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Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

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From top left clockwise: Nettle, hawthorn blossom, cleavers, ground elder, ground ivy, garlic mustard/jack by the hedge, dandelion flowers, hawthorn leaves, dandelion leaves.

One of the things I love most about spring is that it is probably the time when picking plentiful quantities of wild food is the easiest, at least in temperate northern zones such as the area in which I live. There are many edible wild spring greens in the hedgerows, woods and waysides and in no time at all you can have an abundant harvest for creating delicious and healthful meals and teas.

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A mix of wild and cultivated salad leaves decorated with primrose, three cornered leek and heartsease flowers.

Eating even small quantities of wild foods regularly is one of the best things you can do for your health as they are so nutritionally dense, vibrant, seasonal and fresh. So many of the best wild foods are those we consider weeds, but when we look at the qualities of these plants, how tenacious and insuppressible they are, we can see that their strength and vitality surely makes for a more fortifying meal than those cultivated plants that have been shipped half way round the world and sat on supermarket shelves for days. I think weed is a derogatory term, the four letter word of the plant world, which I will henceforth refer to as w**d. I do however reserve the right to use it, along with other four letter words, in the presence of my arch-nemesis ground elder.

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Young lime/ linden leaves

At this time of year we have a lovely mix of mild tasting moistening greens, like the young lime/linden and violet leaves, and more drying or pungent herbs like nettles, young yarrow leaves, jack-by-the hedge and the dead nettles. This makes for a perfect balance of nourishing and toning qualities to help build us up and get us into shape after winter.

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My little forager picking lime leaves.

The three cornered leek or wild onion is one of the most delicious additions to spring salads, tasting something like a spring onion, and the flowers make beautiful decorative additions to any meal and are also edible. They are more common in the south west than the south east and I don’t find many growing near me but luckily it has spread all over my parent’s garden so I got to pick lots when visiting recently.

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Three cornered leek

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From a distance it looks a little like white bluebells or even snowdrops but can be easily differentiated close up by the shape of the flowers and the distinctive triangular stem, hence the common name of three cornered leek. Also the smell of onion is a give away. Do be sure of your identification as both snowdrop and bluebell bulbs are poisonous.

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Wavy bittercress is a very common spring salad green which has delicious leaves and flowers and tastes much like normal cress.

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Wavy bittercress

Lady’s smock, also known as cuckoo flower, is another edible mustard family plant with deliciously peppery leaves and flowers.

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Lady’s smock

Jack by the hedge or garlic mustard is also in the mustard family or Brassicaceae. This family used to be known as the Cruciferae so if you have an older plant identification book you will find this name instead.

Jack by the hedge

Jack by the hedge

Nettles are found in abundance at this time of year and are a true superfood for the blood. You can read more about them in a previous post here.

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Nettles in the spring sunshine

Pick cleavers by the handful for use in cold infusions and juices, instructions for which can be found here.

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A tangle of cleavers

Wild garlic is one of the true delicacies of the season. If, like me, you love the fiery garlic taste then make it into a pesto by itself but if it is a bit too intense for your palette you can tone it down with nettles or shop bought herbs like basil. More about wild garlic can be found here.

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Wild garlic pesto – pungent and powerful!

Do remember when picking wild greens to be absolutely 100% sure of your identification as some edibles have poisonous lookalikes. Also avoid the sides of paths where dogs are commonly walked and always, always pick with respect to the environment and don’t over harvest. Finally avoid the edges of fields unless you know the land to be organically managed.

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At the back; cleavers cold infusion and hawthorn blossom tea. Centre; nettle pesto with jack by the hedge and ground elder. Front; wild green salad of hawthorn leaves, jack by the hedge, dandelion leaves, violet leaves and white dead nettle with nettle pesto and dandelion flowers on toast, nettle and ground elder soup.

Spring greens and flowers also make for wonderful teas.

Ground ivy has a pleasant but musky flavour which is nice in teas when mixed with something lighter like a little mint from the garden. It is great for stuffy sinuses that can go along with spring allergies.

