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September is such an exciting month because everything is shifting. It feels not quite one thing or another as there are still the vestiges of summer with bright sunny days and roses in the garden, meanwhile autumn is well underway with the hedgerows dripping in berries ready for the harvest.

Every year is different however and this year the elderberries have been sparser than I have ever known them before. I assume this is because it was so wet in June when the flowers were out, meaning many pollinators were not able to access them and fulfil their important task. Many of the trees near me look like this photo below.

Still after ranging further afield than normal I have managed a decent harvest, though I’ll need some more for tincture making before the season is out. How are the elderberries looking around you this year?

There are many other beautiful berries hanging heavy from the branches however and it is always wise to include them in your diet for their wonderful antioxidant properties that help to protect and heal every cell of the body.

The hawthorns are fat and fabulous this year, I suppose as they were pollinated before the heavy downpours came, the wet summer would have helped them grow large, if not necessarily more potent.

The blackberries are also wonderfully abundant, ripe and juicy, though the sloes seem thinner on the ground than usual in the blackthorn trees near my home. I have it on good authority however that they are growing well in other parts.

Blackberries

Sloes

Like sloes, the berries of guelder rose or cramp bark  (Viburnum opulus) and rowan or mountain ash (Sorbus acuparia) are not eaten raw but are good when cooked.

Guelder rose berries

In Saturday’s herb group we picked a good selection of berries to make into a delicious variant on my 5 berry syrup recipe which you can find here.

Berries simmering away

As you well know however, not all the berries in the hedgerow are safe to eat and all these pictured below would be well to avoid if you value the health of your internal organs, and in some cases your life.

Holly berries are toxic, avoid them.

The beautiful berries of the wayfaring tree turn from green to bright red to black throughout the late summer and autumn. Alas they can lead to vomiting and diarrhoea though so ’tis best to leave them be.

The yew berries, and specifically the seeds they contain, are highly poisonous.

The beautiful spindle berries give much pleasure to look upon but not to consume, they are also toxic.

Common or purging buckthorn lives up to it’s name.

Black bryony berries are not ones to make into jam or it may be the last piece of toast you get to enjoy.

Finally, the berries of woody nightshade may look enticing growing next to these blackberries but be sure to leave them out of your syrup. Related to the tomato you can see the resemblance can’t you?

This is in no way an exhaustive list but it covers the majority of species growing in my local area. As with all wild plants, if you are not sure of the identification it is best to leave well alone.

I’ll be back in a few days with a post looking at the medicinal properties of elderberries in more detail. In the meantime You can find some elderberry recipes in this post here from a couple of years ago.

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Please forgive me for clogging your inboxes with two photographic posts in as many days but I thought some people might find it interesting to have a closer look at the wild flowers we have growing here on the Downs at present. There is a spectacular array, many of them quite common but some rarer and more specific to the chalk grassland habitat.

Wildflower heaven

Common Knapweed

Red Clover

Self Heal

Round Headed Rampion

Devil’s Bit Scabious

Small Scabious

Field Scabious

Scabious in bud

Yellow Wort

Common Ragwort

Hawkbit

Bird’s Foot Trefoil

Ladies Bedstraw

Common Fleabane

Scarlet Pimpernel

Agrimony

Eyebright

Burnet Saxifrage

Yarrow

White Bryony

Mugwort

Small Tortoiseshell on Creeping Thistle

Hawkbit, burnet saxifrage and knapweed predominate in this picture

And finally one I am not sure of so if anyone knows I would be delighted to hear from you! I believe it may be Red Bartsia but as it doesn’t quite fit the description I remain slightly in doubt.

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I love the month of August. There are wildflowers carpeting the Downs, the first berries in the hedgerows, nettle seeds for harvesting and a variety of herbs blooming in the garden. The roses are in their second flush, there are birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate, friends to visit and an exquisite sense of fullness and completion that hangs ripe and heavy in the air, just on the tipping point of receding into the altogether different beauty of autumn.

Here are some of my highlights.

Wild flowers carpet the Downs

The last of this years strawberries.

The subtle beauty of chicory

Monarda fistulosa

Harvest of Monardas

Skullcap harvest

Teasel

Blooming echinacea

Calendula

Californian poppies

Plantain in flower

The very hungry caterpillars – I think cabbage whites

Sweet peas to scent the house

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June Is For Roses

June is almost behind us now but I couldn’t let it disappear completely without paying homage to the rose – for June is all about elderflowers and roses!

