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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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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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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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This spring the hills around my home have been literally carpeted with delightful and cheery cowslips. Usually I am very restrained in my cowslip harvest, gathering just a few flowers here and there for adding to tea blends, because this beautiful wild flower is not as abundant as once it was and needs protecting. If you had been out walking on this part of the South Downs recently however, you might be forgiven for thinking cowslips were as common as nettles.

Also known as Heaven’s Keys or Fairy Cup, Primula officinalis/ veris, is a wonderful soothing nervine herb with sedative and anti-spasmodic properties. The flowers contain flavonoids which are anti-inlammatory and for the best medicinal action should be collected without any of the green parts. I usually dry the whole head though as I am only really after a nice soothing addition to my teas.

Cowslip makes a lovely tea with chamomile for soothing anxiety and irritation and is ideal drunk before bed for it’s sedative and sleep enhancing properties. I wrote another post about the benefits of cowslip this time last year which you can read here.

The roots contain saponins which make them useful as a stimulating expectorant in coughs and bronchitis though care must be taken as large doses could cause vomiting. I have never worked with the roots before so would be interested to hear from anyone who has. I would caution against collecting cowslip roots from the wild however in order to preserve the plants as much as possible.

The main way I use cowslip  flowers personally is in tea blends. It combines nicely with chamomile, oatstraw and other relaxing herbs. We have been enjoying an infusion of cowslip, rose and lemon verbena before bed which is both delicious and relaxing.

I also really like cowslip infused in oil for cosmetic use. This one was infused on a sunny windowsill for 10 days, plenty of time for delicate flowers like these. I strained it this evening and will be whipping it up into a batch of face cream along with cowslip infusion later in the week.

I mentioned in my post last year that Culpepper wrote of cowslips affiliation for the complexion saying ‘Our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds to beauty or at least restores it when lost.’ Mrs Grieve also shares this wonderful quote by Turner in her Modern Herbal, ‘Some weomen we find, sprinkle ye floures of cowslip wt whyte wine and after still it and wash their faces wt that water to drive wrinkles away and to make them fayre in the eyes of the worlde rather than in the eyes of God, Whom they are not afrayd to offend.’

Cowslip wine is a country favourite which Maria Treben recommends for strengthening the heart and nervous system. This lovely image of making cowslip wine is from Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes by Beatrix Potter and is available here.

In my recent post on spring flowers I quoted Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and this time I shall leave you with these lovely lines from A Midsummer Night’ Dream, the words of a young fairy in conversation with that mischievous rogue Puck.

And I serve the Fairy Queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their coats spots you’ll see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours.
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

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In spite, or perhaps because of, it’s ubiquity at this time of year, Ground Ivy is a herb that has fallen out of fashion in these modern times when the more exotic a herb is, the greater its value is esteemed to be. Many of the older herbals speak highly of it however and it certainly earned its place in folk medicine for the treatment of a variety of ailments. Glechoma hederacea, as is its official title, was also known as ale-hoof due to its uses in brewing ale, or gill-go-by-the-ground, from the French, guiller, to ferment.

Gerard, writing in the late sixteenth century, described it thus, “Ground Ivy is a low or base herb; it creeps and spreads along the ground hither and thither, all about, with many stalks of uncertain length, slender, and like those of the Vine, something cornered and something reddish.” He classed it as hot and dry and recommended its use primarily for tinnitus, eye problems and as a cleansing agent. He gives us this lovely description of a remedy for the eyes, “Ground Ivy, Celandine and Daisies, of each a like quantity, stamped and strained, and a little sugar and Rose water put thereto, and dropped with a feather into the eyes, takes away all manner of inflammation, spots, webs, itch, smarting, or any grief whatsoever in the eyes.”

Here in the South Downs, as in much of the UK, it certainly grows ‘hither and thither’ and is looking beautiful at this time of year with its classic mint family hooded flowers adorning every roadside and path. April/ May is the best time to harvest the areal parts whilst it is in full flower and highly aromatic. The taste is very pungent, hence why it is generally considered heating and drying, though other herbalists have called it cooling, primarily due to its bitter and cleansing properties. Hilda Leyel informs us that it was once so popular and so widely on offer as a blood tonic “that it was one of the London street cries.” She also recommends it for tinnitus as well as for coughs and colds.

