Sunday 9 November 2008

Herbs We Use To Know: Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides)

Back in September 2007 we visited Wollaton Hall, Gardens & Deer Park in Nottingham a rather impressive Elizabethan mansion that doubles as a museum, an interesting place with beautiful and well maintained gardens. It was whilst walking around the gardens that I came across the tree in the above photo, it was covered in huge lime green leaves, the most exotic scented blossoms (very like frangipani in fragrance) and the most bizarre stringy bean like pods hanging down. It also had two very annoying children swinging from the branches and almost snapping them off! In truth that was what drew my attention to the tree as it was planted near a side path at the side of the glass house and we were at the time heading in the opposite direction! As we approached the children ran off and the tree was safe, at least for the time we were there.

At the time I had no idea what this tree was, not could I put my finger on what it smelt like, all I could muster to mind beyond the ohhhh mmmmm and WOW! was Plumeria (aka Frangipani), so I did the usual and took a series of photos, in the hope that I'd be able to identify it in the future. And success, the future is now! I've just been looking though books on trees and shrubs and cross referencing on the internet and finally discovered what the mystery tree was, the Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides).

I was delighted to discover that it has the following medicinal uses: - A tea made from the bark has been used as an antiseptic, antidote to snake bites, laxative, sedative and vermifuge. As well as having a sedative effect, the plant also has a mild narcotic action, though it never causes a dazed condition. It has therefore been used with advantage in preparations with other herbs for the treatment of whooping cough in children, it is also used to treat asthma and spasmodic coughs in children.

The bark has been used as a substitute for quinine in treating malaria. Whilst a tea made from the seeds is used in the treatment of asthma and bronchitis and is applied externally to wounds. The pods are sedative and are thought to have cardioactive properties. Distilled water made from the pods, when mixed with Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) and Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a valuable eye lotion in the treatment of trachoma and conjunctivitis.

Despite the name the Indian bean tree is not from India, it's actually from the USA, it does not grow beans and the botanical name Catalpa should really be Catawba. When details of Catalpa bignonioides were first recorded in the south east of the United States, the botanist who did so wanted to name the genus after the local native American (or red Indian as they were then known) tribe. His transcription of their name, Catawba, was incorrectly recorded as Catalpa and the tree is now also known as the Southern Catalpa.

The bean reference is slightly easier to explain and refers to the tree's bean-like pods, which are very slim and almost perfectly cylindrical and can grow up to 16 inches in length. These pods contain winged seeds and remain on the tree throughout the winter before splitting and releasing the seeds.
The Indian bean tree was introduced to Britain in 1726 and has been planted widely ever since for its decorative appeal, amazing really, all the places I've visited over the years and I've never seen this tree before, or maybe I have in late winter, leafless, or early spring with just its new leaves.

It grows best in full sunlight and moist soil, it is quite adaptable and has flourished almost everywhere it has been introduced. However, in colder areas the beans tend not to ripen so it doesn't make viable seed and so the tree must be reproduced using cuttings. Fortunately it does this readily and is also raised from seeds quite easily. The oldest known Catalpa bignonioides is in Reading, Berkshire where it lives in a church graveyard. The twisted trunk is one of the major attractions of this 150-year-old tree, although the deteriorating health of this specimen led to it requiring extensive surgery in 2007.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

My Favourite Herbal Teas

It's now 10 days since I gave up drinking coffee and tried to ditch caffeine, for health reasons, I'm now so they tell me peri-menopausal and apparently caffeine is one of the things I should avoid. I doubt seriously I'll be able to give up caffeine entirely, a life without chocolate seems terrifying for a chocolate lover, but I can reduce my caffeine intake, and for someone who drank 3 - 6 cups a day that's a big step. I do miss my early morning caffeine injection, but I'm getting to love the herb tea substitutes.

Herb teas to me until now have been things to take medicinally e.g. peppermint when I feel sick, chamomile when I can't sleep etc, and I do make my own herb teas, but until now I'd never blended them to drink throughout the day every day. In the past I tried the herbal tea bags by companies like Twinings, only to discover that they all tasted the same, and when you read the packet its mostly flavourings and no actual herbs!

