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Archive for the ‘Summer’ Category

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Midsummer is upon us and with it that wonderful sense of aliveness that comes with the long days and warm evenings suffused with golden light. After our cold, wet spring everything seems particularly lush as nature rushes to catch up.

Speaking of catching up, I am somewhat behind myself and the post on herbs for breastfeeding that I promised is still half written and awaiting my attention, though I promise to finish it soon!

The little one and I have been enjoying walks to the woodland where his still maturing sight is captivated by the interplay of light and shadow in the sun dappled glades and my own gaze is also delighted by the sun through beech leaves and bracken. I love how it looks so different through the long silvery fingers of willow and the broad green hands of sycamore, the young freshness of hawthorn and the dark majesty of yew.

Whether it be summer, winter or season-less where you are. I wish you many blessings on this solstice.

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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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Lammas, or it’s Gaelic equivalent Lughnasadh, is celebrated today in honour of the first harvest, the wheat harvest. Lammas is derived from the Anglo Saxon for ‘loaf-mass’ but was also known as the ‘festival of first fruits’ as the first berries are now starting to ripen in the hedgerows.

This is a time to be grateful for all the beauty of the natural world; for the harvest of herbs and foods, for the wildflowers and the insects that pollinate them, for our communities of friends and family and for the waters that feed the land and its creatures.

So often the nature of the human mind is to look for what is wrong and find ways to fix it. The coming months are a time to reap what we have sown and dwell in the simple gratitude of what we have, not looking for ways to change it or to make it better but just to be honest- as for most of us there is always more to be thankful for than there is to fix.

As Lammas draws to a close I am reminded of the closing words of the Desiderata:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

 

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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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Last week I had the pleasure of harvesting meadowsweet on one of the few sunny days so far this summer so I thought it would be an opportune moment to share some information and thoughts on this most useful of herbs.

Common name: Meadowsweet. Also Queen of the Meadow, Brideswort, Meadwort.
Latin: Filipendula ulmaria.
Family: Rosaceae – Rose family.
Botanical features: A perennial herb that enjoys damp conditions and grows abundantly throughout most of the UK in meadows, ditches, road or stream-sides. It has reddish brown stems growing up to 1.5 metres high and deep green pinnate leaves that are paler on the underside. It bears creamy puffs of tiny, fragrant flowers that bloom between May and August, though I personally have never seen them before mid June.
Key Constituents: Volatile oils, methylsalicylate, tannins, mucilage, flavonoids, phenolic glycosides.
Actions: Anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antacid, stomachic, astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, carminative, anti-emetic.
Energetics: Cooling and drying.

The name meadowsweet  is said to come, not from the fact that it grows in meadows as one would expect, but from its early use to flavour mead, evolving from Middle English Medewurte, as it appears in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. 

This is a herb that has had its place through all the ages of European history. Evidence of meadowsweet has been found in several Bronze Age burial sites suggesting the value placed on it even many centuries BCE. The Druids are said to have considered it one of their most sacred herbs for use in ritual and medicine and it was a favourite of medieval herbalists too, being regularly used by folk healers and monastic communities alike. It was prized at this time as a strewing herb, one that was used to cover floors in medieval homes and churches to disguise unpleasant smells, reduce fleas and lice and help counter infections.

In Irish mythology, Cú Chulainn, the warlike hero of the Ulster Cycle, is said to have used meadowsweet baths to calm his rages and fevers and in Wales, the beauteous but adulterous Blodeuwedd, was made by two magicians from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet.

It is perhaps most famous for its role in the development of aspirin however, a drug named after its previous Latin name, Spiraea ulmaria. In the mid nineteenth century salicylic acid was isolated from meadowsweet which lead to the later creation of aspirin.

Within the herbal world meadowsweet is very much considered a specific for the digestive system but it had many other uses in traditional medicine that have now mostly fallen by the wayside. Just like Cú Chulainn, people commonly used it as a treatment for fevers where it works through a gentle diaphoresis as well through the effects of salicylic acid in reducing inflammation and heat. It was used to treat hot conditions in other ways too; cooling sunburn, as a wash for inflamed eyes, as a compress for swollen, arthritic joints, to give relief from headaches and for calming an irritated cough. It is interesting that even before the discovery of salicylic acid many people used meadowsweet for conditions that they may take aspirin for today.