As anyone who has been following this blog for a while knows, I (like many others) am a sucker for roses. There is so much you can do with them at this time of year, for the kitchen, the bathroom or the medicine cabinet, and all will bring that gentle honeyed sweetness into your life, uplifting the spirit and gladdening the heart. In this post I wanted to share some pictures of a few of the roses currently in bloom along with some ideas about how you might want to use them.

Old favourite Margaret Merril has the most perfect blooms and a deliciously delicate scent.

Alex’s Red has suffered a bit with blackspot this year but the blooms are beautifully formed with a gorgeous deep burgundy hue. I have heard that you can treat blackspot with a spray made of a 50/50 mixture of milk and water but I haven’t tried it yet to confirm.

Below is a new addition, Cariad, which I bought last year as a bare root almost purely for the name which means ‘love’ in Welsh. It actually looks quite different from the photo I saw but I like it anyway and it looks lovely with red campion and vervain planted infront.

Scepter’d Isle is an even softer, warmer pink which is very relaxing to look upon. She can go a bit brown in heavy rains but now the weather is a clearer she is in finest of forms.

Warm Welcome is a miniature climber that was bred by my uncle. Both he and my great grandfather were rose breeders so I guess some degree of obsession must be in the blood! Both have also written books on the subject. A tipi support of hazel twigs lends this rose a fairytale charm.

Jude the Obscure is one of the most beautifully fragranced of all the roses. At this time of year I can hardly walk down the garden path without stopping to bury my nose in the blooms whilst my husband attempts to hurry me along calling ‘go, go, we’re going to miss the train!’

Goldfinch is a lovely small rambler that I bought to grow over the unsightly oil tank situated by our garden gate. The flowers are a soft apricot hue that fades to cream as they age.

The rose is the plant that is perhaps most closely associated with the heart and this summer I noticed an interesting connection between the two. The petals of the rose open in a spiral looking not dissimilar to the heart muscle itself which recent research has proven is actually one muscular band that pumps and suctions blood by opening in a spiral. You can see a video of this here, be sure to watch right to the end when you see how the heart actually pumps, it is quite amazing to behold and something of a revolution in the study of anatomy. Comparing the two put me in mind of the the doctrine of signatures, the idea that something in a plants aspect gives us clues as to what it can be used for.


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Along with the Apothecaries Rose and the local wild roses, Gertrude Jekyll is the rose I use most for medicine making. I wrote this post last year about using it in tinctures but it also makes the most fantastic infused vinegars, honeys and elixirs. It has a particularly high yield of essential oil so it imparts a beautifully sweet rose flavour to whatever menstruum it is infused in.

To make a rose infused vinegar or honey, all you need do is lightly pack a jar with any highly scented, unsprayed rose petals and cover with your liquid of choice. As the petals are so delicate they give up their flavour easily. If you leave the petals in the honey it can be used almost immediately but if you prefer to strain it then let it infuse for a couple of weeks first. A week is enough time for the vinegar. Remember to cap your vinegars with a plastic rather than metal lid to avoid corrosion.

To make a rose elixir you follow the exact same process but fill the jar a third full of honey and two thirds of brandy or vodka to cover the petals. This is a nice mix of the deliciousness of a honey infusion with a stronger alcohol extraction which will result in a more potent medicinal effect. This can be strained after only a day or two as the volatile oils in the plant are easily extracted into the alcohol and the medicine will become more bitter and astringent as time progresses, something that may not be desirable if you want to maximise the flavour of the end product. Rose petals are also delicious in a salad and look beautiful with other edible flowers. Danielle at The Teacup Chronicles recently posted a recipe for a strawberry and rose petal salad which looked delectable.

At this time there are so many roses in bloom that I can’t resist picking a few for the kitchen windowsill. Gazing at them and smelling their sweet scent on the air helps to make doing the washing up a far more pleasurable task!

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Roses, chamomile and nigella.

Borage, valerian and rose.

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I just love this time of year when everything in the herb garden is overflowing; with colour, scent, the buzzing of insects and the joy of being, expressed in its fullest.

The intermittent sun and rain have ensured lush growth on everything. Several things have bolted like the lettuces, parsley and this 8 foot monster lovage.

Lovely lovage.

Parsley gone to seed.

However plenty of other things are just opening, the feverfew and vervain included. I adore vervain, Verbena officinalis, it is easy to see why it was considered a sacred herb by the Druids, it has such a magical quality to it.

Feverfew

Vervain

Many herbs are in full bloom and perfect for harvesting now like lavenders, thymes and white horehound.

Thyme

Lavender

White Horehound

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Lavender – Edelweiss

The garden is full of one of my favourite flowers, Nigella, or love-in-a-mist. This year I not only have the usual blue variety but some gorgeous pink ones, Mulberry rose, the seeds for which were sent to me so kindly by Cheryl last year.