Ground ivy

Ground ivy

And the most wonderful spring tea of all in my opinion is hawthorn blossom, the very Queen of May herself. Read more about hawthorn blossom here.

Hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn blossom

I have also written a post on harvesting spring greens in this issue of the Mother magazine.

Wishing you all a joyous Beltane and a marvellous May Day!

 

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Here in the UK spring is springing, new life abounds and people are visibly more relaxed and open as the sun gently warms their faces. We have been out on the Downs, sampling the spring greens and enjoying all the sights and sounds of nature.

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What a lovely time of year this is, not least because of the swathes of violets that carpet areas of the woods and verges. Violet is surely one of our most treasured spring plants and is synonymous with the return of brighter days as the wheel of the year cycles round. I have written a few posts on violet before but this year I wanted to write a little more about why it is such a lovely spring tonic herb and how well its virtues are rooted in the season.

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Firstly violet is a wonderful herb for awakening the lymphatic system which functions, in simplistic terms, as a kind of waste disposal and treatment facility for the body tissues. It carries the lymph fluid that originates from blood plasma through a series of ducts and nodes which are also primary sites for immune activity. Lymph nodes become swollen when overloaded which we notice as hard or raised glands. Conditions such as sinusitis, ear problems and breast tenderness are all connected to under functioning lymphatics. The lymph tends to become quite sluggish over the winter months due to the fact that we move less, eat more and the cold contracts our vessels and thickens fluids. Spring is the most wonderful time to give your lymphatic system some love by moving your body, breathing deeply and enjoying spring greens like violets and cleavers. The lymphatic system has no pump of its own so is reliant on the movement of the muscles, the blood circulation and the breath to assist it around the body. It is in this relationship of fluids and movement that I see violet’s qualities coming to the fore.

Violet is considered a cooling, moist herb. When I consume the leaf and flower fresh or as a tea my first impression is of the demulcent quality it is famed for, but always there is a slightly astringent after effect, a subtle yet noticeable toning. The combination of soothing moisture and gentle tonification reflects the relationship between tension and relaxation that the lymphatic system needs to move freely and do its work effectively.

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Secondly it is rich in minerals and vitamins and helps to restore lost nutrients after the months of winter stodge (what another roast potato? I don’t mind if I do!).  It has that light, fresh greenness that our bodies crave when the warmer weather arrives and it contains plentiful vitamin A and C along with other antioxidants.

Next it can be helpful for sore throats and dry coughs or those where the mucus is sticky and not easily expelled, afflictions which can often strike at the change of season as warmer temperatures encourage bugs to multiply.

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Fourthly it is beautiful aromatic, a quality which uplifts and opens us physically, mentally and emotionally after we have been more closed in over winter. The fragrance on the wind helps us to breath more deeply, which in itself improves lymphatic flow and expulsion of toxins through the lungs.

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Finally, and somewhat metaphorically, it is a great herb for childhood which has long been associated with the springtime of life. It has a number of useful applications; as a syrup or honey in the over ones for coughs and sore throats or to ease mild constipation and also as an infused oil made into a salve or cream for easing dry skin conditions. My little one has been sampling his first violets this spring and has been enjoying the tea diluted in his beaker for the last few days.

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Violet tea made with the fresh leaf and flower turns the most beautiful colour – vivid green if you include mainly leaf and rich turquoise with the addition of more flowers.

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Violet is the perfect example of medicine that is more than the sum of its constituents.

Whist it is not perhaps the strongest acting of herbs when it is tinctured and bottled, though of course it still has valuable uses, when it is admired in the wild, eaten and drunk as part of a seasonal diet and appreciated for it’s beauty, violet is perhaps one of the best spring medicines we have. We tend to think about constituents and medicinal actions as something apart from how we experience the plant in our bodies – our senses being subjective and treacherous when compared to cold, hard science – but, much like spring itself, violets help you to feel well through their simple act of being.

You can read more about violets as medicine in this post here or see here for information about using them in a breast massage oil. Also here is a recent and informative post written by American herbalist Jim McDonald.

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One of my first attempts at botanical illustration – Viola odorata

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Despite the chilly temperatures, March is upon us and spring is most definitely on its way. Young nettles are popping up amongst the snowdrops and the first little cleavers, sweet violets and wild garlics can be seen in our wakening countryside.

