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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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Beauty is a Doorway

DSC_0250 Whilst discussing the importance of encouraging nature appreciation with an inspiring friend recently, she said something that has stayed with me since. “Beauty is a doorway.” This struck a cord with me, having learnt the hard way that people will not value the natural world just because others attempt to tell them of its importance. They must find their own way in, their own doorway, and what lovelier doorway is there than beauty?

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Beauty is indeed a doorway to nature appreciation but also to presence, to stillness, to stopping for a moment in a busy day and feeling filled with awe for the living world.

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A doorway to connection, to sensing the resonance with other life forms inside our own being and realising, I am because this is.

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A doorway to healing. To relaxing the body and mind and opening the heart. To peace.

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The quest for beauty and harmony drives much of what we do and has led to increasing materialism as we seek to beautify ourselves, our homes, our wardrobes and our children with more and more things.

However beauty is not static and that is why nothing we buy can truly fill this need to see and appreciate beauty in the long term. It is by nature fleeting, changing, replaced by new and different forms of beauty. Even if the thing remains unchanged, the eye that beholds it will not.

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Spring is a time of great beauty but by its very nature it will not last for long.

Delve fully into its moment, the present moment and you will find beauty is also a doorway to the timeless awareness in which all things are beheld.

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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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Spring has arrived at last and with it some of the bright sunny days that we have felt so starved of recently. It seems like the garden has awoken almost overnight, with the herbs growing taller by the day, especially the angelica which I am starting to suspect is actually a magic beanstalk in disguise.

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Valerian

Rose

Rose

Angelica

Angelica

Oregano

Oregano

Catmint

Catmint

Wormwood

Wormwood

In the fields, woods and hedgerows everything is bursting into life. Down the lane from our house, the blackthorn has only just begun flowering, the latest I have ever known it. Blackthorn is famous for the fact that its blossom comes out before its leaves (which makes it easy to differentiate from hawthorn which has leaves before flowers). It was interesting to note that, being so late blooming this year, the leaves were coming out simultaneously in many places.

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Ash is another tree that flowers before it’s leaves come out. At this time of year its characteristic black buds start to open, become greener and burst into somewhat inconspicuous, yet beautiful, flowers.

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Newly opened bramble leaves have an almost autumnal hue, standing out in the sunlight against the verdant spring greens.

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Daffodils, dandelions, ground ivy and comfrey are all in flower in the banks and hedgerows.

Ground Ivy

Ground Ivy

Comfrey

Comfrey

New life has begun for us in other ways too. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will probably have noticed that my posts have been a little more intermittent of late and this is mostly due to our own new arrival, a bonny baby boy, born last month and filling much of my time and my thoughts. So if I am sometimes slow to respond to comments or a little sporadic with my posting I hope you will be patient with me. I will be back in a couple of days however to share some tips on teas for supporting breastfeeding.

Until then I hope you are all enjoying the seasons as they find you in your part of the world.

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Betwixt and Between

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There is still a part of me, trained by children’s nature books and the weight of expectation, that believes the seasons will progress in a fairly linear fashion, from winter to spring, onto summer and autumn.

I’m not sure why this would be, as every year seems to follow it’s own rhythm which has little to do with our imaginings of glorious sunshine in summer, sparkling snow in winter and the soft sun and showers of spring.

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Spring nettles and snow

This year has been no exception as we have lurched from snow and frozen winds to bright sun, and back again, within the space of a few short weeks. Somewhere between the chills of winter and the energising opening up of Spring we find ourselves out foraging one day and snuggled up by the fire the next.

Though the trees are mostly still bare-branched and winter sleepy, you can almost feel the sap rising when you place your hand or face to their rough bark. The lack of leaves at this time of year enables the light to fall undisturbed to the woodland floor and here begins the spring growth, working it’s way from the earth skywards as buds and new leaves begin slowly to appear.

No matter what the weather is doing, this time of year always feels so full of magic and potential, as somewhere betwixt and between the holding of winter and the full thrum of spring, we sway, waiting for new life to begin.

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Clematis – or Old Man’s Beard

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Sun drenched crocus

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When the gorse is in flower, kissing is in season.

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Young shoots of wild garlic made for a delicious pesto with hazelnuts and walnuts.

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Beautiful Eder, bursting into leaf.