One of the real highlights of summer is the vibrant colours, sun-filtered and glowing so that even in my tiny plot there is always something new to marvel at. Yellow loosestrife is a beautiful wildflower but one I grow in pots due to its over zealous nature!

Yellow loosestrife

Rosa ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’

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Even simple salad vegetables can be among the highlights of the garden.

Tree spinach

Red orach

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These lovely little sea thrifts were given to me by my father who grew them from seed.

What are the highlights of your garden right now?

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From floods and thick jumpers one day, to soaring temperatures and shorts the next, this year the transition from spring into summer has been a dramatic one.

Everything in the garden is on the brink of blooming and soon we will find ourselves in the dreamlike summer days of vanilla scented valerians and sweet smelling roses. I do love this time of year, so full of promise and anticipation, but before we immerse ourselves completely in those heady days of aromatic floral delights, I would like to say goodbye to Spring by paying homage to the simple, and often overlooked, leaf. For the leaf is the emblem of spring, fresh, green new growth that is both nourishing and cleansing after the winter months.

Burdocks and yellow docks are huge and healthy after all the rain and subsequent sun. The way the light plays through their leaves is so beautiful, illuminating veins and cell lines. In nature, structure and aesthetic are one seamless whole.

Is there anything more lovely than the soft-as-bunny-ears leaves of mullein? I could spent hours stroking them.

Silverweed carpets the paths and field edges with it’s feathery lightness. Such a pretty plant though generally trodden on and ignored. Cinquefoil with its characteristic five pointed leaves grows along the banks next to vetch and young horsetails.

The ash trees are finally in full leaf, they were so late this year. There is an old country saying, ‘Oak before ash, we’re in for a splash. Ash before oak we are in for a soak.’ Well maybe this year was the exception that proves the rule.

In the copse is this lovely early purple orchid with it’s distinctive spotted leaves.

And in the garden is Alchemilla, the alchemist’s plant, in all her dew dappled splendour, along with the wonderfully healthy and vigorous growth of motherwort and wormwood. Salad leaves are also growing up lush, juicy and flavourful and are gracing our plates each day.

What a joy to see the regular visitors enjoying the garden as much as I am. This female holly blue (distinguishable by the black tips to her wings) sunned herself on the ivy for several minutes before heading off to seek adventure elsewhere. Ladybirds are always welcome and what could be more joyful that the fat bottomed bumbles flitting from blossom to blossom?

Finally I couldn’t resist sharing a few early blooms. Wild Edric is now covered in flowers, bistort is cheering the garden with her pink candy tufts and chamomile and valerian have shot up and are just on the point of opening.

Wishing you all a wonderful turning of the season.

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It has been so wonderful to enjoy a few rays of sunshine this weekend after the continuous downpours of previous weeks. Whilst I deeply appreciate the rain, there is something so vital and enlivening about the sunshine at this time of year, plus our vey real need to top up our vitamin D stores after winter.

Finally, all the reasons why May is one of my favourite months were apparent; the garden, growing up so lush and vibrant and about to burst into bloom, the cowslips carpeting the Downs and, very best of all, the musky sweet scent of hawthorn blossom on the air.

As I set off harvesting yesterday I stopped down the garden path to admire these beautiful chive buds. Look closely and you will see the little beads of moisture on the inside. Exquisite no? Like the flowers are gently breathing their way open.

Valerian and roses are all set to flower too. I love the pattern formed by the valerian buds and the spiral of the rose sepals unfurling. This was a new rose for me last autumn, bought for half price from the garden centre. It is called Wild Edric and is supposed to be especially hardy for organic growers as well as beautifully fragrant. Well you know roses are my one weakness….

 

Already in flower and pretty as the day is long are the heartsease. To my mind this is one plant that certainly lives up to its name as it lifts my spirits and enlivens my heart every time I see it.

And gone to seed are the dandelion heads. Much as I love my dandys, I snip most off and just leave a few to populate the garden with their offspring. These downy globes of tiny seeded parachutes are both beautiful and very well adapted for survival.

Then out of the garden and onto the hills, where the wild things grow and the sea winds blow.

This sweet little flower is black meddick which enjoys coastal areas and lime rich soils.

Growing next to it was this chickweed, busting into tiny flower-stars and adorned with tufts of enthusiastic dandelion.

Red campion brings splashes of bright colour to the spring hued greens and yellows of the hedges.

 

And speedwell, one of my favourite of all wildflowers, grows rampant at the field edges.

The blossoms of wayfaring tree, Viburnum lantana, bridge the time gap between the flowerings of blackthorn and hawthorn,  continuing the thread of hedgerow beauty that passes to the elder as the hawthorn blossom begins to fade.

