Which herbs can you harvest now?
Within your gardens or harvesting areas, make a note of and harvest those herbs which are at their peak now. Consider which herbs should be harvested before they flower and those which are already flowering and need to be harvested. Decide what you need to dry, which would be better tinctured, which made into vinegar or perhaps an elixir or flower essence. How many herbs can you incorporate into your food or food for your family and/or friends? (maybe without them noticing!) Can you suggest and share recipes with other apprentices?
Wow, April went by fast! Below are some of the herbs I’ve harvested that seemed most ‘in their prime’. I’m afraid I didn’t deliberate too long over whether it was absolutely the best time for them – mostly it was a case of being on a walk, registering a plant colony off the side of the path and going “Right, I’ll be ‘avin’ some of you today!” Although I generally try to be polite about it – saying hello, explaining my intentions, reassuring that I won’t overharvest etc – along the lines of native traditions, here described by Stephen Harrod Buhner:
… it has been said among the Winnebago that when gathering plants as medicine, if you tell them what you need them to do and ask them to put forth their strength on your behalf they will do so. And among the Iroquois, it is said that when you find the plant you are looking for you should pray to it for help. It will tell the other plants what you need and when you pick them their medicine will be strong and powerful […] people must treat the plants like human beings, make proper offerings, and treat them with respect if they wish their help. (The Lost Language of Plants, p.228)
Anyway, it’s not on my list but I found loads of Rosebay Willowherb growing in a parish church where I sometimes do volunteer gardening work, and I was given permission to take as much as I wanted:
I’ve heard the young leaves make a good tea, especially if fermented. So that’s what I tried, following the instructions on this page:
1. Pick herbs as they begin to flower and leave them in the shade for 12-24 hours, so they wilt but do not dry out. You need a large quantity to ferment well.
2. Spread them in thin layers with a rolling pin to bruise the leaves.
3. Fold the leaves in a cloth.
4. Store the cloth in a warm place for 24-48 hours.
5. Dry the leaves away from sunlight, in trays or paper.
I was quite pleased with the result – strong, dark and tannin-laden like real tea but with quite a distinctive taste that takes some getting used to.
I recently spent 5 days camping Snowdonia and was surprised by how many Rowan trees I found growing there. It seemed to be able to grow where no other tree could, with many picturesque, windblown & gnarly specimens gracing the bare moors and rocky outcrops. They were only just starting to come into flower by the time we were leaving, so back home a few days later I was almost panicked to find that my favourite local tree had already lost nearly all of its blossom. Here it is on the left next to the ‘King Hawthorn with Elder princesses’ I photographed back in February:
Left to right: There were only a few intact flower clusters on the North side, but luckily some sister trees further on up the path still had plenty, so I was able to harvest a few to dry and add to last year’s collection (I had fun picking out all the green, hyper-mobile caterpillars over the next couple of days):
It makes quite a pleasant, sweet & aromatic flower tea. PFAF say that ‘Both the flowers and the fruit are aperient, mildly diuretic, laxative and emmenagogue[9, 13, 21]. An infusion is used in the treatment of painful menstruation, constipation and kidney disorders’ and I can confirm at least the diuretic part – don’t drink a pot of it just before going to bed!
On the same walk, I finally got round to bagging some of the wonderful Hawthorn bloom we’ve had this Spring:
I find Hawthorn tea tastes best when made from a combination of (dried) flowers and leaves. The above came out a wonderful deep orange colour and tasted very mellow and satisfying. I gave some to my grandmother last year, as she had been paying extortionate prices to get ‘Aubépine’ (‘dawn thorn’, the evocative French name for Hawthorn) tea made by some monks outside Paris. Apparently for her it proved too effective for regular use as a heart tonic, as – if I remember the numbers correctly – it dropped her blood pressure from 17 to 12. She switched to a tincture of a related Crataegus which for some reason had less drastic effects… Maybe not for the faint-hearted after all, then!
I recently spotted another herb from my list, Ground Ivy:
Pamela Michael says that the fresh herb ‘makes one of the best tisanes’ when bruised and infused in boiling water for 7-8 minutes, and I have to agree.
The whole plant is strongly aromatic and was used medicinally for all sorts of ailments, the dried leaves were included in snuff and herbal tobacco, and the plant was used to flavour ale before hops were introduced into England. One of ground ivy’s country names is Alehoof, and another, Gill-go-by-the-Ground, suggests a connection with Gill House, the old name for an ale house. Gill Tea is the country name for a syrup made from an infusion of ground ivy with honey or liquorice, which was used as a cough cure. (Edible Wild Plants & Herbs, p.110)
I may try to make the described syrup if I can find some still in flower. One shady spot in the park had plenty, but the leaves were all covered in little white patches that looked like a fungus, so I left them alone. Tea from the dried herb doesn’t taste as good as fresh, but it’s still strong and minty. It combines well with…
This is the second year I’ve harvested leaves from the ever-enthusiastic bushes in our back garden. I was surprised by how similar they taste to the fruits. PFAF confirms that ‘The leaves are harvested during the growing season and can be used fresh or dried’ and further notes that, intriguingly:
It is believed that an infusion of the leaves increases the secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands, and thus stimulates the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. This action may prove useful in the treatment of stress-related conditions.