As the weather is cold, I am still enjoying some of the more warming foods of winter but this is now tempered with an urge for the fresh green foods of spring. Yesterday was bright but bitter, leading me to combine my inter-seasonal desires into this tasty dish which filled our bodies and our hearts with both the wintery sustenance and the spring-like vitality that we craved.

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Nettle, Squash and Almond Curry:

Ingredients:

1 tblsp coconut oil
1 large onion
6 cloves garlic
Inch long piece ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 large butternut squash
3 courgettes
1 colander fresh nettle tops
1 tin coconut milk

For the curry sauce:
1 cup blanched almonds and water for soaking
1 1/2 cups water
3 cardamom pods
2 chillies
Another inch chopped ginger
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp garam masala
Salt and pepper to taste

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See how red and rich in iron these young nettle tops are.

Method:

First soak the blanched almonds for an hour before you begin to prepare the other ingredients.

Gently fry the cumin seeds in the coconut oil for a few minutes before adding the onion, garlic and ginger. When this has begun to soften add in the cubed butternut squash and the courgette. Leave cooking on a gentle heat whilst you blend the strained, soaked almonds with the cup and a half of water and the spices and seasoning until you have a thick fragrant paste. Add to the cooking vegetables with a tin of coconut milk and stir well. Leave to cook for about 20 mins or until the vegetables are soft adding a little hot water now and again to prevent the sauce from thickening too much. When just about done, add the washed nettle tops into the pan and allow to cook down for a few minutes.

We served ours with saffron and cardamom spiced brown rice.

if you prefer something lighter, you can find some of my recipes for nettle soup here.

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I hope that, if you are here in the northern parts of the world, your spring is bringing you many blessings and that those elsewhere are also enjoying the delights of their season. Happy nettle picking!

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Simplest Rosehip Jam

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A few days ago I spent a lovely afternoon with my friend Deborah making rosehip jam from a stash that were picked last month and stored in the freezer. I noted on my walk yesterday that there are still a fair few rosehips about, though they are starting to look thin on the ground, so I thought I would share this recipe with you before it gets too late to make it. Rosehips are always better after a frost anyway and it is only in the last week that we have had hard frosts in this part of the country. If you pick your rosehips before the frost then you can always pop them in the freezer like I did to sweeten them up a little.

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To make this recipe you need only four ingredients; rosehips, half a lemon, sugar and water and the method is simplicity itself. What is a little challenging is halving and de-seeding your hips before you begin which can be a surprisingly lengthy process so make sure you have allotted a good amount of time for it and perhaps enjoy it as a relaxing task whilst listening to music or watching a film. To do this you just need to cut the stems and bases off the hips, then slice them in half and scoop out the seeds and little irritating hairs which can make your hands itch after a while.

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Method:

  • Begin by adding  just enough water to cover the de-seeded rosehips (add too much and the resulting jam will be too runny) and bringing to a slow simmer.
  • Allow them to continue simmering for about 20 minutes, mashing regularly with a potato masher.
  • You should have a nice thick pulpy liquid at the end of this time which you now want to push through a sieve. I used a fairly coarse sieve as it’s nice to get as much of the pulp and goodness into your jam as possible. You really just want to catch all the odd seeds and hard bits of hip that inevitably get missed in the preparation, though you will end up losing some of the pulp of course too.
  • Weigh the rosehip pulp and put it back in the pan with an equal amount of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. 1kg of rosehip pulp and 1 kg of sugar will make about 6 to 8 average sized jars.
  • Bring to a gentle boil for about 10 minutes or unti the jam has thickened to your desired consistency. Try to avoid boiling for too long though as you don’t want to destroy too much of the precious vitamin C that rosehips are so rich in.
  • Transfer the finished jam to sterilised jars and enjoy spread lavishly on your bread/ crackers of choice.

I hope you enjoy the last of the seasons wild fruits before winter tightens its grip. For more lovely jam making recipes and tips see this post on the Herbarium by Carol Church whose jams are the finest around, as I can attest from personal experience!