Wayfaring Tree

Buds of Elder

Cowslips are all over the escarpment, enabling me to harvest just enough for tea and a small quantity of infused oil. Remember cowslips are endangered in many parts, though they grow freely here, so cultivate them in your garden for a sustainable harvest unless you have a very prolific source nearby.

One of the things I love best about this time of year is the ability to pick herbs so freely for fresh teas. I am enjoying again my old favourite of lemon balm and rosemary from the garden and there is nothing like a tea of cowslip and hawthorn tops for relaxing in the evening and ensuring a good night’s rest.

My oils are left out in the day, infusing in the full sun, then bought into the warm at night. Like this they should be ready in only about three days. This would not be sufficient time for tougher plants but these fresh flowering tops will give up their constituents quickly in the bright warm sunlight and may risk rancidity or losing their vitality if left out too long.

I have bombarded you with enough pictures for one post but I’ll be sharing thoughts and images from the first hawthorn blossom harvest sometime next week.

What are your favourite things in May?

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I have lived the majority of my adult life in East Sussex and over the years have come to love the South Downs with their soft rolling beauty, their expansive views over fields and sea and their wide variety of wild flowers and grasses. As today is Earth Day I thought it would be a fitting time to pay tribute to a part of the Earth that I feel so connected to.

Our house nestles beneath the chalk hills of the South Downs on the clay of the Low Weald, with views stretching out to the sandy soils and remaining pockets of ancient woodland of the High Weald to the north. The variety of different soils and environmental conditions in this part of the world make for a fascinating array of plant and wildlife, all within a relatively small area, including heath, woodland, wetland, farmland, the coastal regions as well as the chalk downland itself.

The North and South Downs, with the Weald between them, lie across a good part of southern England, running east to west, forming a series of hills, ridges and valleys. Interestingly they were formed from one large upfold of the Earth’s surface which has eroded away at different rates due to the different rocks contained within it. This diagram (borrowed from the ever helpful Wikipedia) shows how the Downs have eroded away to form the furrowed landscape we know and love today. 

The dense clay soil of our garden changes to thin chalky grassland only a short walk up towards the Downs. As the soft clay was most easily eroded, these areas form the lowest points in the area and support different types of plants due to holding more water and nutrients. The old saying ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ comes from the distinction in areas like this between the thin, chalky soil of the Downs themselves, only suitable for rough grazing by sheep, and the dense clay which would support the lush pastureland suitable for cattle farming and therefore, cheese making.

As different as chalk and clay, or cheese.

The chalk of the Downs, laid down over some 20 million years, is made of a soft white limestone that is formed from the skeletons of long passed marine creatures, interspersed with bands of hard flint. It never ceases to amaze me how these hills that seem so solid and unchanging are made from the bodies of creatures that lived nearly a hundred million years ago. It is a daily reminder of inter-being and connectedness, how everything we see only is because something else was, how nothing and no one is alone or apart, how everything flows into one and we are all a part of each other. Above all it is a reminder that, in the scope of history, my own concerns are but small ones.

The escarpment that shelters our house is one of our favourite places to walk and we spend many hours gazing at its beauty, picking herbs and dreaming.

Walking up it you are rewarded for the steep climb with wonderful views of the surrounding area, mostly fields and small patches of woodland with reservoirs and waterways glinting in the distance.

You are sure to meet a curious sheep or some of the friendly resident wild ponies on route…

and at the top you are greeted by the sea, stretching away before you to the South.

Even though the soil on chalk downland is thin and dry, it is still one of the richest habitats in Western Europe. It is characterised by its springy grass, kept short by grazing animals, with patches of scrub mostly made up of hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse. Many wildflowers, including rare orchids, that do not do well in other conditions, thrive here on the lime rich soils. Poppies, cowslips, yarrow, scabious, round headed rampion, self heal, clover and bedstraw carpet the slopes at different times of year as well as a wonderful collection of native grasses. Many of these species are threatened which is why it is so important to conserve chalk grassland habitats. Much of the South Downs is now a national park and there are many conservation efforts underway which is heartening. My husband and I are both members of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, one of the 47 local Wildlife Trusts that cover much of the country. You can find out your local branch here.

These flowers attract a number of rare butterflies and insects too like the beautiful chalkhill blues.

The history of the Downs is rich and fascinating and archeological evidence shows they have been inhabited for thousands of years. Once upon a time they were covered in forest but it is thought the majority of trees were cleared as much as 3,000 years ago. Flint mines, hill forts like the one pictured below and numerous burial mounds have utilised and altered the landscape long before the Romans came.

