five huge, yellow quinces – the first harvest from my quince tree.

I wish you all a peaceful and contemplative Celtic New Year as we travel together into another new season.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Blackberry cordial

Debs asked for a blackberry cordial recipe. Here's what I've come up with.

I’ve been looking at Kings Dispensary on Henriette’s site and come up with this recipe as something fairly easy to make as a blackberry cordial.

1lb blackberries
1oz cinnamon (in sticks or powdered)
1oz cloves (whole or powdered)
1 inch root ginger (grated)
1lb honey/sugar
¼ pt alcohol

Cover blackberries with smallest amount of water. Add prepared spices and simmer for 20 minutes. Mash blackberries, strain and measure liquid (should be around 1pint). Clean saucepan, pour liquid back into saucepan together with 1lb honey or sugar per pint of liquid. Heat gently, stirring until honey is dissolved. Add 1/4pint of alcohol of choice. Pour into hot, sterile bottles, seal. Label and date.

Alternative method
The original King’s recipe called for the spices to be percolated in alcohol separately and blackberry juice to be added to syrup together with purified talcum! It might be fun to try making the syrup a different way.

Prepare separate tinctures of ginger, cloves and cinnamon. (i.e. fill small glass jar with single spice, cover with vodka, remove air bubbles, refill with alcohol, cover with screw top lid, place in dark, cool, cupboard for three weeks shaking occasionally, then strain and bottle, label and date.)
Pick large bowl of blackberries (2-3lbs). Squeeze fruit until 1 pint of juice is obtained.
Prepare 1 pint of syrup by dissolving 1lb sugar or honey in 1 pint water. Cool.
Add syrup to blackberry juice then add 1 fluid oz of each of three spice tinctures. Stir well. Bottle in sterilised containers, label and date.

Dose (1/2 -1 fluid oz)

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Sing the Song of Harvest

A Song for Mabon

Summer glories are past
Autumn fruits here at last
Here's a health to the land and the flocks
As the evenings draw in
Let us gather our kin
Singing praises for harvest and crops
Singing praises for harvest and crops

Now the apples shine bright
And the nuts are all ripe
Here's a health to the trees and the briars
As the light equals dark
Let us all strike a spark
Singing praises for wood, copse and hedge
Singing praises for wood, copse and hedge

Mother Elder stands firm
Berries black on her stems
Here's a health to the herbs and the flowers
As the sun looses heat
So we gather to meet
Singing praises for plants, wild and free
Singing praises for plants, wild and free

Now the leaves are on fire
As we gather in byres
Here's a health for the harvest and crops
As we all eat our fill
Please recall if you will
To sing praises and thanks for the year
To sing praises and thanks for the year

Sarah J Head , September 2004

The theme of this month’s Herbwifery Forum blog party hosted by Darcey on is harvest.

Growing up on a small arable farm in the heart of English countryside, harvest conjures up furiously-busy August days, golden severed stubble, dust laden cereals and barley hales sticking to everything. September and October herald a very different kind of gathering with splashes of colour emblazoning hedgerows.

In past years I gathered bright red haws and black elderberries during the August Bank Holiday and the first weekend in September, but this year, whilst haws were ripe both in field and garden; elderberries were still green and hard. I had to be content with putting up hawthorn brandy and vinegar and trust my parents would find time to gather elderberries for me whilst I was half way across the world enjoying myself.

Ever since I started working with herbs, elderberries have been one of my most important harvests. For two years I spent the first weekend in September at the Bristol Kite Festival. When not watching amazing kite teams like The Decorators with their eight revolution kites, I was sitting by the caravan stripping berries from their stalks and then squeezing juice into a plastic bowl by twisting them around inside a length of old cotton sheet ready to make Non Shaw’s elderberry rob. I always wondered what other festival goers made of my purple stained cloth and fingers!

Elderberries are a wonderful way to introduce people to making their own herbal medicine. At my September workshop last year, a new participant was greeted by having a bowl of elderberries thrust into her arms together with a fork and she spent the next half hour happily stripping berries ready to make Kiva Rose’s elderberry elixir. She was also given a handout with several recipes for different cordials to take home with her.

She emailed me the following week saying she had gone out and picked her own supply of elderberries from trees nearby and made a cordial which she had taken into work to treat her colleagues’ dreadful colds. She said everyone had been very grateful and impressed by how well the elderberry worked to make them feel better.

The elixir prepared in September’s sunshine was distributed to women who came to my first home workshop in November. Everyone loved the taste so much; there were grumbles about the dosage being only one dropperful at a time!

Elderberry Rob 1
from ‘The Countryside Cook Book’ by Gail Duff.
1.8kg (4lbs) elderberries, weighed on stemtwo 5cm (2inch) pieces cinnamon stick1 piece ginger root bruised2 chips nutmeg5ml (1 teaspoon) allspice berries5ml (1teaspoon) cloves275ml (1 ½ pint water)350g (12 oz) honey to each 375-ml (1 pint) liquid150ml (1/4 pint) brandyTake the elderberries from the stalks. Put them into a saucepan with the spices and water. Bring them gently to the boil and simmer them until the pan is full of juice, about 20 minutes. Put a piece of muslin or an old linen tea towel over a large bowl. Pour the elderberries through it. Gather the sides together and squeeze out as much juice as you can. Measure it and return to the cleaned saucepan. Bring the juice to the boil and add the honey. Stir for it to dissolve and then boil the syrup for 10 minutes. Take the pan from the heat and wait until the syrup stops bubbling. Pour in the brandy. Pour the hot cordial into hot sterilised bottles and cork it tightly. Fills about 1 ½ wine bottles.

Elderberry Rob 2
This elderberry rob recipe is from Non Shaw's book, "Herbalism: An Illustrated Guide". Her method is "Take a quantity of elderberries and strip them off their stalks with a fork. Press out the juice using a wine press or jelly bag" I usually put them into a large piece of clean used cotton sheet and twist one end around until you can't squeeze out any more. This is a very tactile experience and you shouldn't use or wear anything you don't mind getting stained purple from the juice! "Add 1tsp allspice and 1/2 tsp ginger (optional) per 2 pints of liquid in a heavy bottomed pan" (preferably stainless steel or glass)"Reduce over a low heat until the juice is the consistency of molasses. Bottle and store in a cool place. Dose: Take 1tsp in a cup of hot water daily." I like this recipe because it doesn't use any sugar or honey and therefore is suitable for people with diabetes either type 1 or 2.

Elderberry Syrup
From Roger Phillips’ Wild Food Simmers the berries for 30 minutes and then add 1lb sugar and 10 cloves to each pint of juice. Boil for 10 minutes and allow to cool. Freeze in small quantites or pack in small, screw-top sterilized bottles.

Elderberry Cordial
Barbara Grigson, in her book "The Greenwitch: A Modern Woman's Herbal" gives a very simple recipe for spiced elderberry cordial which I like. "Wash and destalk the berries. Put 2lbs of them in a pan with a cupful of water and simmer until they have given up most of their juice. Crush and strain the berries through a seive. Put the juice back in a saucepan with five cloves, an inch or so of fresh root ginger, grated and 1/2 lb of sugar. Simmer for another hour and then store in tightly sealed jars."I strain my cordial before bottling. I either add it to a "cold tea" or my cough syrup or have it by itself if I remember!

