Early spring clear up

I took a walk around my garden this morning to see what clearing up I needed to do. 

My elecampane which the bees loved last year is looking straggly so I’ll need to cut this back. 

My fennel is also looking untidy but there is already signs of new growth coming. 

I was surprised to see flowers developing on my Rosemary bush so early! It seems to love this particular spot in my garden. 

And my surprise of the morning…. My first bee!!! I’m not sure if this is one from one of my solitary hives or not, but she was certainly sunning herself and enjoying the warmth. 

So what am I doing with my little plot of land this year? Well I’m still growing some herbs, but having a bit of a change around. I’m going to be growing herbs and flowers that attract bees this year, as well as some plants for medicinal use! My garden has been left to settle since the introduction of my raised beds two years ago, and it has felt a little barren since. 

After watching the solitary bees on my elecampane and Angelica last year, I feel I want to do more to encourage them this year! 

So it’s out into the garden I go to see what magic I can conjure for this coming year. 


Bit of a solstice harvest

  This is my Angelica, and if you look carefully, you’ll see one of my many bees that have visited for the last few weeks. Bumble bees in particular seemed to love this plant. The flowers on this plant were quite plain almost non descript. I didn’t notice any scent to the flowers. But the huge head of flowers balanced on the long slender stalks looked amazing, and did kind of dwarf my garden, along with the elecampane. 

A variety of insects other than the bees seemed to like this plant. Last year I struggled with it because it was being attacked by slugs and caterpillars. This year it has been black fly and spittle bugs, in fact I’ve been invaded by spittle bugs this year too. 

A couple of days ago, I noticed what appear to be seeds developing on my Angelica. Having never seen the seeds, I wasn’t sure if it was a bit early to cut the heads or not, but I had also read that Angelica spreads really easily so wanted to catch them first. 

  Apparently the seeds take a while to germinate. I am confused by the storage instructions, saying to keep them in the fridge or cool place! I haven’t got room in my fridge for them!! Also having read some more about this plant, it seems that as I let the flowers develop, my Angelica will die off this year. It lasts longer if you cut off the flower heads, but then the bees wouldn’t have got as much pleasure from it! 

The leaves, seeds and roots of the Angelica can be used. I haven’t been able to use the leaves as they have been attacked by caterpillars and slugs. My friend Lorraine gave me some dried Angelica leaves which I have used to make a herbal tea before. 

The stems and seeds can be used in confectionary. The stems are available as candied Angelica. I haven’t had this before so not sure what it tastes like. The stems are usually cut in June or July for being candied. The seeds can also be used for flavouring liqueurs. The roots are used medically and are said to have a musky type taste. 

Nettles and horseradish.

Here are my two horseradish plants growing next to my only nettle patch! I thought I’d lost my horseradish but it sprung up as soon as the warm weather arrived! Horseradish is used in fire cider vinegar  a traditional herbal remedy to help boost the immune system and is good for helping stave off colds. I took fire cider vinegar throughout the winter months and didn’t get a cold!

Horseradish has antibacterial qualities which helps make it effective in fighting off bacteria. It’s good for athletes foot, ringworm, bladder infection, bronchitis, congestion, gout and cold sores. With its pungent aroma, it’s good for clearing the sinuses too.

I discovered the benefits of nettles last year having been poorly due to being anaemic. Nettles make an excellent tonic for anaemia when steeped in red wine with some apricots. In early spring, you can pick the young tops of nettles to make nettle soup. Nettles can be used instead of spinach and make a refreshing cup of tea. I think I might just have a cup of nettle tea now!

Elder ( Sambucus nigra)

One of the first things I made as part of my first year as a herbal apprentice was an elder bark salve. Now I had known that you could use the flowers, leaves and fruits of a plant, but never really considered using the bark.