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Elderberry Medicine

Common name: Elderberry
Latin: Sambucus nigra
Family: Adoxaceae
Botanical features: A small deciduous tree or large shrub with leaves in opposite pairs and large corymbs of creamy white flowers in June. The berries turn from green to purplish-black in colour and are held in large drooping clusters.
Key actions of the berries: Antioxidant, anti-rheumatic, anti-viral, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypolipidemic, laxative.

With autumn well underway and the evenings and mornings getting increasingly chilly it’s no wonder that many people are coming down with those mild colds and snuffles that often strike during the change of season.

Possibly the best preventative we have for this time of year is elderberry as unlike many other herbs that are specific for the immune system it seamlessly bridges the gap between food and medicine, making it both easy and enjoyable to include in our everyday diets.

Elderberries are also an important food source for the birds including blackcaps, robins and waxwings.

Green elderberries are never taken internally but were used in the past to make ointments for hemorrhoids.

Undoubtedly using the seasonal gifts of nature in our daily lives can ensure we enjoy our medicine as food and our food as medicine. Country people have always used these edible autumn berries to make preserves, wines, syrups and other delicious preparations that would have helped to keep them well and healthy throughout the winter months.

Elderberry isn’t the most delicious of the berries when eaten raw but a syrup made from elderberry with honey is sure to transport you to a heavenly realm of taste due to its rich, earthy sweetness. Elderberries should not really be eaten raw in any case (though it’s usually fine to sample a few) due to their ability to cause stomach aches, diarrhoea and vomiting. It is always best to cook or tincture them first. You can see some of my elderberry recipes here.

Elderberry is most famous these days for its antiviral and immune tonic effects which are in large part to do with its antioxidant properties. It is also mildly diaphoretic, especially when taken hot as a tea so can help you to sweat out colds and flus. Having a particular affinity for the respiratory system, elderberry will make a lovely tonic for you if colds tend to settle in your chest.

It contains many vitamins and minerals, being especially high in vitamin C and containing appreciable amounts of vitamins A and B6, so it feeds the immune system at the same time as exerting an anti-viral effect. A true ally, elderberry makes you stronger in yourself whilst also fighting at your side. The antioxidants can help stop viruses infecting a cell thus halting the spread of an illness and studies show that taking elderberry shortens the duration of an outbreak of influenza. Laboratory studies show elderberry extracts to be active against numerous strains of influenza but these need to be repeated in human trials before their claims can be substantiated.

Beautiful red stems on the elderberries.

Elderberry has an ORAC value of 14697 which is a measurement of the antioxidant capacity of different foods. This makes it one of the highest ranking of the berries, just after chokecherry but above blueberries. Rosehips however have one of the highest values of all being fantastically rich in vitamin C. Back in the 17th century John Evelyn wrote that elderberry extracts would ‘assist longevity’ and of course now we know that antioxidant containing foods are some of the most potent for protecting against premature aging.

Elderberries are particularly rich in antioxidant anthocyanins which are a type of flavonoid that is often found in red, blue or purple foods.

Antioxidants help to heal all our cells and are particularly useful where there is peripheral degeneration such as is commonly seen in diabetes. This most commonly affects circulation to the toes and eyes but a diet rich in antioxidants can help to heal damaged blood vessels and restore function. Elderberry is also thought to be able to lower blood sugar levels making it even more useful, though of course if you take it in a sugary syrup, jam or cordial it negates the effect somewhat! Best stick to tinctures or teas to maximise this property.

A serving of elderberries also contains about 13% of your daily intake of iron which may not seem a massive amount but is helpful when taken with other iron containing foods and herbs, especially as elderberry’s vitamin C content ensures the iron is well assimilated. In fact, Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends elderberry for iron deficiency anaemia as well as for treating coughs, colds, sore throats and tonsillitis.

Elderberry is both diuretic and mildly laxative making it an all round cleansing remedy which was commonly used in the past for rheumatism and arthritis. According to Mrs Greive “It promotes all fluid secretions and natural evacuations.” Another use for it that has fallen by the wayside in modern times was for treating skin infections and it was no doubt due to it’s mixture of cleansing and immune promoting properties.