Last year I made jars and jars of elderberry tincture and cordial which are still waiting to be used in the larder. For some reason we weren’t afflicted with the usual winter diseases! I know I have two boxes of elderberries waiting for me in my parents’ freezer so I shall be trying Kiva Rose’s new recipe for elderberry elixir at the workshop in November or before.

My other hopes for late harvest include blackberry syrup and nettle root tincture. All I need now is the time to forage amongst the hedgerows and dig deep into the earth, ever grateful for her miraculous bounty.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Honouring the Ants

In three days time I shall be journeying skywards to the hopefully sunnier climes of West Coast USA. It is nearly seven years since I last visited Oregon and thirteen years since I last set foot upon Californian soil. It will be good to be going back and smelling the eucalyptus trees again and hearing the thunder of the Pacific Ocean.

So much to do and so little time to do it! After the emotional turmoil of my parents’ frailty and trying to do something to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary and my mother’s 80th birthday, all I could think about was processing the last of my herbs just in case something dreadful happened to them while I was away.

It struck me, as I was sitting on the patio last Saturday nursing my aching back and diligently transferring dried herbs into glass jars, that I don’t have free weekends. If I’m at home and not committed to public healing or doing some writing, I’m decanting tinctures or vinegars or sorting out dried herbs or making oils or syrups. I made a huge issue last year that it had taken me a whole day in October to process the dried calendula and all the other dried herbs, yet this year I must have dedicated at least three entire weekends to herbal products, not to mention the countless evenings after work cooking double infused oils or finishing off syrup evaporations before adding the honey or sugar.

I’m a terrible one for lists. I make notes of how many words I’ve written per story or story segment and how long it’s taken me to write them. Somehow I find it comforting to notice that a story which was only 5,000 words a few months ago has now expanded to 25,000 and if I add up other portions of each character’s tale, I might have enough for a book if I can just find the time to finish it!

I’ve started doing the same with herbs. Not content with keeping a herbal diary this year, I’ve now put together a spreadsheet to show what I’ve done with each herb. So far this year, out of 85 different plants I have dried 43, made 24 different double infused oils and one sun-infused oil, 33 different tinctures, 14 infused vinegars, 3 infused honeys, and 7 combination syrups. I haven’t made any flower essences for myself, but people who have attended workshops have made 13 different kinds of flower remedy. It’s no wonder there is no room in my larder for food, most of the shelves are completely taken over by herbal products!

If you are thinking of harvesting and storing your herbs, here are some hints and tips to help you make the most of them.

Pick your herbs after the dew has gone from them and before the midday sun has stressed them. Some herbs need to be picked before they flower e.g. lemon balm, mint, while others need to be picked when they flower e.g. boneset, motherwort. Others can be picked whenever you need them such as comfrey, marshmallow, plantain. (see tables)

Drying is possibly the easiest way to preserve herbs either to keep throughout the winter or until you decided what you would like to do with your harvest. Drying takes some thought and preparation to achieve the best results.

If you have a warm airy room away from the light, you can hang your herbs up in small bunches until they are dry and leave them as intact as you can for as long as you can. If you have a spare bedroom, both the bed and the floor space can be utilised for laying out your herbs on sheets of newspaper or an old cotton sheet. Cover them with another sheet or newspaper and leave until dry.

If you have a warm space to hang your herbs but you can’t keep out the light, put your herbs inside a paper bag and hang the bag up. If you are drying lavender or any other plant which is likely to shed seeds once dried e.g. heartsease, it is much easier to dry it inside a paper bag rather than have the seeds or heads fall off so you lose a significant part of your harvest.

If your herbs might contain moisture e.g. elderflowers, it is much better to dry them flat and separate on a sheet of paper, rather than altogether in a paper bag where mould may grow. It is heartbreaking to lose your entire harvest because it has grown mouldy.

Never be tempted to pick leaves which have even a touch of mildew on them. The mildew will grow during the drying process and your harvest will be worthless.

Some people buy a purpose built desiccators or make one. These can be used to dry fruit as well as herbs.

There will be times when the herbs you pick are wet. You will then need to decide whether you air dry them, by laying them flat somewhere or put them next to or in a heat source. Always try to use the lowest heat setting you can. You are aiming to dry the herbs, not cook them.

If you are collecting seeds, it is worth spending the extra time preparing them properly. Haws can be dried whole. Nettle seeds should be either hung up in bunches whilst still on the stems or laid flat on newspaper. Rosehips should be split in half and the seeds and pitch removed before drying. NB The insides of rosehips are irritating to the skin and used to be used as itching powder!

Both hips and haws need a heat source to dry properly unless you are living in hot country. If you have a hot water tank or a cupboard where hot water pipes run through or radiators which warm up regularly, you can place the seeds there. Leave for a month or more before you remove them to see if they are properly dry.

Roots need to be thoroughly washed (i.e. scrub with a scrubbing brush, wash, scrub and wash again) and cut into 1” sections before drying. If the root is thick, cut it in half. Roots are probably best dried in the bottom of the oven on the lowest heat setting or pilot light, ensuring air can circulate all round them. Leave the oven door slightly open during the drying to allow the moisture to escape. Dry as slowly as you can and turn everything over from time to time to ensure evenness.

To make sure your herbs keep their “strength”, they should be stored in a cool, dark place in bottles or jars with screwtop lids. Ideally brown or green glass would be the most preferable, but since most jars are clear glass, you can overcome the problems of light by placing the jar inside a paper bag once it is full. This ensures the herb stays colourful and potent for up to a year and sometimes more.

If you have picked and dried the whole aerial part of the plant, you may need to remove the leaves and/or flowers from the main stem, since this might not be as dry as the other parts. Try to keep everything as whole as you can. Once you have crushed a leaf, all its aromatic oils will be lost and so will its efficacy.

Herbs with a great deal of moisture/resin take a while to dry (at least one month). Calendula flower heads are best dried whole, but the only part which is kept are the petals. Each petal has to be plucked from the centre and then stored in a glass jar. If exposed to the light, they will lose their colour very quickly, but if encased in a paper bag, they will still be vibrantly orange twelve months later.

Nettle seeds are best removed from the stem by passing through a metal sieves. This ensures you only get the seed and not the leaves or any other dried inhabitants.

Make sure your jars are labelled and dated correctly. Despite your best intentions, you may not be able to remember which leaf or flower was which and if you don’t have the correct date on it, you will not know whether the herb is 6 months or 18 months old.

Some herbs such as lemon balm, St Johns wort and tarragon, have a very short shelf life when dried. It can be easier to store them by freezing the plants fresh from the garden rather than drying them. This also applies to cleavers, shepherds purse, chickweed and possibly heartsease. All these herbs lose vitality once they are dried and should be tinctured or infused into oil when they are fresh.

Place the fresh herb into a plastic freezer bag, remove the air and freeze until needed. If you want the herbs specifically for tea, you can chop the herbs (either by hand or in a coffee grinder), make the tea with less water than usual but do not strain out the herbal matter and then freeze the liquid in ice cube trays. This is an especially good way of making fresh mint sauce in the middle of winter!

