December

Things have been pretty quiet on the herb front since the Sanctuary Festival in September. I have a load of material from tasks Sarah set for the couple of months I spent in Germany and Italy in June-August, and one of these days I still fully intend to stop procrastinating and put my report up here. In the meantime I’ve been sent an invitation to take stock of all the things I’ve learned from my apprenticeship which started about this time last year.

Firstly I’m to go back over the list of 20-or-so herbs I chose to focus on at the beginning, considering these questions:

Did I plant this herb? If yes, what happened – do you have photos, did you make notes or drawing? What did you discover about this herb? Do you feel you know enough now or what else do you need to find out?

Did I wildcraft this herb? If so, where from, when, what did you do with what you gathered? Will you return to this colony in the future?

So, working from my list (see homepage) we have:

  1. Sage – didn’t plant or wildcraft it, but worked with an established specimen at the back of our garden. Discoveries: ”Why should a man die who has sage in his garden?’ (link) – ie: all kinds of applications I’ve not begun to scratch the surface of. I’ve started to use it a lot in cooking though, and the tea/vinegar works powerfully against colds, sniffles, flu etc.
  2. Rosemary – again, just used the one growing in the garden. Using it fresh & dried in cooking, for a lovely resinous tea and in combination with lavender & thyme for the bath. Also it provides my only shampoo. Would like to do some more with it though…
  3. Yarrow, my herbal ally – I planted this in the garden the summer before my apprenticeship began. It rehabilitated the soil where we had recently uprooted a small ornamental conifer. I harvested the leaves to put in salads, soups, omelettes, teas etc, and on a couple of occasions I used it to stem the bleeding of small cuts and to ease allergic reactions or excessive sneezing. My family always considered it a ‘weed’, and I helped it to survive various attempts on its life while it was getting established. Sadly, during its second summer there was a decision to get rid of it once-and-for-all while I was out of the country. The individual plants were sending up stalks well over a metre tall around a small pink-flowered shrub that had been planted there. It looked miserable when I got back, sat in its tiny patch of bare earth with half of its leaves gone prematurely brown. Discovery: Yarrow makes an excellent companion plant, improving the resilience & potency of other plants around it. I’ve since spied little rosettes sprouting back up in the patch and even through an adjacent piece of concrete. Discovery: Yarrow colonises bare or damaged soil like nobodies business, spreading by root and seed. Lesson: Life can be precarious if others consider you a nuisance plant of lesser value, but this can reinforce a strong tenacity that nourishes and protects life at the most basic level. I gathered flowers from various plants found growing wild in fields, parks (spared by the mowers) and along paths, tincturing them in vodka and drying some for tea. These came in handy when I felt a cold coming on (especially in conjunction with Elderflower) or when I was having boundary issues with other people or oppressive places & situations. More to learn, but the loss of my plants has dampened the will somewhat.
  4. Horsetail – spied it growing wild in several places but didn’t get round to using it for anything. Potentially interested in harvesting the roots for edible use at some point, but not hugely enthusiastic.
  5. Elder – tried planting twig cuttings in a few places, but none took hold. Made syrup and ‘fizz’ with the flowers and combination syrups and jams with the berries, mostly gathered from a few choice specimens in the middle of a field a couple of miles away from home. H made an elixir with brandy, honey and spices the previous year which makes a tasty hot drink useful for fighting colds/flu when mixed with boiling water. Used crushed leaves as an insect repellent on a few occasions, though hard to say if successful. Made an infused oil for treatment of bruises from the inner bark, but haven’t had a bruise large enough to test it on! Always more to learn about Elder…
  6. Hawthorn – gathered flowers, leaves and berries each in their season. Used the first two for tea (supposedly a good traditional heart tonic); the latter in jams and chutneys. Also used the berries to adorn a protective charm – a rowan wood cross to defend against evil spirits, courtesy of Charlie at the herb festival. Would like to tincture them in alcohol at some point…
  7. Lesser Celendine – nibbled on a few leaves and root nodules which are supposedly edible, but not much interest for this one. Might come back to it if I ever get piles!
  8. Meadowsweet – unfortunately didn’t find the time to go harvest from the few colonies I know in the area (in boggy areas and by the river) while they were flowering this year. Used last year’s batch a couple of times in teas. Marginally effective in treating headaches. Invariably threw up when I tried to use this as a hangover cure, and didn’t feel much better after so I don’t think it really works for that. Would like to make a harvest of leaves and flowers next year. Possibly to make an Elder-style syrup or champagne.
  9. Nettle – ate stacks of them in soups, omelettes, fry-ups etc. during the spring but never dried them for use later in the year as I had planned. Made an ‘iron tonic’ with red wine, apricots and orange-peel which filled me full of beans over the next couple of months (would like to do this again). Tried ‘urtication’ – swiping a nettle on the affected bodypart – on myself and a few trusting others on a couple of occasions for sprains, sore muscles and rheumatism (recommended for another). Would like to make up my shortcomings on this wonderplant next year.