Hildegard von Bingen believed that it removed bad humours from the head which closely relates to its most common use today. Colds, catarrh, sinusitis and bronchial congestion are all conditions currently still treated with Ground Ivy. It is a mild expectorant with anti-catarrhal and anti-inflammatory qualities making it useful in some cases of hay fever. It contains many of the constituents common in other Lamiaceae, or mint family, plants such volatile oils and triterpenes which are thought to be anti-inflammatory. Its astringent and anti-inflammatory properties might also help to explain why it was found to be useful for eye problems and its anti-catarrahal nature could explain why it helped certain cases of tinnitus, probably those where congestion was a factor.

Ground Ivy also has a good reputation as a valuable tonic for the kidneys and bladder. Bartram says it is supportive to primary treatment in kidney disease and has been used with success for cancer of the bladder, though he gives no more information than this. It certainly has diuretic properties and has been used in the past to treat cystitis. Mrs Grieves writes, “As a medicine useful in pulmonary complaints, where a tonic for the kidneys is required, it would appear to possess peculiar suitability, and is well adapted to all kidney complaints.” This is particularly interesting as in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Iridology there can be an important link between these organs. In TCM the Lungs are said to direct Qi  from the breath down to the Kidneys which then hold the Qi.  If the Kidneys are compromised and unable to fulfil this function properly it will result in chest congestion and trouble breathing.  Ground Ivy therefore sounds like an ideal herb in such a case.

Finally, many herbalists have recommended its use as an astringent and anti-inflammatory for the G.I. tract where it tones and soothes in cases of gastritis, haemorrhoids, IBS and diarrhoea.

A tincture can easily be made via the folk method which involves filling a jar with freshly picked and chopped plants- leaves and flowers- then covering in vodka and leaving to steep for a fortnight before straining out the plant material.

References:
John Gerard – Gerard’s Herbal
Mrs C.F. Leyel – Herbal Delights
Mrs Grieve – A Modern Herbal
Thomas Bartram – Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
Gabrielle Hatfeild – Hatfield’s Herbal
Tobyn, Denham and Whitelegg – The Western Herbal Tradition

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This post is my offering for the April Blog Party, hosted by Leslie at Comfrey Cottages on the topic of Spring Foraging, Wildcrafting and Gardening. Check her blog on the 20th to see the links to the other posts.

Invasive they may be, but many of the plants that take over the hedgerows and waste ground, not to mention our gardens, at this time of year are also exceptionally useful, full of health giving properties and, in some cases, also delicious.

At the moment I’m particularly enjoying liberally lacing my salads with the lovely Jack-By-The-Hedge, Alliaria petiolata, also known as garlic mustard because of it’s distinctive taste of, yes you guessed it, garlic and mustard.

According to ‘wildman’ Steve Brill, “This despised invasive plant is actually one of the best and most nutritious common wild foods.”

Mrs Grieve writes “The leaves used to be taken internally as a sudorific and deobstruent, and externally were applied antiseptically in gangrenes and ulcers. The juice of the leaves taken alone or boiled into a syrup with honey is found serviceable in dropsy. Country people at one time used the plant in sauces, with bread and butter, salted meat and with lettuce in salads, hence it acquired also the name of Sauce Alone. The herb, when eaten as a salad, warms the stomach and strengthens the digestive faculties.”

Most pungent herbs have an affinity for the digestive system as they are heating, thus stoking the digestive fires and promoting flow of digestive juices. They also help to thin mucus which is important in many spring ailments such as hay fever and sinus congestion.

The photos above were taken a week ago but now all the plants except those in deepest shade have begun to bloom. The flowers are also edible and look lovely sprinkled on salads, soups or other dishes.

Apart from sliced finely in salads and grain dishes like quinoa or millet, I have used garlic mustard to make an infused vinegar and as part of my Spring tonic formula, see below. Steve Brill also uses the root which he says has a horseradish flavour, though this is something I have yet to try.

Garlic Mustard infused vinegar and Spring tonic.

The idea for this Spring tonic came from my friend Therri who is full of inventive herbal inspirations. She makes hers from nettles, ramsons and ground ivy, all found growing together and then tinctured together to make a base formulas for people suffering from spring allergies and the like.

Just by my house is a little copse where cleavers, nettles, ground ivy and garlic mustard all grow up together so I decided these four would make the base for my own Spring tonic blend. I don’t usually tincture things together, preferring to do them separately then blend where appropriate. In this case however part of the magic is in the togetherness, using a community of spring plants that grow close by where you live or practice will be particuarly beneficial for people of that area.