Iron age hill fort

Though I have always found the Downs to be breathtakingly beautiful and a wonderful place to wander, it took time to feel really connected to them. Being first and foremost a lover of woods and glades, the high chalk hills with their incessant, pummelling winds felt somehow too intense and I would always seek out the most wooded areas to walk in.

Since moving to our current home however, I have come to see the very essence of Mother Earth in the sweeping lines and curves of the escarpment we view from our windows each day. Just like people, the land wears the forms of its history and narrative. It has been shaped by life and death, by rock and by salt sea winds, by wildlife and farmed animals and by the hands of many humans.

And it in turn has shaped our lives and our hearts in numerous ways, some of them too subtle to name.

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The thing I love most about this time of year is the tangible pulse of life running through everything. The plants are arising, unfurling, awakening, so much is happening and yet there is no effort involved, no one is managing it or controlling it, life is fulfilling its own purpose all around us.

So often I am forced to stop and acknowledge that all the lessons I need in life are there in nature, taught to me by my garden or the hedgerows, implicit in the rising sun or the waning moon. Life just is, and we are nothing but life.

Though there isn’t much in flower right now, there is still so much variety in shape, form and colour in my little garden, each bud unique, none more beautiful or better than the other.

Rosemary flowers opening

Lovage uprising

I love watching the first leaves of seedlings appearing and then seeing how they differentiate later on. The first leaves that appear are actually cotyledons, part of the embryo, so they look similar in all dicot plants. The next two leaves to appear will have characteristic features of the particular species. If you look at the borage seedling below you can see that the first two leaves are plain where as the later ones have the characteristic furry, furrowed look of a borage leaf.

Borage seedling - isn't it beautiful?

Each new leaf displays both beauty and function as the sun illuminates veins and cells. Unlike people, plants have no problems being completely themselves and displaying their vulnerability without attachments.

Raspberry leaf

I love to watch the new buds open on the forget-me-nots and lungwort (pulmonaria officinalis) and observe the freshness of the new seasons growth on the more subtly hued plants like lavender.

Lungwort

Lavender

And what is more perfect in nature than unfurling ferns? Each one follows such a distinct pattern yet no two are alike. Like nature, like us who are no different to nature, they stand on the knife edge between order and chaos.

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Spring is the perfect time for getting up close and personal with nature. Unlike later in the year when gardens and hedgerows are adorned with blossoms, bright flowers and expanses of green, in early spring you have to really look to spot all the small beginnings of beauty, all the tiny possibilities emerging from seemingly dried out twigs and all the unfurlings of potential and change.

First forget-me-not opening

It’s the perfect time for going exploring with a magnifying glass and gaining a more intimate view of all the wonders of spring. I have two that I recommend, the first is an average magnifier, bought from an art shop for about £1.50 and useful for getting an overview of leaves, buds and insects. The second is called a loupe and is used by jewellers for closely examining gem stones. You have to get really close when using a loupe but it’s great for examining little details of a plant like veins, hairs on stems or stamens.

Magnifying glass and loupe.

On a pleasantly warm spring day you can pass hours like this and the rewards are as innumerable as the marvels themselves. It’s a wonderful activity to involve children in and such an inspiring way of appreciating a whole new dimension of the natural world. You can start to connect with things as if a much smaller creature and your imagination is fed by this new way of looking. Each tiny hair on the gooseberry leaves becomes defined…

Gooseberry leaves unfolding

Each bud so vibrant and alive in its becoming. Someone else was also appreciating this one.

New buds on the fig

Each new leaf displays its uniqueness. Veins, ridges, hairs, colour variations all become dramatic parts of a landscape when viewed so intensely.

Bright spring growth of Wood Betony

Tiny seedlings become like little trees.

And there is enough to wonder at in a single bud to keep you busy all morning.

Downy buds on the blueberry

Looking closely at a leaf displays its many forms and colours. What first appears to be just red and green also has shades of yellows and purples, browns and blues.

Young rose leaf

Like the Frech soldier and writer Xavier de Maistre, who, in 1794, wrote the quirkily charming Voyage autour de ma chambre (Voyage around my bedroom) in which he explored the confines of his own room then wrote about it as if it were a great travel epic, we too can become strangers in a familiar land.

You can engage in this voyage even if you don’t have a garden of your own, as simply looking at a few houseplants or a window box can become a great adventure of discovery. Failing even that you can plot adventures through the un-explored territory of your fridge’s vegetable compartment. How marvellous is this cabbage? How worthy of wonder and gratitude.

When we start to look closer, appreciate the small and the overlooked, then we can never be bored, never uninspired and never ungrateful again.

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