  10. Deadnettles – just ate the leaves and flowers from Reds and Whites in spring salads. Reasonably tasty, but not so interested in doing much more with them.
  11. Selfheal – never got confident enough on the ID to do anything with the masses of what I think is Selfheal growing over in the Italian mountains. Would like somebody else to point this one out to me and tell me what to do with it :)
  12. Comfrey – identified a few specimens growing wild by their flowers in the summer. Harvested some leaves for use in tea. It goes well with Hawthorn. First time I tried it I felt really warm, centered and satisfied for the whole night and some of the following morning, like it had provided me with something I didn’t even know was missing. Chased that experience for a while, but it didn’t ever reach that same height. Would like to try propagating it by the root, possibly to compete with the Green Alkanet populating the neighbour’s garden and provide a green manure or compost feeder.
  13. Burdock – never did get round to drying the leaves for tea or vinegar this year. Went out hunting for the root the other day but couldn’t find any remains of first-year plants near the big stalks. I still plan to find some by hook or by crook, because I feel like I need its earthy rootiness and (especially after the Christmas binges) its curative, liver-supporting properties.
  14. Great Mullein – found some growing on waste ground in Italy (pictured in one of my header images) but didn’t take a harvest of either leaves or flowers. Would like to find some growing closer to home and perhaps make an oil in the coming year.
  15. Ground Elder – ate quite a lot of this in soups and salads, especially because there was a lot of it growing within about 1 minute’s walk from the front door, but also because I developed quite a fondness for the salty/spicy taste of the leaf. Participated in a mass cull from the neighbour’s flowerbed which they had more or less taken over. I wanted to starve them out with carpet, plastic or cardboard, but my fellow gardener insisted on getting the chemical spray out… No more tasty salads from there, then!
  16. Wild Carrot – had a hard time tracking these down in England, but eventually noticed that they like roadside verges, especially by motorways and busy A-roads for some reason. Picked some seeds while out hitching in the Autumn and have since planted and moved the seedlings to the veg patch next door. Hopefully they’ll survive this mild winter. I would like to make a tincture with the flowers at some point.
  17. Sweet Violet – found a few spots where this grows wild in profusion. Made a syrup which didn’t keep long enough for me to get a cough and see if it worked. Tasty though. Would like to use it for other things, but have an imagination failure so may need to be told what to do ;)
  18. Ground Ivy – started noticing this carpeting the ground in all kinds of (mostly shaded) areas. Dried some for tea, but don’t know what else I would use it for.
  19. Common Vetch – the bean-flavoured leaves and flowers went into a few salads but otherwise I didn’t really feel inspired by the vetches this year.
  20. Hemp Agrimony – failed to take a harvest of the flowers from the many fine specimens growing in Italy (although they weren’t quite in full bloom by the time I left). Would still like to do something with the plant if anyone’s got any ideas… ?
  21. Mugwort – came back to find a huge Mugwort plant growing where I thought I had planted a Skullcap from the Sanctuary. Unfortunately I never got round to harvesting leaves or flowers from it or from any wild specimens, which is a shame as I developed quite a rapport with some Italian plants over the summer, spreading the word about its lucid dream-inducing properties and even smoking some of the dried leaves, which was quite a pleasant experience. I would like to try and incorporate Mugwort into cooking more often and maybe try introducing its flavour into various preserves as a kind of spice.
  22. Tansy – found some growing wild in Italy, but didn’t dry them well enough to survive the journey home. Succeeded in growing a plant in the neighbour’s garden from a rootball provided by Sarah. As with Mugwort, though, I didn’t get to the flowers quick enough to do anything with them. Maybe next year, assuming it comes back… Also, I hear a Tansy Omelette made with the fresh spring leaves is quite an experience.
  23. Feverfew – fund some growing in front of a house and harvested a portion, but am yet to try the tea. Lacking inspiration…
  24. Oxeye Daisy – gathered a small load from a fallow field, dried for tea which tastes quite nice. Not really keen to try much more though.
  25. St. John’s Wort – grew one from a seedling provided by Sarah. Harvested a small batch of flowers for tea. Supplies of the sun-infused oil are still holding out from last summer, but I’ll be ready to make another load this year.
  26. Chamomile – found one solitary plant growing by a field, and some on a roadside, neither of which I felt comfortable harvesting from. Would like to try growing my own this year, either from seed or seedling.

Next:

Which tinctures/vinegars/honeys/flower essences/elixirs have you made throughout the year? Have you kept notes of the recipes. If not, can you still remember what you did so you can make a note now?

Do a herbal stocktake this month – what do you have in your cupboard/larder/herb drawer?

Tinctures: Yarrow, Lemon Balm, Angelica. Recipes? Er, cut up into small pieces (not a powder or all the liquid get absorbed), cover with strong alcohol eg: vodka for a couple of months shaking occasionally, sieve out solids, done. Previously Bramble as well.