The smell is very distinctive and I have heard it compared to everything from deep heat to marzipan to pickled cucumber! To me it smells sweetly fragrant with an edge of the disinfectant TCP that I remember from childhood. Interestingly I recently found out that TCP contains salicylates so perhaps there is method in my madness after all!

In fact, meadowsweet is sometimes referred to as ‘herbal aspirin,’ a name which I find both inaccurate and vaguely insulting to this multi-talented meadow queen! It is noted, at least in the herbal community, that meadowsweet is a fine example of how nature so often buffers chemicals that can do damage with others that soothe and heal. So where as aspirin can increase the chances of indigestion, GI bleeds and ulcers, meadowsweet can be used to heal these exact same conditions.

Despite its cooling and drying nature, meadowsweet can be considered a normaliser for the digestion in the majority of people as it can help to balance both high and low stomach acid. This is interesting as it is increasingly acknowledged that symptoms of heartburn and indigestion can be caused by both hyper and hypo acidity in the stomach. As an astringent it helps to tone the stomach and the mucus membranes and it also increases their rate of cell renewal allowing irritated areas to heal quicker.

Due to its volatile oil content it has a carminative action and it also has some bitterness which can help stimulate digestion, increase bile flow and therefore relieve congestion in the liver. The astringency is balanced somewhat by this ability to stimulate and move so that it can still be effective for those with under active digestions. One herbal friend of mine uses it for everyone with gut problems and just moderates the actions with other herbs specific for the individual.

This effect on the mucus membranes can also be seen in the urinary system where it has been employed to treat cystitis through it’s healing, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It is also considered mildly immunomodulating and a useful diuretic.

You can use it as a tea, preferably taken hot for fevers to help stimulate the diaphoretic action and slightly cooler for digestive discomforts. It is gentle enough for use with children in whom it has been found effective in treating diarrhoea. Tincture is the way I most commonly use it and it is particularly nice made from fresh flowers in 25% alcohol.

A compress made from a flannel soaked in hot meadowsweet tea is an old fashioned remedy for arthritis and gout.

The general wisdom is to avoid this herb with people who are sensitive to salicylates or if they are taking warfarin as there is the potential of an additive effect.

“How lovely she is, queen of the springs and of the running brooks, standing there in the damp shady places with her big clouds of flowers; little white flowers that make up big feathery tufts and give off a strong sweet perfume.”

Maurice Messegue

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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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It’s been a while since I posted about the beautiful Hawthorns that I have been observing as part of the Tree of the Year project. They sit atop the Downs, relentlessly battered by wind and rain, and as a result they differ from many of the other Hawthorns in this area. With everything being early this year, most of the trees already had bright red berries at the beginning of August, not quite ready for harvest, but not far off. On these trees however, the berries were still small and green, reflecting how the harshness of their environment affects their development.

Nearly a month on they are reddening up nicely and the trees from a distance have that exquisite blush which tells you autumn is around the corner.

There is no doubt that the constant high winds we have had all summer have taken their toll. The trees look less healthy than this time last year with many of the leaves browning and some branches swept almost bare. Like people whose lives have been filled with hardship, they are weathered and worn.

It’s interesting to observe how bare of berries the side of the trees that faces the wind is compared to the relatively more sheltered branches.

I feel these trees teach me a lot about resilience, tenacity and strength and about adaptability in the face of hardship. They speak of the beauty of form and motion and of holding fast to this living edge of surrender. Perhaps most importantly they show that, in spite of difficulties, it is still possible to give generously.

Elsewhere on the Downs other Hawthorns tell their stories, each as unique as snowflakes.

I loved this one, entangled with the wild rose like lovers.

And everywhere the berries are fat and red and perfect. I’ll be out next week to get the first harvest in. Who wants pills when your medicine can look like this?

The Downs themselves are carpeted with wild flowers at present.

The yellows and whites of bedstraw, yarrow, burnet saxifrage and cat’s-ears mix with the mauves and purples of two of my favourite wild flowers;

Small Scabious

and Round-headed Rampion.

Whilst lone stalks of agrimony wave in the breeze.

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This post is part of the July Blog Party hosted by Danielle over at The Teacup Chronicles. Check her blog tomorrow for links to the other entries.