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Nettle glow

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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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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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The May, Whitethorn, Quickthorn, all are country names for this most remarkable of trees that blooms so prolifically throughout much of the month. I believe I have written about hawthorn more than any other plant, yet every season and every year affords me fresh insights into her great worth.

The blossoming of the May is one of the highlights of my herbal year. Though many dislike the smell, which is deep, musky and often compared to rotting meat  (I don’t see the resemblance myself!) I find it nothing short of delightful – earthy, sensual and rich.  It ties me to a sense of time and place and fills the countryside with wonder for the few short weeks it is in flower.

If you live in this corner of the world, the South of England, now is the time to harvest hawthorn flowering tops for teas, tinctures, elixirs and anything else you fancy. It is usual to pick a little bunch of the blossom, either just before or just after opening, with the first few leaves attached, as both blossom and leaf have important medicinal constituents. The photo below shows the amount that I usually pick for drying or tincture making.

Do remember when harvesting not to over pick from a single tree and to just take a little from each one as the blossoms will become berries in the autumn which are an important source of food for the birds and other creatures, as well as being food and medicine for us. Hawthorns are pollinated by a variety of insects including solitary bees and, due to dwindling insect populations, there are said to have been declining numbers of berries in recent years. They are still abundant in most parts and we humans, without the benefit of flight, tend to pick from lower branches whilst the birds feast on higher ones but it’s always good to bear in mind how many other creatures rely on exactly the same species that are so beneficial for us.

Hawthorn flowers are often acknowledged for their benefit in treating heart conditions and are typically included in preparations alongside the berries for a range of cadiovascular and circulatory disorders ranging from angina to chilblains. This is in part due to their antioxidant content found in the form of phenolic compounds which are actually even higher in the leaves and blossoms than they are in the berries. We tend to think of antioxidants occurring mainly in highly coloured foods like berries but you can see that the colour of the tea made from the flowering tops is also rich and deeply hued after being left to infuse for fifteen minutes or so.

Though truly enjoyable when drunk as a simple, hawthorn blossom also combines with a variety of other herbs to make any number of delicious teas. Here are some of my favourites:

Spicy – Combine 2-3 flowering tops with a couple of slices of ginger and an inch of cinnamon stick to wake the circulation and protect the heart.

Floral – Hawthorn blossom is both deeply calming and nurturing when combined with rose petals and linden blossom in a beautifully heart opening brew.

Seasonally Sleepy – A few cowslips flowers along with hawthorn blossom make a great bedtime tea as mentioned in my last post.

Sensual – Hawthorn tops, rose petals and half a vanilla bean thinly sliced make for a sweet, earthy and fragrant tea.

Despite being placed firmly in the category of a ‘heart herb’ in Western herbal medicine, hawthorn has a multifaceted personality, just like so many of our herbal allies. I consider the blossoms in particular to be a primary nervine tonic as they are deeply relaxing and calming to states of anxiety and over stimulation. I like to use them alongside other nervine herbs, like avena, for people who are sensitive to everything; loud noises, strong colours, smells and sensations and need to be calmed and comforted. In 19th century France an infusion of the blossoms was used to treat insomnia and herbalist Maurice Messegue writes “I myself make use of the hawthorn for nervous spasms, arteriosclerosis, angina and obesity and it is one of my favourite tranquiliser herbs.” It therefore makes an exceptional choice in problems where the circulatory and nervous systems are both affected such as nervous palpitations, restlessness and arrhythmia.

The powerful combination of antioxidants makes hawthorn blossoms and berries good food for the immune system as well and modern research suggests they have an inhibitory effect on the breakdown of collagen, therefore aiding healing and having an all round rejuvenating effect. Hawthorn is a very safe medicine that is tolerated by almost everyone though it is of course wise to consult with a herbalist before taking it alongside medications. It has been traditionally eaten as food, the young leaves in spring salads and the berries in jams and preserves later in the year so it can be incorporated in our lives in any way that suits us best.

The blossoming of Hawthorn has long been associated with reawakening life; with spring, with fertility and with love and it leaves you with a kind of lightness of spirit that dusts away the very last of the wintery drear. These two holly blue butterflies flew along the hedgerow beside me for a time, flirting in and out of the branches and rejoicing in the return of the sunshine. And I rejoiced along with them, for the return of this most cherished of herbal medicines and dearest of friends.

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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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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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