Needing to have an instant life sometimes and being out and about means I can't always make tea in the teapot, so herbal bags are portable and useful, but as most of the commercial herb teas are just not good for me I've had to abandon them. So I was delighted when I found a company that do real herb teas in bag form, great for when you're on the move. What's more the teas are all organic with biodegradable bags to, the company is Pukka Herbs, my favourite so far is the Refresh Tea that contains peppermint, roses, hibiscus flowers, fennel seed, coriander seed and liquorice.

My favourite home tea blend at the moment is lavender and lemon balm, hot on its heals is lemon verbena on its own, and also lemon verbena, orange peel and lemon scented geranium. I also like a cup of basil and orange tea, that's fresh basil leaves, a little orange zest and the juice of an orange. Rose petal and rose geranium leaf is also a lovely relaxing combination. I'm also trying to reduce sugar intake and I've been adding a little chopped Stevia leaf to the mixes to give me a natural sweetness, so the brews are healthier and taste just as sweet. As the weather is now getting colder I'm also beginning to experiment with spicy herb teas, my friend Sarah gave me some great recipes last winter for Chai teas and other spicy combinations, so I'll dig out the recipes again. On my current fav list of spicy teas are ginger and lemon which is lovely and great for colds to, I also like Chamomile and spiced apple tea, which I make with cloudy apple juice, so not sure if its a tea or not, but I drink it as a tea.

Chamomile & Spiced Apple Tea

1 Mug Organic Cloudy Apple Juice
1 tsp Chamomile Flowers
1/4 of a Cinnamon Stick (or a good pinch ground cinnamon)

Method - Put the apple juice, chamomile and cinnamon in a pan and gently warm through, don't let it boil! Leave it to infuse for 5 - 10 minutes and strain into a mug. really warming and soothing and great tea to aid digestion.

Pick Me Up Tea

2 Tsps Dried Lemon Verbena
1 Tsp Dried Lemon Balm
1 Tsp Dried Lemon Thyme
1 Tsp Dried Spearmint

Method - Put all the dried herbs into a teapot big enough for 4 cups and pour on boiling water. Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes and strain into a cup sweeten with sugar or honey as desired.
Notes:- You can use fresh herbs for this tea if preferred, if using fresh, substitute tablespoons for the teaspoons.

To make a good bedtime tea you can omit the lemon thyme and add 1 tsp of chamomile flowers to the mix.

I'll post more of my tea recipes soon, and will update on any new combinations I find. If you're new to herb teas then this article on Wikipedia is useful Herb Teas.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Making Lavender Wands Elizabethan Style

Visiting Hardwick Hall today was a little different than usual, there were a variety of people re-enacting various aspects of Elizabethan life from playing music, dancing and the clothes they wore to games and crafts. Over in the herb garden, one of my favourite haunts, there was a lady simply called 'Mary in the Garden' who sat demonstrating making lavender wands.

I stood and watched her for ages, the technique was very simply, and unlike today's lavender bottles she used twine instead of ribbon, which gave a rustic feel to the finished wand. The scent as she worked was wonderful, the lavender releasing its soothing essence as she talked and demonstrated, I was captivated, we had a lovely long talk about herbs, lavender in particular and the Herb Society.

Mary explained that you needed to use an odd number of lavender stalks, the old varieties are best as the stems are stronger, the new varieties are not as strong and tend to snap when you bend them over. It's important that you work the lavender when its green (i.e. before its dried out) Mary had her lavender in some damp cloth to stop it drying out.

To Make A Lavender Wand

Take your odd number of lavender stems (Mary used 13 in the one in the photo), carefully hold the lavender by the flower heads and bend the stalks over the flowers. When you've bent over all of your stalks, tie in your twine or thread leaving a sufficient length to tie to the other end of the twine when you've finished. You then weave through the stalks in an under ~ over way all the way around and continue to weave until you're as far down the stems as you want to be. Mary's example below has 11cm of woven lavender and 4cm of stalk, making a wand 15cm in length.