Rotating your stock
Once you start keeping your own herbal supplies, you will need to monitor everything on a regular basis. If you use what you have harvested, the dried herbs will disappear, but if you have collected some “just in case” and you haven’t given it away to friends, family or passing salesmen, it will sit there until you decide to do something about it.

Most herbs, properly dried, will keep for at least twelve months and can be replaced by next year’s harvest. If you don’t gather that herb the next year for some reason then sometimes you can keep using the old stock, but use double quantities. Unless you have real need for a dried herb which is more than twelve months old, throw it out and compost it or give it to your local re-enactment society so they can have real herbs in their apothecary’s booth. Once a herb loses its colour or develops mould, remove it.

The wonderful thing about collecting your own herbal stock is that the herbs you need will be there when you want them. They will be better quality than those you can buy and they will be better for you because they have grown in the same environment in which you live.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Of Bees and Honey

I eat my peas with honey
I've done it all my life
I know that this sounds funny
But it keeps them on the knife
Anon/Edward Lear

I have three large patches of majoram and golden marjoram in my garden. As with mint and lemon balm, I watch anxiously throughout spring and early summer considering what I should do with the aromatic leaves before they start to flower and become worthless. Worthless is really a very subjective word, but all the books say one should not gather once the plant has flowered since all energies have been put into the flowers and seeds thus reducing the efficacy of the leaves.

Of lemon balm I usually do gather vast quantities, either for tincture, drying or making liqueur. This year, although I have dried and tinctured, the number of plants in the garden have dwindled, so I’ve mostly made fresh tea along with cleavers and enjoyed it immensely.

Marjoram, to me, is basically a culinary herb. I adore it fresh in the summer and look forward to its flavour and scent during the long winter months. Once it flowers, I know that my time with it is short, but this year is proving a real exception.

I like bees. I could spend hours watching them if I gave myself permission to stop for more than the odd five minutes before the “I should be doing x…” message runs once more through my brain. I notice when the first bumble bee buzzes around the garden in early spring and watch as they crawl deep inside the snapdragon’s or Himalayan balsam’s mouth and manage to emerge unscathed.

This year, the marjoram blossom has attracted a whole army of bees – all different shapes, sizes and colours, from the black, brown and white to the stunning black and orange banded. They land on the delicate flowers like flying tanks, their weight causing the flower stalk to waive and bend until the bee is happily settled and sucking. It’s ok if the bee lands on a milk thistle blossom or an Echinacea head or a moon daisy flower – they are the equivalent of the aircraft carrier in the navy, providing a huge, stable, nutritious landing pad.

The most amazing sight I saw the other morning, was watching a bumble bee clinging to the fragile stem of a vervain plant with the very tips of its antennae delicately stuck inside the tiny flowers.

The world’s honey bees are currently in a perilous state. UK stocks have been decimated by a particularly virulent hive mite and a long harsh winter after a poor summer’s harvest which did not allow colonies to build sufficient food stocks.

My nearest beekeeper lives in the adjoining road from ours, so is only about 2/3 mile away. I was very concerned when I first noticed the bees converging on the marjoram to see only bumble bees, but a closer search did reveal some quick-flying worker honey bees hiding amongst the blossoms. They seemed to prefer the golden marjoram flowers to the ordinary oregano/marjoram and moved so quickly, it was almost impossible to photograph them. It was very reassuring to know they were also taking advantage of the new nectar source.

I started using honey in a serious way when I began my study of herbs. My one and only attempt at brewing was metheglyn, using Rhiannon Ryall’s recipe. It took a long time to ferment, but it tasted wonderful and I still have half a bottle left in the larder after 12 years!

I prefer using honey if I can when I make a syrup, especially elderberry syrup, but it was Kiva Rose who really excited me and all my students when she posted her recipe for elderberry elixir. She gives other uses for the elixir here. I tend to make it with fresh or frozen elderberries rather than dried and half fill a 2 lb glass honey jar with the berries before adding a pound of honey and filling it up to the brim with brandy. It tastes amazing!

Julie Brueton-Seal, in her new book, Hedgerow Medicine, says that honey has natural antibiotic and antiseptic properties so is “an excellent vehicle for medicines to fight infection.” Both Julia and Kiva Rose mention applying honey topically for wounds and burns. Kiva has an inspiring post on using honey infused with bergamot flowers, evening primrose flowers and buds and rose petals for wounds and large burns which might be prone to infection.

I’ve made some dog rose petal infused honey this year and am hoping to try making the burns mixture infusion soon.

Someone introduced me to cider vinegar and honey drinks (2tsps of each in a large mug full of boiling water) as a sore throat soother many years ago, but from Hedgerow Medicine, I learned this combination is actually known as an Oxymel. Apparently they were once popular as a cordial in both Middle Eastern and European traditions being prized for cold and ‘flu remedies. I make many different infused vinegars – now I shall have to start building up my collection of infused honeys as well!

The other method of making honeyed medicines is called an Electuary, which are made by stirring powdered dried herbs into honey to make a paste. Julie Brueton-Seal says they are good as children’s remedies and are often used to sooth the digestive tract. Paul Bergner often talks about making honey pastes or pellets as an alternative to tinctures when you don’t want to involve a someone with an alcohol extraction.

No posting about bees and herbs can be complete without a mention of beeswax for salve making. There is nothing more mouth-watering than the smell of freshly made wax tablets – fragrant and slightly soft.

Chris’current favourite funny story concerning me and my exploits happened a couple of weeks ago when we were in Lincoln. I walked into the second hand bookshop near the cathedral and said to the owner, “I know it’s a long shot, but do you by any chance have any beeswax?”

No, I hadn’t completely lost my mind, in the shop window was a display of honey jars, so I thought there might be the possibility of some beeswax. Luckily, the lady’s daughter very kindly made me some wax tablets that night and Chris collected them the following morning while I was doing a bereavement workshop with the local Carers Unit. I left Lincoln a very happy herbwife!

Bee Song
Buzzing around
Your soothing symphony
Makes me stop
To share your petal dance
I notice you nudging
The dragon’s maw
To gather nectar
Balancing your bulk
Like an errant breeze
On fragile flowers
Yellow pollen drapes
Around your legs
Brushing softness
On stamens
Ripe for release
Transluscent wings
Too delicate at rest
Power you skyward
Leaving my sleepy world

Sarah Head

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Bitters: Herbs which promote release?

This month’s Herbwifery forum blog party hosted by Kiva Rose is about bitters. You can find all the articles at

Bitters is something we think we instinctively recognise. It is a primal taste sensation on our tongue along with sweet, sour, salt and the new one, umami (fullness). Most herb books give the definition of a bitter as something which stimulate the stages of digestion including increasing saliva production and gastric juice activity including bile release (Brigitte Mars).

Jim MacDonald ( expands on this a little further by saying “Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improve appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids. You must taste bitters to receive their medicinal virtues. There are aromatic bitters (Calamus), bittersweet bitters (Celastrus), and just plain bitter bitters (Boneset).” I only know boneset out of Jim’s three examples, so I would change my herbs to angelica (aromatic bitter) and burdock (bittersweet bitter).

The herb I thought to talk about originally was dandelion (taraxacum officinale). It is perhaps the easiest herb to get close to when you are trying to understand the principle of a bitter. The leaves eaten raw stimulate your taste buds to such an extent, you know they are doing what they’re meant to do. They are wonderful additions to salads with other green leaves. I like to add them to cheese or ham sandwiches along with chickweed or sorrel. The sharpness of the greens works particularly well with the heavy fat of cheddar cheese.