Note the second sheet of newspaper covering the herb as it dries – this helps preserve the colour and medicinal properties and prevents any ‘scorching’ by the sun. A neighbour recently gave me a tip for drying herbs really quickly – she puts them in between two sheets of kitchen roll and then into the microwave on a low setting until all the moisture evaporates (this was her method for culinary herbs like Basil, Thyme etc. – I’m not sure what radioactive blitzing would do to any medicinal gifts the plant might have to offer…)
Other herbs I’m drying (fairly unimaginatively, I concede) for future infusions:
Left to right: Oxeye Daisy & Comfrey, Raspberry (the first shoots taste better than the bigger leaves), Lovage and Cherry Blossom.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to declare failure on the seasonal task of making a crabapple flower remedy – I think I found a tree growing on a nearby common, but couldn’t identify it for certain and have yet to go back there to see if it’s still in flower. As for making ‘as many different dandelion flower products as you can’, I’ve up until now just made a few infusions from the fresh flowers (which helped me empty my bladder multiple times over the next couple of hours) and 5 bottles of the deliciously refreshing syrup now pictured at the end of the March entry. Here’s the recipe I worked from again – instead of the suggested 0.95:1 ratio of sugar to infusion I put in closer to a quarter-weight of sugar. I guess this leaves me open to ‘[becoming] contaminated by bacteria’. Let’s hope they’re the friendly kind, eh? (!)
Otherwise I made coffee from the roots of some dandelions evicted from a spot of ground I’m now attempting to grow vegetables on. Here’s a good how-to guide (you can skip the dehydrator phase by chopping the roots into smaller pieces and sticking them straight in the oven). With this latest batch I had fun trying to get the all-important second roast just right. I think the tip-off is a sudden acrid smell coupled with smoke starting to rise from the grounds as from burning toast. This leaves you with, as Pamela Michael puts it, ‘a semblance of that double roast Continental flavour which makes good strong coffee’ (Plants & Herbs, p.76). Underroasted, you get a sickly yellow-coloured drink which tastes a bit like bitter horlicks. My results (below) were starting to look and taste like coffee – my mum compared it to the chicory she sometimes drinks as a caffeine-free coffee substitute – by the third trial cup. The powder went back into the oven for another 10-15 minutes after this, but it still didn’t come out as coffee-like as one batch I made (and thought I’d ruined) a couple of years ago.
I gave some of the finished product to the same neighbour who microwaves her Basil. After thanks she responded with a lecture on self-sufficiency – a ‘path’ she perceives me heading down, and which ‘like so many things’ can be ‘dangerous’ if one pushes it too far. The main thrust, roughly: ‘You can’t live or feed a family on weeds alone, and even if you could it would be jolly hard work’. I tried to introduce a primitivist talking point about forager-hunter bushmen in the Kalahari only ‘working’ an average of two hours per day (see Marshall Sahlins’ classic essay ‘The Original Affluent Society‘), but somehow she managed to see this as proving her point so, not willing to get into an argument, I let it slide. Maybe Dandelion will do the talking for me? In the meantime I have some opportunities for entertainment. One instance tickled me particularly: After expounding on the evils of Bindweed, toward which she has a policy of kill-on-sight-and-throw-the-corpse-over-the-fence-so-it-doesn’t-contaminate-the-compost (because it can grow back from even the tiniest piece of root, and then you have to dig metres into the soil to eradicate it so that none of your favoured plants get choked to death), she approvingly pointed out a couple of potato plants that had survived from a previous planting, or maybe grown from composted kitchen waste. I said ‘Yeah, the Potato – what a pernicious weed! No matter how hard you try to get rid of it it keeps coming back!’ I think she saw the funny side… The serious side, I suppose, is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s point: ‘What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’ So, how best to deal with / relate to Bindweed? Answers on a postcard 🙂
Other herbs I’m planning to do stuff with include:
- Nettles (basically drying shitloads of them for tea)
- Cleavers (hot and cold infusions)
- Lemon Balm (a tincture and perhaps a double-infused oil/salve for cold sore treatment, once our plant gets big enough)
- Sage (not sure, probably drying unless I come up with some better ideas)
Herbs incoporated into food, let’s see… I found lots of sorrel and cuckooflower to add to campsite omni-feasts in Snowdonia. The family has drunk nettle, sorrel and ‘miscellaneous’ (basically all the wild greens that were starting to look unhappy in the fridge) soups as well as mixing in my new discovery, Three-Cornered Leek (which I identified from the flowers and remnant weird yellow-brown blobs – which I’m sure I’ve heard someone compare to alien genitalia… – in a few patches on the North side of the common) with a couple of potato dishes as forager Marcus Harrison suggests. I tried a Rosebay Willowherb recipe which I’m not allowed to tell you about yet, but which I found delicious. Otherwise, both mother and, while she was here, grandmother have started raiding my dried herb stash for evening tisanes. They complain that I haven’t labelled all the jars and paper bags, so they don’t always know or feel confident in what they’re drinking. Ah, the barriers facing the uninitiated!
As for my herbal ally, Yarrow has been going crazy under the sun and catching some water droplets (when is it going to rain??) from the hose which sprays the veg patch every evening (you can see it, center-left under Pink-Blossom in the photo below). Some of the lower leaves have grown to upwards of 10cm in length, and a few stalks have already begun to shoot up. It has been making the usual guest appearances in omelettes, salads, and even a bolognese sauce. I haven’t spent much meditative time with it, I’m afraid – to me the back garden doesn’t feel like a ‘safe’ space for that at the moment. Although it’s getting more that way with our lovely new Russet Apple tree:
That’s all, I think.
Time to get started with May…