A community of Spring tonics; nettles, cleavers, ground ivy and garlic mustard.

Another plant that I have been eating this spring is ground elder, though possibly with something more akin to grim determination than actual enjoyment. I must confess I don’t find it as delicious as some of the other wild greens around at this time of year but, in small quantities, it can be quite palatable, especially blended in soups. It’s also good as a cooked green and theres a nice recipe on Eat Weeds for stir fried ground elder and tempeh which you can read here. I also came across a ground elder and vanilla muffin recipe here, will wonders never cease?!

The reason I am persevering with this particular wild edible is simple, my garden is riddled with it.

When my Dad, a gardener by trade, came to visit soon after we moved in last year, he took one look at it and proclaimed, “you’re going to have to use Round-up on that.” “No!” I cried, “surely I can manage it organically.” He laughed.

So you see, at stake here is not only the organic status of my garden but also my pride.

Ground elder was originally introduced to the UK by the Romans, and much like its benefactors, it proceeded to take over and has proved even harder to be rid of. They used it as a salad crop and it was said to help gout and arthritis too. Though I have been assured that its not really strong enough to be of much use medicinally, I can imagine that regular eating of the plant would work as a preventative, only because it’s pungent taste is not dissimilar to a strong parsley or celery seed, both of which have been used to treat similar conditions. Perhaps I will try a little bit of tincture just to experiment and I am sure it would make a nice infused vinegar.

It seems to me that there are very few invasive weeds that do not have some use or other, many in fact being the most useful plants we have. And you know what they say… if you can beat ‘em, eat ‘em.

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Lesser Celandine or pilewort, as it more commonly known, grows freely in woodlands and other moist, shaded places and brightens the way whenever you pass it by. It’s Latin name, Ranunculus ficaria, refers to the resemblance of its tubers to figs and an old common name for it was figwort (not to be confused with the plant more commonly  known as Figwort, Scrophularia nodosa). Piles, or haemorrhoids, for which the plants got its modern common name, also used to be known as figs, so this usage for our pretty spring friend is nothing new.

In Mrs Grieve’s classic, A Modern Herbal, she tells us, “Wordsworth, whose favourite flower this was (in recognition of which the blossoms are carved on his tomb), fancifully suggests that the painter who first tried to picture the rising sun, must have taken the idea of the spreading pointed rays from the Celandine’s ‘glittering countenance.’ “

It is true that this little flower arrives early in the spring, appearing almost like a symbol of hope for the warmer days to come.

Used mainly to treat non-bleeding haemorrhoids and a sore or itchy anal area, it is oft quoted that  the main indication for this plant came about from the doctrine of signatures as its bulbous tubers are not dissimilar to the appearance of piles. Many years of use however, as well as a modern understanding of its constituents, back up this traditional insight. Pilewort contains tannins and saponins and is both astringent and demulcent, so toning and soothing to inflamed or irritated membranes.

In the past an infusion of pilewort was commonly taken internally as well the the ointment applied topically but these days it is mostly the ointment that is favoured.

Bartram recommends making an ointment by macerating one part whole fresh plant whilst in bloom to three parts of benzoinated lard. I stuck to making an infused vegetable oil via the heat method.

After harvesting the whole plant – roots, leaves and flowers – I washed them thoroughly to get rid of the tenacious clay soil that stuck between each nodule and then spread them out to dry off in the dehydrator for a couple of hours. If you don’t have a dehydrator then just blot them dry as best you can and leave to wilt slightly overnight. This reduces the water content of your herb and helps prevent rancidity. I then infused the herbs in sunflower oil in a bain marie for several hours on a low heat. You can read my detailed instructions on how to make an infused oil here.

Many people combine the infused oil with horse chestnut oil or tincture to make a nice astringent ointment but, as I have none at present, I came up with this alternative.

Fig Ointment:

40ml pilewort infused oil
20ml plantain infused oil (just use extra pilewort if you have no plantain oil).
20 ml calendula infused oil
10g beeswax
5ml self heal tincture
5ml witch hazel
10 drops lavender essential oil
10 drops geranium essential oil

Melt the beeswax in a bain marie and add the infused oils, stirring until fully mixed. Add in the tinctures and witch hazel and whisk or blend with a hand blender until fully incorporated. Stir in essential oils and leave to set.

Apply liberally several times a day to affected area.

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