I’ve been working very closely with dandelion this year. There is nothing like picking the first green leaves in winter time when it’s blowing a bitter gale laced with snowflakes and your fingers freeze as you dig up roots. While dandelion leaves support the kidneys and pack a massive dose of potassium, the roots, also bitter, support the liver.

David Hoffman advocates harvesting roots in the winter while they are at their most bitter. Brigitte Mars suggests harvesting roots in the spring when complex carbohydrates are broken down and released as sugars. I have a certain problem with this.

Before retirement, my father was a small farmer with a herd of suckler cows. He told me the animals would search out dandelion roots in the autumn when the roots were sweetest and would ignore them in the spring when the roots were bitter. I have given my workshop attendees roots to chew at different times of the year and they have all reported, as I have found, that spring roots are incredibly bitter and autumn roots are fat, juicy and have an unexpected sweetness to them.

Anyway, I digress. I didn’t want to get drawn into talking too much about dandelion, because there are many other bitter herbs which I grow or which grow around me. The ones which particularly spring to mind are burdock, angelica, motherwort, calendula, chamomile, vervain, boneset and the bright, vermillion splendour of rowan berries.

You only have to drink a cup of burdock leaf tea to know that the plant is a bitter. Burdock (arcticum lappa) is described by Matthew Wood as bitter, sweet and oily. He believes it acts as an alterative (tonic), stimulating increased secretion of bile, which in turn promotes better absorption of fats and oils through the small intestine.

Burdock supports the liver and helps with dry skin conditions. The root is said to be a quick acting diuretic (20 minutes after chewing) and has also been praised for stimulating appetite after severe illness when added to stews. (Miriam Kresh, Israel) Jim recommends it for cancer patients when they require nourishment during chemotherapy – again adding the root or young leaf stalks to stews or bone broths.

Angelica (angelica archangelica) is an aromatic, warming bitter. I always encourage my workshop attendees to smell the scent of angelica and everyone loves it. They’re not quite so keen when I give them angelica leaf tea to try, because of its bitterness. Chewing angelica root is an experience! It resembles chewing a bottle of scent and is really quite revolting, yet this root is the part which can take away the intense pain of fibroids. They also make an interesting liqueur if left for several years to mature.

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is another, interesting bitter herb. It helps regulate temperature during menopause, reduces period pains and is a gentle nervine tonic. A tea made from its aerial parts is an intensely bitter brew, but can be alleviated by mixing with lemon balm. There is an old saying that if you need something, you will be attracted to it and its bitterness will be tolerable.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla ) is supposed to be a mild herb, enjoyed by all for its carmative, calming and restorative functions. Commercial chamomile tea bags have a gentle, soothing taste. The first time I grew the herb myself and made a cup of tea, I was horrified by the dreadful, bitter flavour. I was sure I must have been sent the wrong kind of chamomile. When I moaned to my herbalist friend, she laughed at me. “Chamomile is a bitter. You have tasted the proper taste of the herb!”

Calendula (calendula officinilis) is a herb you wouldn’t normally associate as a bitter, yet Matthew Wood classes its taste as such. He talks about its use for deep fevers and people who are “bone weary”, quoting herbalist Matthew Becker who likened it to boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

It is curious that calendula, boneset and vervain (verbena officinalis) are all recommended for severe, bone aching fevers. Both boneset and vervain are incredibly bitter to the taste when taken in tea. Vervain can make you shudder from head to toe if the tea is too strong, even when taken with other herbs.

This diversity of actions by bitter herbs got me thinking about a possible basic principle of bitters, that of causing/promoting release or letting go. Since every herb has an affinity with a particular part of the body, there will be different secretions or emotions or other tissue states which are released. Dandelion releases digestive secretions, burdock releases bile, vervain releases both fevers and the need to keep on keeping on, which could otherwise be described as personal intensity. Boneset releases the intensity of aching bones.

So where do rowan berries come in all this? Several years ago my herbalist friend presented me with a jar of rowan jelly. “You’ll like it,” she said, “herb people like bitter flavours.” I took it home and put it on the dinner table with a Sunday roast. Everyone tried it, but they all agreed the sweetness of the jelly was overtaken by the bitterness of the rowan berries. I could just about tolerate it, but one day I shall make my own and see if my tastes have changed!


Hoffman, D The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal 1996 Element Books

Mars, B Dandelion Medicine 1999 Storey Books

Wood, M The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism : Basic Doctrine, Energetics and Classification 2004 North Atlantic Books

Monday, 14 July 2008

Harvesting, Flowers and Weather

This time last year I remember driving along a darkened Fosse Way on the Friday night before my July herb workshop during torrential rain wondering if I would make it through deep pools of water threatening to flood the entire road. I remember feelings of frustration and despair because my father was unable to mow down to the Sanctuary. The constant rain made it impossible to cut the fields for hay, so grass was sodden and almost impenetrable.

It was with a sense of déjà vu I travelled along the same road on the same evening of the year with rain again beating against the windscreen in torrents. This time it was Chris who was prevented by weather from doing any tidying up in the Sanctuary. I anticipated finding a total wilderness as I traipsed down the just discernable path with water coating my boots and overtrousers. Despite the damp and cold, my journey was accompanied by dancing butterflies seeking nectar from waterlogged red clover and bright yellow ladies bedstraw blooms beside the path.

As I opened the Sanctuary gate, I was met by a glorious surprise. A huge mass of lilac and white goats rue flowers were waiting for me by the summerhouse veranda, towering over the stately white plumes of the comfrey. Bumblebees were diving inside the flowers at their usual languid pace as if the previous downpour had never happened.

Inside the summerhouse it was still comfortably warm. I was able to gather up all the dried herbs into paper bags – elderflower, red clover, apothecary’s rose petals and lemon balm. I didn’t have time to take the leaves off the lemon balm just then. Gillian kindly completed the task for me during the workshop the following day.

Although the light was poor, I tried to take photos of all the beautiful flowers – motherwort’s pink, scullcap’s blue, calendula’s orange, valerian and heliotrope’s pink-tinged white, the huge canopy of yellow from dyer’s greenweed, even the deep crimson of the apothecary’s rose. Unfortunately, the flash washed out much of the colours, making the photos unusable.

It was still a wonderful experience to be down in the heart of the Sanctuary as the rain fell gently. I took shelter under the trees, searching around the edge of the pond for the small spotted orchid. I only found two blooms but know there must be more hiding. There was little sign of the meadowsweet either. I could see the leaves and the deep red stems, but there was no sign of flowers. Maybe they are late blooming because of the shade from the overhanging branches or maybe something has eaten the flower stalks!

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny – such a contrast from the previous day! The workshop was great fun. I even managed to pick a basketful of young nettles before they were trampled on. I was hoping to repeat the harvest on Sunday morning since the new steps were totally covered by young nettles, but I was too tired after harvesting everything else. It’s still good to know I have some young nettles drying for the winter.

