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Archive for the ‘Spring’ Category

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.

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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 time of year is wonderful for enjoying an array of wild foods and medicines. In March we had the first harvests of the nettles, cleavers, chickweed and violet leaves, all of which are full of minerals and cleansing to our bodies after the stagnancy of winter. Though this year has seen an exceptionally cold, wet April following on the heels of an exceptionally warm March,  it is not uncommon for April to be a chilly and rainy month in this part of the world, associated as it is with showers and late frosts. So it is just at the right time that we have a lovely array of pungent herbs available to us for blasting away some of the damp and the chill.

A carpet of wild garlic

Sour is considered the flavour of spring in Traditional Chinese medicine even though many sour foods are fruits and berries that don’t arrive until the late summer and autumn. Many of our spring greens do have some sourness to them however, most obviously the sorrels which have a deliciously tart lemony flavour. The salty flavour is also common in springtime with many mineral rich herbs like nettle and cleavers being considered to have a salty taste.

Pungent herbs are those that taste aromatic, spicy or acrid. Many of our favourite culinary herbs are pungent like oregano, rosemary and sage and all the kitchen spices like ginger, coriander, cumin or cayenne. Pungent herbs help to stoke the digestive fires and are stimulating, warming, drying and dispersing. They produce sweating so can help to release a fever and improve the circulation. They dry and dispel mucus helping to relieve cold, damp conditions as well as relieve bloating, gas and nausea. Too much of the pungent taste however can damage sensitive mucus membranes and easily overheat people who are already of a hot constitution.

Jack-by-the-hedge (or garlic mustard)

There is an array of pungent herbs available to us in spring which will help to thin mucus and get our circulation moving as well as helping to dispel the stodginess of our winter bodies. These include ground ivy, garlic mustard and ramsons or wild garlic.

These herbs have their differences but what they all share is an affinity for warming the digestion, expelling mucus, aiding the lungs and cleansing the blood. Ground Ivy (which you can read more about in this post) is wonderful for stuck catarrh and congestion and can be used in tincture or tea for getting things moving. Garlic mustard and wild garlic make delicious and nutritious additions to salads. soups, stews and pestos and are lovely infused into apple cider vinegar then sprinkled liberally on foods.

Ground Ivy

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I have been adding a little pungent and a little sour to our nettle soups with a generous portion of chopped fresh garlic mustard and a few sorrel leaves to incorporate all those lovely spring flavours.

Just the thing for spicing up these grey old days!

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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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