Current research is also being done into potential anti-tumour properties of elderberry. The combination of high antioxidant activity, gentle cleansing ability and bio-available nutrients mean it is possibly very useful and it has also been suggested to have anti-angeogenic properties.

There are also studies showing the cardioprotective qualities of elderberry due to its hypolipidemic and antioxidant potential. Natural polyphenol compounds can help to minimise LDL oxidation, LDL being the more harmful type of cholesterol.

There are a few potential interactions to consider when taking elderberry in medicinal doses, though these are at present theoretical. It may lower blood sugar therefore altering the effect of diabetic medications. Also by stimulating the immune system it may interfere with immune suppressing drugs and as a mild diuretic it may have an additive effect with diuretic medications.

Generally consumed in food like quantities however it is a gentle and safe remedy for the whole family and one we should all be taking advantage of at this time of year.

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Thyme infused honey

After my recent post on aromatics  several people commented on the herbal honeys I mentioned which are surely one of the most delicious ways to enjoy taking herbs. Although I have talked of them often in other posts, I thought it time to focus on herbal infused honeys more specifically and explain a little more about how to make and use them.

Herbs that make lovely infused honeys include most of the aromatics- especially those with floral, spicy or herby tastes. Some of my favourites are plants that are at their best over the summer months including rose, sage, thyme, lemon balm, mint, lavender, chamomile or lime blossom. It is usually nicest to keep them plain but sometimes it works well to add a complimentary flavour, cinnamon or cardamom for example is delicious with rose petal honey.

Lemon balm in set honey

Chamomile in runny honey

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Making a herbal infused honey is very straight forward. All you need is a jar, a chopstick or spoon, some honey and your herb of choice.

You can use dried or fresh herbs. The benefit of fresh herbs is that they are softer so will be nicer if left in the honey where as dried herbs will be a bit chewy and you will therefore probably want to strain them out before eating. Also, the aromatic quality of freshly picked herbs is often much more vibrant. The drawback of fresh herbs is that they can make your honey more liquid, which is why it is good to use a thicker honey for infusing fresh herbs into.

You can use set or runny honey but if using set you’ll want to warm it in a pan of water to liquefy it before pouring. Just warm it enough to stir and pour, never overheat honey, as it will destroy the beneficial enzymes.

Always get good quality honey from a reputable supplier where you know the bees are well cared for.

Mint infused honey

Method:

First lightly pack your jar with herbs. Don’t cram the plant material in like you would if making a tincture, as you want plenty of space for the honey to go in and move around.

Next pour your honey over the top, stopping every now and then to give it a good stir. When you have fully covered all the plant material with honey, give it another stir and leave on the side for a fortnight before eating, stirring every couple of days or so to re-integrate the plant material.

If you wish to strain the plant material out then leave it for a month before straining.

For softer plant parts like rose petals or thinly sliced lemon balm leaves you can happily leave the plant material in the honey and enjoy just as it is however for tougher plants or those with bits of woody stem, you’ll probably be better of straining it out through a coarse sieve. Gently warm the jar with the infused honey in before you strain it to make sure you get the most honey out of the plant material. You can keep the spent herbs in the fridge for a few days and infuse in hot water to make sweet teas if you wish.

Give it a good stir!

Herbal honeys can be eaten as a delicious food, either alone, on bread or crackers, in salad dressings or teas or anything else you fancy. They can also be used medicinally. Though weaker than a tincture, they will still carry the medicinal qualities of the herbs and can be taken internally or used externally where they are particularly beneficial for minor wounds or burns. Lavender or chamomile are particularly nice for this purpose. Sage or thyme honeys are lovely taken for a sore throat and chamomile can soothe digestive problems that are exacerbated by anxiety. The fact that these honeys are both gentle and delicious makes them fantastic options for children, though remember that many people advise against the use of honey in children under two.

They can also be used cosmetically, either as a simple face wash or as a soothing anti-bacterial face mask. I sometimes mix a small teaspoon of honey with a little ground almonds to make a skin brightening (and delicious!) facial scrub.