On Sunday morning, I knew I had about two and a half hours to harvest everything I needed. I cut the flowering stems of the broadleaved thyme growing in the bungalow garden before I left to go down to the Sanctuary. Rock rose grows intertwined with the thyme, so I picked the yellow flowers as well, leaving them to dry on newspaper after the sun had dried the initial dampness.

I began my harvest by taking photographs to show what the plants looked like in all their glory. This time it was the brightness of full sunlight which made exposure difficult.

Skullcap was the first abundant plant I came across. I divided the harvest in half, leaving some to dry and the rest to take home and tincture. I wanted to make lots of motherwort vinegar this year since I’ve used up the one bottle I made last year, so I gathered great armfuls of the tall stems, taking care not to scratch my bare arms on the stiff flower prickles.

It was wonderful to see the white horehound in flower and know I would have plenty to make a new cough syrup this autumn. The hyssop wasn’t quite in flower, so I weeded between the plants to give them some access to sunlight.

The heartsease was beautiful, but I left them to bring joy to the garden. Betony flowers were few and had to be searched for amidst the jungle of solomon’s seal, joe pye weed and lemon balm. Luckily I have bottles of tincture left from the Cornish betony I gathered last year and we’ll be returning there next year so I can gather again.

The first few calendula flowers were out, but most were very rain damaged. The mint was tall and impressive. The reaction to mint tea made with this chocolate mint has been so favourable, I gathered a huge armful to dry. Applemint is really nice dried as well as fresh, so I’m hoping the chocolate mint will be the same.

Other stately plants were the agrimony with their long, yellow, flower stalks, while the blue star flowers of the borage made me feel happy just to look at it. The deep pink cups of the Himalayan balsam were gorgeous, but any plants growing within the herb borders were ruthlessly culled.

I keep meaning to work more closely with agrimony. Maybe this is the year I will do so. I love the fresh taste and smell of both borage tincture and vinegar. Many people don’t use this plant any more because of the potential harm it might cause to the liver, but I still value it.

I also uncovered the ladies mantle, their long strings of yellow flowers trailing across the ground. I made some fresh tincture last year and haven’t used it, so decided not to gather at the moment. I did take three long stalks of fennel to make a syrup for heartburn along with meadowsweet.

The real stars of the herb garden were the huge red blooms of the bergamot blazing amongst the green immature tansy and lemon balm. Their colour is much more vibrant than last year, which was their first flowering, so I’m hopeful they will produce many more blooms throughout the summer. I tinctured the aerial parts last year, so this year I have left them to dry for teas.

The heat was intense while I was picking and weeding, not helped by the constant swarms of flies which objected to being disturbed from their nectar source! It was wonderful to see two copper butterflies hanging together from a New England Aster leaf in the top garden. I also managed to gather enough St John’s wort flowers to fill up the 1lb honey jar in my parent’s kitchen. They picked half a jar full two weeks ago before the rain set in and were impressed how quickly the oil went dark.

Before I left, we picked raspberries and blackcurrants from the garden and I gathered more plantain – both ribwort and greater – to make some more oil, along with a few stalks of yarrow.

On my way home I stopped to wildcraft some beautiful, searing white yarrow from the grass verge and a large bunch of meadowsweet. Two herbs from two different counties – Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, both of which provide my roots back into pre-history.

It is really difficult to know whether to wildcraft from road sides or not. I know the dangers of pollution, but neither road was constantly busy, both plants were newly grown and I didn’t have anywhere else to harvest at that moment and needed them both.

Back at home, I picked some more St John’s wort flowers to make up the beginnings of a new jar of oil (this will be the third) and some more raspberries- red and yellow, alpine strawberries and a few redcurrants.

I managed to make both the plantain double infused oil and the meadowsweet and fennel syrup as well as put up two jars of motherwort vinegar during the evening, but I did spend two hours watching the TV on the sofa as well. The trouble with harvesting is you forget how exhausting it can be! The rest of the harvest will have to wait until tomorrow night when I have no other commitments and can give them my undivided attention.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Celebrating the solstice with St John’s wort

Although both dates for the summer solstice (21st June) and midsummer (24th June) are passed, it feels appropriate to mark them with a posting about St John’s wort. This herb has a special meaning for me. When I first started growing SJW, the flowers always opened a week after the solstice, but two years ago they moved a week forward and the first bloom opened on 21st June. I was sure this year they were going to come beforehand, but they didn't, they waited!

I have been growing SJW for at least twelve years. It was one of the first specialist herbs I bought to grow in my garden. I couldn’t believe anything so delicate could provide such strong and helpful medicine, but it does!

Each spring I cut down the dead stalks of the plant and watch with bated breath as the tiny fronds emerge from the soil. This year it was March when I took the first photo. By the beginning of May the stalks were about four inches high and now they wave delicately around from a height of about two feet.

The tiny flowers are perfect stars – so perfect and bright it is almost impossible to get a picture in focus! Each year I make a sun infused oil and tincture. If there is profusion, or I find a bonus harvest elsewhere as I did last year at Birmingham International Railway station car park, then I might make a SAD syrup and dry some for ritual use.

SJW is thought to be a cleansing herb which repels negativity. It can be used in the bath for purification. It can also be used in rites of purification and exorcism.

Most people know SJW as a nervine, helpful in mild to moderate depression. They forget or are unaware of its other properties as an anti-viral, healer of burns and general external “heal all”. I won’t go into its constituents as that is something for others to comment on. I’m just interested in its uses.

I’m fortunate in that I don’t suffer with depression. There are times when I’m sad or emotionally upset, but I tend to turn to other nerviness – lemon balm, skullcap and vervain – before using SJW tincture for myself. I don’t think I’ve ever tried SJW tea – maybe I should add fresh SJW tea to my list of “new things to try” this year and see how it makes me feel!

Henriette recommends SJW for the pain and depression of grief, when everyone needs extra comfort and support through difficult times.

My dearest love of SJW is the oil. It is perhaps the greatest wonder of the herbal world to cover yellow star flowers in yellow sunflower oil, place it in a sunny window and watch as the oil begins to darken and finally turns a deep and glorious red. It has a very distinct smell entirely its own. There is no need for other perfume when you make the salve.

I use the oil in virtually every salve I make. I use it alone to deal with the itching and ache of venous degeneration in my ankles or to spread on burns after the heat has been taken out, with marshmallow as a diabetic foot salve, with calendula and marshmallow as a general winter salve, with calendula and chickweed for infected eczema, with elderflower to moisturise my face, with calendula, marshmallow and lovage in my “ladies’ lubrication salve” and with rosemary to make a massage oil for sciatica or arthritic joint pain.

I’ve also made a sunburn soother by adding SJW, calendula and aloe vera gel from the inside of freshly cut leaves to an aqueous cream base. I took it on holiday to Cornwall in our caravan fridge one year and gave it to a neighbour on the campsite who was badly burned on her back, arms and shoulders. After one application left overnight, the burn was soothed.

To make a salve, use 1oz of grated beeswax to every 8oz of infused oil. Heat gently in a double boiler saucepan until the wax has melted, then pour into clean pots. Label and date. Store in a cool dark place and the salve should last unopened for at least two years.

Here is the recipe for the SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) Syrup based on David Winston’s teaching using lemon balm with SJW for SAD. The recipe for a syrup comes from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's book, "Herbal Remedies"

1 l (2 pints) water (remember these are European pints (20 fluid oz) not US pints)
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped herb
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain. Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7fl.oz.) left Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label.