Elder is a tree seen throughout the countryside and towns. The bark is light grey when it is a young plant but changes to dark grey as it ages. It flowers late spring to mid summer. The flowers are white and very delicate, almost like lace and very tiny, but as they grow in clusters, they look bigger. Their scent is very floral. Commercially bought elderflower drinks are sweet and have a hint of the floral taste, but when you make your own cordial, it is very heady with the scent of the flowers. I made some cordial following the recipe on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s website, but I think the water I put on the flowers was too hot. It burnt the flowers, turning the liquid a dirty brown colour instead if the clear or slightly green tinge I was expecting. It tasted ok, but I think this year I will try a different recipe.

I also discovered that you can make elderflower fritters! I haven’t made these yet, again this is something I may try this year. I have seen many recipes showing that you dip the flower heads in batter and cook them flower side down. What these recipes also show is that the stalks are still attached to the flower heads. It is important to note that the green parts of the plant are poisonous. Eating a few green stalks is ok, but if you eat too many, they will make you sick. This is the purgative effect of the plant!

I discovered a recipe on honest-food.net which shows how to make these fritters using as much of the flower head and as little of the stalk as possible. They look yummy and this will be the recipe I try I think. I’ll let you know how it goes!

The flowers of the elder stimulate sweating and therefore can be used to help move on a common cold or influenza and fever. If making a tea from the flowers, leave the tea to cool and the liquid can be used to ease the discomfort of conjunctivitis, by applying cotton wool pads soaked in the liquid.  If you have tired and puffy eyes, the cotton wool pads soaked in the tea could help to reduce the puffiness. The flowers have anti-inflammatory qualities. The flowers are soothing and therefore a tea made of the flowers can also assist in relaxing you, reducing stress. ” Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine” ( also known as my personal bible!) describes a lot of uses for elder for both the flowers and the berries. For the flowers he says that cold tea has a laxative and sedative effect whereas hot tea excites and stimulates! I will have to try both and see what happens, and if I catch it in between these temperatures, will I experience all four effects at once?

The fruits of the elder appear in autumn. I gathered many, many of these fruits this time round and made myself a few things from them, I also froze some fruits to use later on.

I made a version of an elderberry rob, by putting 2lbs of fruit in a pan and covering it with water. I added 6 cloves, half a grated nutmeg and a cinnamon stick and brought it to the boil. I let it simmer for approx 30 minutes then I strained it. I squeezed out all of the juice from the berries, then I added sugar to taste. Some people may like their rob quite sweet, some may prefer a slightly bitter taste, so I think add sugar accordingly. Or as an alternative, after straining the liquid, add honey to it. I then added a small amount of vodka to help preserve it and bottled it up. I have to say, it didn’t last long as I liked the taste so much, it was gone within a week! Sorry if quantities sound a little vague, but I got so excited about being able to make things, I didn’t write anything down ( I can hear Sarah now saying “write it down and take photos”). I would have to say though, between drinking my elderberry rob and my rosehip syrup I made, I haven’t had a cold all over the winter! Usually I would get one. I have had the occasional sneeze and slightly runny nose, but no cold!

Obviously, with the huge glut of elderberries I had, I attempted to make elderberry wine. I’ve never made wine before, not even with the wine kits you can get, so this was an experience. I wanted to follow recipes, Mr Earth on the other hand took the male approach of ” bung it all in and see what happens”! So we tried a few approaches. I have to say, one batch of the wine tastes ok, like a cabernet sauvignon, the other is quite sharp, like a shiraz. I have been told that if I leave it in the bottles for a few months, it will become more palatable. I will have to see. At the moment, I may use the bottle I have opened to make a tonic wine. With elderberries having a high vitamin C content, a tonic wine made with this should be very beneficial, provided I can actually drink it!