The idea for this blog party was ‘cooling drinks for the dog days of summer’ so it may come as a surprise to some that I have chosen to write about herbal teas (well, I am English after all). I drink teas come rain or shine and there are many lovely cooling herbs that make fine summer teas. Now I know the UK isn’t famous for its scorching weather but folk from hotter climates also enjoy teas on even the warmest days of summer. In India I drank chai, in Morocco it was fresh mint tea and in Mexico we used to have a lovely cinnamon infusion. Some of these drinks, as well as being taken hot, also contain warming spices which we associate more with winter drinks but these can actually open up the pores enabling you to cool down more effectively. Such is the magic of herbs.

To make the perfect cup of tea it’s ideal to use filtered water as the taste will be purer. Warm the pot with a little hot water first, discard then add about a tablespoon per pint of your chosen herbal mix. Pour over hot water that has just boiled but ceased to bubble and leave to infuse for 10/15 mins to extract as much benefit from the herbs as possible. If you need a sweetener then add a little honey after pouring when the tea will have cooled enough to avoid destroying its beneficial qualities. Ayurvedic medicine warns strongly against heating honey. Sip slowly and with gratitude for the multitude of wonderful herbs available to us.

Some of my favourite summer herbs include:

Chamomile - Soothing to the digestion and the nerves, chamomile is a lovely after dinner summer tea and helps calm overheated, irritable children (and adults).

Rose - Cooling, toning, calming and full of love, rose is lovely mixed with gently moistening herbs like Lime blossom and mallow or cooling diaphorectics like elderflower for a harmonising summer treat.

Sweet Woodruff – Cooling, mildly cleansing, good for the digestion and relaxing, this herb is a lovely addition to many summer tea blends with its mild and pleasant taste.

Sweet Woodruff

Elderflower - Cooling, diaphoretic and soothing to the upper respiratory tract, elderflower also has a light and pleasant flavour which is ideal for summer teas.

Hawthorn Blossom - Calms the nerves and opens the heart, if you like the taste, which I do, then this one is a winner.

Lemon Verbena - One of my favourite herbal teas, alone or in combination, not only for the delightful, refreshing taste but for its ability to calm digestion, fevers and nervous tension or anxiety.

Lemon Verbena

Borage - Demulcent, cooling and anti-inflammatory as well as strengthening to the adrenal glands, borage makes a nice addition to blends of summer teas as it doesn’t have much of a flavour by itself.

Lemon Balm - The perfect summer cup of tea! Delicious by itself or with other herbs like rose, other mints and lavender, it uplifts the spirit and cools the body and mind.

Mints - Spearmint, garden mint, peppermint, apple mint, ginger mint, chocolate mint… the choice of mints is endless! My favourites for tea are Moroccan mint and spearmint but I use various others too. What could be more refreshing than a cup of fresh mint tea? It’s also delicious as iced tea, chilled in the fridge with a little ice added before drinking.

Spearmint

Fennel - A great digestive tea, fennel has many uses, from boosting milk flow in nursing mothers to respiratory congestion and lifting low libido. It’s a tasty addition to tea blends and works well with other digestive herbs like chamomile.

Calamint - Sweet, aromatic and warmer in nature than some of the other mints, Calamint is also a good diaphoretic, digestive and expectorant herb.

Marshmallow - One of the best herbal demulcents, Marshmallow is lovely to include in blends for people who get dry in the summer.

Marshmallow

Lime/ Linden Blossom – Calming, cooling and moistening, this is a delicious tea for those who are stressed out and over worked or are having trouble getting off to sleep.

Calendula - Healing, anti-inflammatory and useful to the immune system, Calendula petals add a splash of colour and many benefits to any tea formula.

Lavender - Another great nerve soother and digestive herb, Lavender can help headaches from the heat and is lovely taken just before bed to help ensure a relaxing night’s sleep.

Lavender

Some summer tea combinations I particularly enjoy include:

* Lemon Verbena, Sweet Woodruff and Spearmint.

* Fennel, Calamint and Lemon Balm.

* Elderflower, Rose and Borage.

* Linden, Chamomile and Hawthorn Blossom.

* Apple mint, Monarda and Calendula petals.

And to finish, for those who know the old ditty…

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning,
I like a nice cup of tea with my tea,
And when it’s time for bed,
There’s a lot to be said,
For a nice cup of tea!

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