For SAD syrup I use equal quantities of dried St John's wort and lemon balm which I ground up in a coffee grinder if the herbs are dry, otherwise I bruise or shred the fresh herbs. I use aerial parts of both plants. Normally I only use the flowers of SJW to make oil and tincture, but I often make the syrup when the plants have gone to seed, so I use seed heads, flowers and some of the stalk.

Remember lemon balm only has a shelf life of 6months when dry, so if you buy some from a supplier, ask when it was picked. You should also pick the leaves before they flower, but if most of my plants have flowered when I make syrup, I try to pick as many secondary shoots as I can (shoots which grow up from stems cut earlier in the year).

Before the herbs simmer in the water, I add the grated rind of a lemon and when the syrup is finished, I add the juice of a lemon so it isn’t too sickly. I add lemon or orange juice to a lot of my syrups and use them more as hot cordials than taking 1 tsp at a time.

The dosage for SAD syrup would be around 1tsp three times a day. Don't use this syrup if you are already taking SSRI drugs for depression or if you've had a bad reaction to SJW in the past. Some people who take medication for migraine conditions find it can bring on a migraine.

The difficulty with this syrup is that it tastes so good, it could be quickly used up, so take care and don't take too much at once! As with all medicines, make sure children can't go and help themselves or you will suddenly find the bottle is empty!

Friday, 27 June 2008

Watching mullein flower

When the meadow growing on the disused railway platform began to flourish two months ago, it was easy to spot the ox-eye daises, fox gloves and lupins as they grew and flowered. Even the purple waving flax was easily distinguishable from its narrow leaves. Three bundles of pale green leaves looked vaguely familiar.

‘Mullein,’ I thought to myself, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember any mullein plants from the previous summer and before that everything had been destroyed with weed killer, so I settled down for a curious wait as time went by. Over the past few weeks, telltale flower spikes appeared and yesterday I noticed the first yellow flowers appearing at the base of the spike. They are so beautiful.

Mullein grew for me last year at the farm. I managed to harvest several flower heads, drying them on newspaper in the warm summerhouse. The centres of the flower stalks are really hard when you come to remove the dried flowers and leaves. I began by picking them off separately, but it was clumsy and made my fingers sore, I ended up rubbing my hand over everything and collecting the debris in a large bowl. I was delighted to see what I’d gathered resembled a previously purchased package of dried mullein, so I thought I must be doing something right!

My mullein harvest produced 2 full two-pound jars. I used one of them to make a double infused oil during my first winter workshop, enabling my students to go home bearing an oil to help with ear aches. We have been so fortunate while the children were growing up. I only remember two of them having earache once and both were quickly resolved. The other jar is still sitting in the larder waiting for someone to develop a deep chest infection.

The past few weeks have been so busy, it is easy to think little herbal has happened, but that would be very wrong! I was able to spend a whole morning and entire evening wandering through hay fields and by hedgerows to gather elderflowers, dog rose petals and greater plantain. It was even dry enough to walk through the fields in my long skirts holding my basket like a herbwife of old!

Having said that, wildcrafting is not an easy pursuit when you have to wade through grass up to your shoulders, nettles and thistles grow everywhere and gale force winds tangle rose thorns in your hair! It is also very easy to lose balance when dips in the ground appear from nowhere and climbing gates when one is no longer a child is a real challenge. (Especially when you know you have to climb near the hinge and that side of the gate is covered with nettles or briars or something equally aggressive!)

The June workshop was great fun with lovely people attending who really enjoyed their time whether it was making herbal medicines or weeding! As well as the rosemary infused oil, which took at least four days to demulsify, i.e. separate into a dark green oil and water from being a paler green emulsion, I also brewed some elderflower oil in a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil.

The last time I made elderflower oil in sunflower oil two years ago, it was pungent but pale green, this oil was so dark green it was almost black but the smell is just wonderful. I was worried I had no beeswax left, but I managed to find two ounce sticks, so last Tuesday I was finally able to turn the oil into salve, which is pale khaki/olive green. I’ve been using it on my face for the past three days. Being an oil rather than a cream, it does look rather shiny when you put it on, but the dry patches of skin by my nose and forehead are better and my skin feels beautifully soft and moist.

The hardest part of making salve is grating the beeswax. It goes everywhere if you try to grate it straight into the oil, so I’ve started putting the grater on a chopping board and pressing hard, then adding the wax when it’s all grated. I still manage to slice a finger nail at some point in the proceedings!

It was so exciting finally making some infused rose petal honey, witchhhazel extract and vinegar. Seeing an air space at the top of the honey jar, I dutifully turned it over to ensure all the petals were covered, but this was not a good idea as I found a line of honey escaping from the jar on the window ledge down onto the draining board the next morning. Chris wasn’t happy with me using his special acacia honey out of the caravan for my rose extract, so losing it all to gravity would have been a disaster!

The rose petals were so pretty when I put them in the jars; I am hoping the colour spreads to the liquid. I’m not sure what the perfume will be like as dog rose petals have a very subtle scent which is hardly discernable unless you have a large amount of them. I did add some bought rose petals to the withchhazel to see if they would add perfume, but most of it had disappeared. I also added the petals of a rose originally given to me by the East Birmingham Pensioners Association many years ago when I gave a talk to them to the vinegar extraction and the colour started to travel immediately.

Finally I have a whole day at home to enjoy tomorrow before I take off again for three days training in the wilds of south Yorkshire. (Not entirely true, one could hardly call Chesterfield, Leeds and Sheffield wild!) If it stays dry, I shall be harvesting more St Johns wort flowers to add to the oil in the kitchen window, marjoram, mint and rosemary to dry for Kathryn and Corey and maybe I shall finish The Bear and the Ivy Lady! Who knows!

Monday, 9 June 2008

Cooling herbs for summer – Elderflower

This article is posted as part of the Herbwifery Forum blog party hosted by Alchemille (

As the brightness of hawthorn flowers slowly fades in the hedgerows, our eyes are caught by a new dazzling white array amongst cool green leaves. The elder is in flower.

Every one who loves elder trees knows the joy elderflowers can bring – not only from their aroma, but also the myriad uses in summer drinks. Elderflower cordial has always been a commercial favourite – now freely available in every supermarket, but less people know the flavour of the elderflower as a simple tea to bring cooling in the heat of summer or to soothe the fevered brow during colds, flu, fevers or the hot flushes of menopause.

Elderflower has always worked well in combination with peppermint and yarrow for the classic “cold tea” which was the first herbal combination I ever learned about.

There are so many wonderful things elderflower can make. Here are some of them.

Elderflower tea
Pick 2-4 elderflowers and place in a teapot or cafatiere. Pour over just boiled water, replace the lid and let steep for 10 minutes, strain and enjoy. The tea is naturally sweet and refreshing.