Anyway, to the bark. My friend Lorraine gave me some of her elder in order for me to make this salve. I made this by stripping the bark off the twigs and branches. I used young looking twigs and branches as we discovered that the older looking ones were dry and broke easily. Having stripped the bark off, I placed half of this in a bowl and covered them with sunflower oil. I covered the bowl and placed this in a pan of water. I brought the water to the boil and left it to simmer for approximately 2 hours, checking regularly to make sure the water hadn’t dried up. After this time, I strained the oil through some muslin and discarded the used bark, retaining the oil. I then put the rest of the bark back into the bowl I had used and covered it with the oil I had just strained. I put the lid on and again put it in a pan of simmering water for another 2 hours. I strained it all off again, retaining the oil. The oil was a lovely green colour. This process is creates a double infused oil. This is a process taught to me by Sarah Head and she describes this in more detail on her blog, “Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife”.

I placed the oil in the bowl again and placed this over a pan of simmering water. I then added some beeswax, enough to make it thicken slightly then removed it from the heat and poured it into the jar, leaving it to set. This was the result.

This bark salve can be used for bruises, however at the time, I did’t have any bruises to try it out on! So I still have this to try out.

Beginning my herbal journey.

I began my journey into the world of medicinal herbalism when a friend of mine, Lorraine, asked me if I wanted to go to a herb sanctuary she had seen advertised with the Herb Society. I thought it would be interesting and along we went in summer 2013. There we met Sarah Head, and that was it! Everything she told us was interesting and exciting, and we have continued to go back.

In January 2014, I signed up to be one of Sarah’s apprentices. I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out. I needed to be able to identify plants and trees, and to be able to make a variety of medicines using different mediums, by decocting and infusing in cider vinegar, brandy and copious amounts of vodka! As well as making teas and tasting and writing things down! And the photos, oh my goodness how many photos. It all blew me away how much I needed to know. I also needed to grow things and I have never been successful at growing anything except weeds! Hang on, I can grow weeds? I’m already half way there!

So from January 2014, I started to plan my garden. Mr Earth ( this is what I call my partner, Kev. He’s very grounded!) he had built me three raised beds when both him and his friend redesigned my garden for me. I thought about what I wanted to try and grow. I went for the safer options in the first instance, growing culinary herbs like sage, thyme and rosemary fro seed. These started off ok, but the sage didn’t survive very well.

I am someone who often gets a chesty cough in bad weather conditions so I decided to grow some Elecampane. The leaves were massive and I thought they were going to invade my garden. It was a bit like The Day of the Triffids! I also grew some Angelica ( which I bought as plants), Lemon Balm, which I grew from seed myself, Lavender ( which I bought) and some Fennel.

I had every intention of studying these plants throughout the year, however I was so excited that I had actually managed to grow some plants, I forgot to photograph them in their various stages and forgot to record what I was doing with them.

As part of the apprenticeship, we needed to choose a herbal ally. Everywhere I went I saw Hawthorn, so I chose this as my ally. I will be writing a separate blog on that at a later stage, this is just an introduction for now.

I had a difficult year in 2014. I had been ill for a long time due to constantly bleeding from heavy menstruation. It turned out I had fibroids. These hadn’t been diagnosed for 22 months, and I went through I very horrible time before I finally had an operation to remove them.

I remember telling Sarah at the Herb Sanctuary one day that I craved steak. I’m vegetarian so it’s a bit of a strange thing for me to crave. Sarah told me that this could be a sign of anaemia. Shortly afterwards, before my operation, the doctor did a blood test. Sure enough, I was borderline anaemic. Sarah told me to learn all about the power of nettles. I made a tonic good for anaemia using nettles, apricots and red wine. I also drank lots of nettle tea until after my surgery, when my condition improved. I will talk about different herbs more in depth in following blogs.

I hadn’t been very good at writing up some of the work that Sarah set me, and as a consequence, as the months advanced I got further behind, but at the same time my knowledge of herbs was growing, as were my cultivation skills, so I felt I was learning something.

As 2014 came to a close, I decided I needed to effectively re-do the whole of the first year of the apprenticeship again, as well as doing the second year. I have cupboards full of salves, tinctures, flower remedies and dried herbs, that I really need to get to know and use! As a result, I may take each one and write a blog about it in order to learn.

This blog will be about my own personal journey and is not meant as a reference for treatment of other people’s conditions. All the same I hope you find it interesting.