Vinegars: Sage, Bramble root, ‘Fire Cider’ (Horseradish, Garlic, Ginger, Paprika, Turmeric, Cayenne Pepper). Same recipe as for tinctures, using vinegar instead of alcohol.

Honeys: Elecampane root. Again, grate herb then cover with the menstruum. Only I’m not bothering to take the herb out.

Flower essences: Horse Chestnut buds. Briefly boiled in water then mixed with an equal amount of brandy.

Elixirs: Cherry bark & blossom, Sloe Gin (does this count??) As with tinctures, except with sugar/honey as a sweetener.

Infused oils: Elder bark & flower, Plantain, Comfrey, St. John’s Wort, Lavender (in Italy), Cuckooflower. First three double infused in a bain marie; others sun/solar-oven/time-infused.

Syrups: 1 bottle of Elderberry (plus extras) left. Cook to pulp, separate solids, mix with sugar, boil down to ‘syrupy’ thickness, bottle. Previously Elderflower, Violet, Rosehip, Sloe, and Dandelion.

Salves: Elderflower, Plantain, Comfrey. Made with a mix of the infused oil with grated beeswax.

Dried herbs – Leaves & flowers: Yarrow, Lime, Hawthorn, Rowan, Rosemary, Lavender, St. John’s Wort, Ground Ivy, Oxeye Daisy, Feverfew.

- Leaves: Comfrey, Blackcurrant, Raspberry, Mint (unidentified), Lemon Balm, Bay Laurel, Rosebay Willowherb, Lovage.

- Flowers: Elder, Cherry, Meadowsweet, Red & White Clover, Calendula, Blackthorn, Borage.

- Roots: Dandelion, Angelica, Sweet Cicely, Cuckoo Pint, Cattail (starch), Burdock.

- Seeds: Nettle, Himalayan Balsam, Dock, Poppy, Oak (Common & Holm), Beech, Hazel, Walnut, Sweet Chestnut, Rose, Fat Hen.

Finally:

Now is the time to think about what we’ve done over the past year – what was helpful? What would you have liked more of? What did you hate but found useful? Would you have preferred to have done something differently? [...] I would also like you to think about how you have changed and what you have achieved and what you would like to achieve next year.

Lately I’ve been pondering the question: ‘Do medicinal herbs work?’ It might seem odd for me to go to so much effort collecting, processing & preserving the above without having a definitive answer to this question! My best answer for the time being is ‘Yes. I think so. For me at least.’ For the most part I’ve gotten into the habit of ingesting herbs as teas/infusions over breakfast or in the evening before going to bed. I also have begun mixing the more aromatic or substantial ones into my cooking on a regular, improvisatory basis. I’m still young and relatively able-bodied, so rarely suffer from any form of sickness. Could this be because of the herbs and wild foods included routinely in my diet over the handful of years? Maybe the whims by which I choose which plants to take into my body at any one time are not so much random, but represent an emerging body-awareness of the nutrients I’m missing and an increasing willingness on the part of my intellectual mind to allow these signals through in the form of cravings and spontaneous desires, and to tolerate – even encourage! – actions that satisfy these urges? I don’t know. I don’t see how I could know.

I’ve attempted many times to actively heal personal ailments and those of the people close to me. Sometimes these attempts have proven successful (examples that jump to mind include using Sage, Elder, Yarrow, Lemon Balm and others to offset or speed up recovery from colds & flu, buying H’s dying cat maybe a few more weeks with Plantain seeds that helped him to poo, relieving headaches with steam inhalations of Thyme, Lavender, Rosemary and other strong aromatics, easing congestion with a Thyme compress on the chest, St. John’s Wort oil for every muscle & joint ache under the sun), but just as often they’ve resolutely failed. I wonder how much of this is due to mine and others’ ‘healthy skepticism’ which undermines the prospects of any enhancing placebo effect, and don’t exactly make for the beginnings of a warm relationship with any given being. I’ve kicked back against this form of ‘faith healing’ in my various attempts to distance myself from organised religion over the years, and still feel a strong resentment when others ask me to trust in the existence of something for which I see no evidence (“Oh, I need to Just Believe, and then I’ll see the evidence all around me, right? Fuck off.”) But I’ll acknowledge that maybe I’ve been missing an important truth in this phenomenon as a consequence, though buggered if I can see what that might be after including that bracketed sarcastic bit… ;)

Looking back over the ‘best hopes’ for my apprenticeship (as noted on the parent page), I’m surprised to see how well I’ve done this year in journeying further towards the desirable personal qualities and aspirations which I listed last December. I’ve made more progress in some areas than other, for sure (next to nothing on familiarising myself with body processes, some important shifts in seeing things from the plant’s perspective, leaps and bounds on the basic gardening skills), but overall I’m quite satisfied with the effect of this apprenticeship on my person, and I’m looking forward to see how the various changes deepen and multiply in the years (hopefully!) to come.

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