Elderflower cordial
(This is basically Sophie Grigson’s recipe without the citric acid
20 elderflower heads (I forgot to keep counting and used half of the basketful I’d gathered)
4 lemons
2 oranges
1.8 kg granulated sugar
1.2l water
Place the sugar in the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. While the water is heating, place the elderflowers in a large bowl and cut the zest off the oranges and lemons and add to elderflowers. Cut the ends off the citrus fruit and discard, then slice and add to contents of bowl. Pour the boiling sugar syrup over the elderflowers and citrus fruits. Cover the bowl and place in a cool place for 24 hours. I put a plate on the top of the bowl to keep the citrus fruit submerged in the syrup. After 24 hours strain (eat the orange slices – they are amazing!). Strain twice more using either muslin or kitchen paper. Makes 4 pints of cordial. Pour into sterilized glass jars or plastic jars and freeze. Keep in the fridge and dilute to taste. It tastes good with fizzy water. Serve in glass jugs with slices of lemon and a sprig of mint.

You may want to use elderflower’s cooling properties on your skin. Gail Faith Edwards has a wonderfully simple recipe for making elderflower water, which can be used as a cleanser.

Elderflower water
Place elderflowers in a stainless steel or enamel saucepan and cover with fresh spring or distilled water. Cover and slowly heat to just below a simmer. Turn the heat as low as it will go and continue heating for about ten minutes tightly covered. Turn off the heat and allow all to sit, covered, overnight. The next morning, strain the infusion off. You will need to strain at least twice through muslin or kitchen towel to remove all the floating debris. Add a quarter of the volume in alcohol as a preservative. Bottle and keep in a cool dark place. I looked at my elderflower water 24 hours after bottling and there is a yellow sediment at the bottom which is probably pollen.

Elderflower’s cooling properties can also be captured in a double infused oil. I use the general method for double infusing in sunflower oil. The oil is beautifully fragrant and will stay that way for two years or more in a cool, dark place. I was giving an introduction to herbs talk a few weeks ago and found out a sample of elderflower oil I’d made back in 2006 and it was still as aromatic now as it was when it was made. It can be used as a massage oil or to help reduce the heat in swollen, hot joints.

Do be careful when drying fresh elderflowers. If there is any dampness, it will develop mould. I’ve lost two entire harvests from carelessness – not checking the drying herbs for several weeks – and then having to throw everything away! I now dry the flowers flat on top of newspaper in a dark, warm place covered with a second piece of newspaper. Things are hectic at the moment, so I haven’t had the energy to harvest elderflowers for drying yet, but I’m hoping to do so before too long.

There are many other culinary delights involving elderflower. I’ve not yet tried elderflower fritters, but muscadet jam which is made by adding elderflowers to gooseberry jam is wonderful! I also made a very simple gooseberry fool adding two elderflower heads and some sweet cicely during the cooking of the gooseberries, which made the flavour very subtle. Let me know if you would like me to post recipes for the fritters, jam and gooseberry fool.

Fifteen years ago when I was working in patient involvement in the NHS, I attended a talk by a young dietician working with diabetic patients. The locality where the hospital was based had a very high number of people from south asia, who had a genetic predisposition to diabetes. She told us how these communities had very strange ways of looking at their food, calling them hot or cold. She obviously didn’t understand what they meant and neither, at that time, did I. Now I know better.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Signs of Summer

Everything looks better in sunshine. There is a feeling of lightness associated with brightness compared with the doom and gloom laden cloud cover or rain we know so well. Of course there are exceptions, but I’ll try not to get sidetracked by the beauty of raindrops on Ladies mantle leaves or the sound of a single raindrop hitting a leaf during a shower or the amazing scent present immediately following a thunder storm.

I’ve decided the garden can be officially classed as “wild” since there are buttercups flowering everywhere and long grasses wave from every bed. I quite like grass in fields and closely cut on lawns so I can go barefoot, but have never been attracted to buying grasses to plant in flower beds as all the major garden designers suggest.

As usual, plants in my garden grow where they will. Despite trying to remove all the Spanish bluebells and white michaelmas daisies, there is still a profusion of each. The golden rod is already nearly 4’ tall and I’m determined to do something with the flowers this year. There was a fascinating discussion about its merits on the Susun Weed Forum that I found, so I’m very tempted to try dried, tincture and oil.

The marjoram needs cutting if I’m going to dry it before it flowers, as does the lemon balm, so I just hope the forecast of heavy rain for tomorrow is wrong. I love fresh marjoram and then forget about it completely during the winter.

The parsley is growing in great profusion too, so I decided to make up a fresh salad dressing last night using a basic Good Housekeeping recipe – 2 parts olive oil, one part vinegar (sage cider vinegar) 1/3 tsp mustard powder, 1 tsp sugar and about two large handfuls of marjoram and parsley with half a dozen broad leaf thyme sprigs and one rosemary sprig. I whizzed up the herbs in the coffee grinder before adding them to the oil and vinegar mixture, then whisked everything together. It tasted good and hopefully will improve with age.

The first valerian flower was out yesterday although I didn’t smell any scent. I really like valerian, but have never used it. Non Shaw has a recipe for a “deep sleep potion” which I’d love to try, even though I rarely need anything. My problem is not falling asleep, but going to bed – there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I want!

Coming home to an empty house yesterday, I actually managed to make myself a herb tea with lemon balm and cleavers. Someone was saying how mature cleavers were so much stronger than the younger ones. I gathered some thick stems and wrapped them up into a parcel before breaking them into pieces in the teapot. The pea-smell was unmistakable – something I’d not noticed before. The tea also had a sweet aftertaste on the back of my tongue – almost like an artificial sweetener!

The wild strawberries are flowering in profusion and there are real strawberries on the large strawberry plants. I haven’t grown strawberries since before the children were born, so we shall see who gets them first – us or the slugs! I meant to go and look at the gooseberries, red currants and black currents before I went in, but forgot.

In my last posting, I mentioned having time to spare over the weekend while we were away at the Exmouth Kite Festival. I really shouldn’t say things like that. I always forget how much time cooking and making cups of tea take up – not to mention having to wash out Chris’ kite gear because he slipped and fell in the mud on Saturday morning due to torrential rain the previous night!

The weekend kite displays were stunning, especially when Sky Symphony got together with the Airheads producing a ten-man synchronised team. Airheads’ leader, Peter Taylor, makes Sky Symphony's kites including their night kites. It was a wonderful weekend for Sky Symphony as all six of the team were present - the first time for a public display.

Roy got to participate in a scratch “revolution” team for the first time and did really well. Revolutions are 4 string kites, as opposed to the two string ones Sky Symphony use for team displays which go by the names of “T2s” and "absolute zeros". They have three different sets of kites depending on the wind speed and can fly when many other kite teams can’t. On Saturday, Dave and Alan Bill performed a very moving duet with tails on their kites, producing perfect double helixes in the afternoon sky.

I did manage to spend a few moments adding to my latest story, “The Bear and the Ivy Lady”. The sunset over the hills above Exmouth estuary on the Friday evening was particularly beautiful and found its way into the story.

There are two sunsets I remember fondly – the first over the Pacific Ocean viewed from the clifftop apartment in Lincoln City, Oregon, with my friend, Sorcha and the other was on the cliffs at Lands End with hundreds of other visitors waiting for the firework display to begin. We watched in silence and when the sun finally dipped below the horizon, everyone clapped. It was a truly magical moment and now I have another to add to my collection of sunset memories.

Friday, 23 May 2008


There is something very special about harvesting your own herbs. For me it is also associated with moments of panic, timing, weather considerations and a general sense of extreme urgency, all of which fade away while I’m actually with the plant.