Scented rose petal honey

There was also a lovely post recently on Nettlejuice about honey medicine which you can read here.

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So it’s been gloom, gloom, gloom here in Sussex, as in so much of the UK, for most of the summer so far. Whilst I appreciate that Mother Nature’s patterns are greater than I can understand, the continual rain, mist and grey skies have started to feel a bit depressing over the last week or so. Summer is due to arrive in the next couple of days however and I know many of us are looking forward to enjoying a bit of sunshine. In the meantime I’m joining in with Debs and other bloggers over at Herbaholic’s Herbarium for a July Blog Party, the topic of which is ‘herbal sunshine’.

Lavender

Lots of herbs are at their peak during the summer and even though the weather has been poor, plenty of flowers and aerial parts are ready to harvest in the gaps between showers. Some of the herbs that I associate most strongly with summer are the herbal aromatics, many of which are native to the Mediterranean and somehow seem to carry the very essence of the sun with them, even here in this damp UK summer.

Aromatics are herbs with a strong taste and aroma. The aroma is created by volatile oils within the plant and can serve in numerous ways; to attract pollinators, as part of the plant’s immune system or to taste unpleasant to grazing animals. Many plants contain these volatile oils but only those with strong aromas contain sufficient quantities to really be considered true aromatics.

Thyme

What all the aromatics have in common is an ability to open up and move the body’s energy. They help to avoid stagnation and disperse anything that is stuck. They are great at drying dampness and moving the congestion that it often causes and they help us to feel brighter, more energised and uplifted as a result. Many people have commented to me that the weather has left them feeling sluggish and tired over the last couple of months and aromatics are just the thing to get everything moving again.

Therefore some could be used to move stuck catarrh in the sinuses, some to dispel gas in the gut and others to promote sweat and let go of trapped heat in the body. Think of how thyme or eucalyptus feel in the lungs, how peppermint feels in the gut or how ginger feels in the circulation; they all have a quality of movement and dispersing energy. The volatile oils in aromatic plants escape easily into the atmosphere when in the presence of warmth or light, that is why we can smell them in the air on a summer’s breeze. This ability of the volatile oils to move upward and outward reflects what we feel in the body when we take them, they move through us and clear the clogged up pathways as they go!

Mint infused honey.

They have a similar effect on a mental/ emotional level, opening and uplifting us when we feel glum and heavy. There is no doubt that a moderate amount of sunshine encourages feelings of joy, openness and relaxation and the aromatics can help fill that gap when the sun is nowhere to be seen. In fact, many of them are effective nervines such as lemon balm, lime blossom, chamomile, lavender or rosemary.

Many aromatics are warming and therefore useful for people who tend to feel the cold. Some however such as peppermint, rose and lemon balm are more cooling and therefore suitable for calming people who are hot.

Aromatics tend to have a positive effect on the digestion and the warming ones will stoke the digestive fires and improve metabolism. The more cooling ones often help to dispel gas and calm spasms and digestive cramps. One thing that is fantastic about these herbs is that they give their aromatic constituents up easily to a variety of different mediums and therefore make excellent infused oils, honeys, vinegars, teas and tinctures.

Lemon balm

Many of our favourite and best known herbal teas are made with aromatic herbs. Think mint, chamomile, fennel, lemon balm, cinnamon and ginger as examples. Most aromatics have quite a bit of cross over in their actions but some will have a certain resonance with a particular effect or area of the body such as thyme with the lungs, fennel with the digestion and rosemary with the circulation.

Teas that are particularly uplifting when the weather is poor include lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, rose and cardamom as all these have a gently uplifting and cheering quality.

Adding generous amounts of  fresh oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, basil or rosemary to our food also gives us this wonderful aromatic effect.

Infusing honey or vinegar with aromatic herbs and adding to foods is another lovely way to integrate them into our daily lives. Also, infusing them in oil and massaging them over the body can be delightfully restorative, or use a few drops of an appropriate essential oil mixed with a base oil to enjoy the beautiful aromas another way.

In this way we can go to the sun… even if the sun won’t come to us!

 

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