I know I should pick leaves and flowers before midday when everything is dry. I know this is the best time yielding the least stressed and most concentrated plant matter. I also know that if I waited until conditions were always ideal, I’d only harvest a very small amount and I’d be continually frustrated.

I do have some days when I’m free to do what I want before midday when it’s sunny and dry – maybe once or twice a month if I’m lucky. Otherwise it’s more the case of braving the wind and possibly rain to pick wet leaves and flowers in the hope of drying them sufficiently before I make them into something else. Or I pick in the evening when everything is calm and dry in the few free moments between returning from work and carrying on with another task.

Yesterday was one of those days. The sun was trying to shine, but not quite managing it, but it was warm enough in the garden to walk in sandals without a cardigan. The herbs were dry, so I was able to fill my basket with lots of lemon balm, a large handful of beautifully flowering sweet woodruff and around five stems of white nettle before Chris called me in to teach my first piano pupil.

I was amazed how strongly the dead nettle smelled like ordinary nettle. If my nose were my only guiding principle I’d have worn gloves to harvest them, but the large white flowers gave them away. I’ve never used white nettle because it’s been decades since I had my one and only UTI and I’m hoping I won’t have another, but it seemed prudent to have it to hand, dried for a future tea “just in case”. When plants put on such a display for me, it usually means I’m to take notice of them, so I have.

I was in Coventry on Wednesday night giving an Introduction to Herbs talk to a local group in a pub while the rest of the world watched a football match in Russia very loudly. As we were finishing, someone asked where they should source their herbs and the person sitting next to them began an almost hopeless litany of how polluted everywhere is and all the sprays used by farmers. I almost felt cross with her for stressing how impossible it might be to find your own herbs in your locality until someone else pointed out the wide availability of plants on canal tow paths.

I suppose, as with all things, it’s knowing your locality and its history which is the key. Then you can decide whether or not it’s safe (and appropriate) to harvest for yourself.

I have to admit I was feeling a similar sense of frustration this morning while I was sitting waiting for a train. Across the platform were hundreds of ox-eye daises which I would dearly love to harvest and explore, but which are totally inaccessible. A foxglove was just coming into bloom, complementing the pinks and purples of the lupins further along the deserted platform and the patches of yellow, which look like ragwort but probably aren’t.

All through the journey, elder trees were showing the beginnings of white splodges amongst the green. Soon it will be time to pick and dry. Next weekend I shall be down in Exmouth with time on my hands, so I suspect I may be foraging with basket and paper bags or there are two apple and cherry twigs waiting to be sanded and oiled.

Whatever the weather, I know I shall have plenty to do!

Monday, 19 May 2008

Surrounded by Scent

Scents have captured me on several occasions over the past few weeks. The first was the cow parsley hidden behind the fence beside the station bus stop. The aroma always makes me think of carefree lunchtimes in Priory Park in Warwick when two friends and I would use our cherished sixth form freedom to go and play on the slides in the adventure playground. The cow parsley grew everywhere, hiding the sides of the deep bowl where the adventure playground was set so we could enjoy ourselves without fear of being seen acting like children instead of decorous young ladies!

It was then I also learned about cow parsley’s other name – Queen Anne’s Lace, a term I’d not heard beforehand. Today the name is used by American Herbwives for wild carrot (daucus carota), with Jim Macdonald and Robin Rose Bennett reporting interesting uses for the seeds as a uterine tonic and contraceptive. Cow parsley is Anthriscus sylvestris and looks like a more delicate version of the wild parsnip (heracleum lanatum) which grows in great profusion in my Cotswold herb beds.

Cow parsley also taught me about knowing my seasons. When I was fifteen, I had a vivid dream about visiting a chapel and finding a wounded Civil War soldier. The dream became my first attempt at a short story. I wrote about the heroine walking down a road smelling cow parsley in the heat of August. When I showed it to a family friend who was also a writer, he gently pointed out that cow parsley didn’t bloom in August and I must take care to be accurate in my descriptions if I wanted to convince my readers about a time and location. It was a lesson I never forgot. (One version of the story can be found on

Another scent which has captured me has been honeysuckle. As I sit down on the platform bench first thing in the morning, I am suddenly arrested by a powerful perfume so beautiful it takes my breath away. The honeysuckle grows around the corner, but its influence carries a long way. It makes me want to try the recipes I have found in Julie Brueton-Seal’s new book, “Hedgerow Medicines” which tells how to produce a virus-beating honey with honeysuckle blossom. Debs is already infusing a jarful and has enthused about the glorious smell and flavour. ( I wish I could make some as well, but the honeysuckle which used to hang over my garden wall has now disappeared since Chris and our next door neighbour installed a new boundary fence two weeks ago.

Many people are drawn to herbs by their scent and somehow feel cheated if a plant has no aroma. Sometimes the scent is subtle, such a dandelion flowers and ground ivy, but sometimes the lack of scent is a mask for the bitterness of the plant’s taste. With both burdock and motherwort, you are lulled into a sense of false security by the absence of scent until you bite into the leaves and wish you hadn’t!

Much has been written about the need for bitters in modern diets. We expect everything to be sweet and bland, or spicy and fiery, yet what our digestive juices crave is bitterness to stimulate production. Maybe things will change if we educate enough palates!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Digging the scullcap bed

Digging should be easy. You push in the fork, pick it up, shake it, remove all the weeds and move on to the next patch. It wasn’t like that in the skullcap bed. I can’t remember how many plants I ordered from Pyntzfield Herb Nursery back in 2004 – probably three. I can’t even recall where they were originally planted. All I can remember is that there used to be a line of Echinacea augustifolia all the way down the short end of the bed which have now completely disappeared.

For the past two spring digging sessions, my father has efficiently dug a three foot width of the herb patch, removing all nettles, dandelions, wild parsnips, red campion and other unwanted visitors from the soil and the skullcap have returned more vigorously each summer along with a display of self-seeded calendula. This year, the digging was left to me.

I didn’t dare let Chris loose on this patch. He is also an efficient digger, just as long as you don’t expect him to leave any plants actually growing. (I am doing him a disservice; he now recognises goats rue and motherwort as long as they are large enough!)

So, it was down to me. Every plant I picked up to discard seemed to have a familiar white tendril entwined within the ball of roots and soil which had to be carefully pried loose and replanted. It took nearly two hours to clear from the bottom of the bed by the peony to the top of the bed where the thymes are growing.

It was worth it. The entire bed is now relatively clear of all unwanted plants. The black cohosh is comfortably nestled beneath the remaining angelica plant, the calendula seedlings are sprouting and the ladies mantle is flowering. The dyers woodruff is spreading happily and the bergamot looks as if it is feeling quite at home.

My only worry is the absence of any signs of the Joe Pye weed and the boneset. The former (also known as gravelwort) is not a herb I use, but the bees and butterflies love it. Boneset is a necessity, being the herb which reduces the bone wrenching aches of influenza. I’ve only had to use it once on Chris, but he said it worked. The plant was not happy last year being overshadowed by angelica and decided to wither. Maybe it has given up the struggle for sunlight, not knowing it would have a clear view of the sky this year, since all the angelica nearby have been removed to “another place”.

I shall have to search again next weekend for any signs of life.