To finish tie in the twine securely at the base of the weaved wand then tie the piece you left at the beginning to the piece at the bottom to form a handle. Finally trim the leftover stalks to the desired length and your lavender wand is ready to hang from a door or carry around.

I was very lucky that day as Mary gave me the one she was working on to take home, I walked around Hardwick Hall after her demonstration wafting the wand under my nose and having a rather enjoyable afternoon, the scent of one of my favourite herbs following me everywhere. The wands are wonderful months afterwards you only need to give them a gentle squeeze to release yet more wonderful lavender aromas.

Some Lavender Folklore & Uses

In Tudor and Elizabethan times, lavender brew was being sipped by maidens on St. Lukes day to divine the identity of their true loves. They'd chant, "St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see." Lavender in the pillows of alpine girls brought hope of romance, while lavender under the bed of newly-weds ensured passion. Finally, a famous nursery rhyme called "Lavender Blue, Dilly Dilly" was written in 1680 and talks of "Whilst you and I, diddle, diddle…keep the bed warm." Lavender-inspired loving strikes again!

Lavender experienced a renaissance in Tudor England. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, lavender moved to domestic gardens. The ladies of the house used lavender for all kinds of things. It was placed among linens, sewn into sweet bags, used to freshen the air, and mixed with beeswax to make furniture polish. Traditionally it was planted near the laundry room and linens and clothing were laid over the plants to dry while absorbing the fresh odour of lavender.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Blackberry & Cinnamon Muffins

If reading my article on the Blackberry left you wanting to try making more use of the delicious fruits from this useful bush then you'll be happy to know that over time I'll be adding some tasty recipes with ways to use this delicious herb from making jam (which can then be used to make a soothing drink for sore throats) and syrups and vinegars, but to get you started these muffins are wonderful first footing.

They are also a great taste of autumn, not everyone's cup of tea granted, due to the seeds in the berries, but if you like a bit of 'crunch' they're perfect. Add to that the fact that blackberries and cinnamon and both good for easing stomach problems that have a diarrhoea component, great medicine!

260g Self Raising flour
20g Oatmeal
1Tsp Ground Cinnamon
1 Tsp baking powder
1/2 Tsp salt
100g Castor sugar
2 Eggs
240ml milk
85g Butter, melted
200g Blackberries cut into pieces

1. In a large bowl sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon & salt, stir in the sugar. Leave to one side.

2. Beat egg in another bowl, stir in milk, then melted butter.

3. Pour wet ingredients into dry, stir until just combined. Gently fold in the blackberries careful not to crush fruit.

4. Spoon into muffin cases / tray. Bake for 20-25 mins. Muffins are done when tops are lightly browned and spring back when pressed gently.

Tip - I made a similar berry muffin in the summer using strawberries, 20ml of culinary rose water and 220mls of milk and used rose geranium scented sugar and they were yummy to, roses and strawberries just seem to go so well together.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Blackberry (Rubus fructicosus)

The season of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' is fast approaching, and one of the treasures of this time of year in my humble opinion is the blackberry.  This delightful berry, according to a discussion I had on the old Herb Society forum many moons ago, is number one on the top ten antioxidant-rich foods list.  The blackberry is a wonderfully useful plant that provides, fruit, leaves and blossoms to make a variety of herbal remedies, teas, wine and a wealth of sweet and savoury dishes.

As a young girl, I was given a copy of a book by Cicely Mary Barker full of paintings of 'flower fairies' and poems, one that stuck out in my mind and I still recall is 'The song of the Blackberry Fairy',  in fact, when out picking blackberries, I can be heard to recite the poem, much to the amusement of passers by.  It brings back fond childhood memories of picking those tasty, shiny black jewels, one for me, one for the basket until I could eat no more and I walked home arms and hands scratched, jumper snagged, with sticky purple fingers and a chin full of blackberry juice, yum!

Once I got home the berries I hadn't managed to eat were handed over to my Mum so that she could turn them into a pie for after tea.  As I grew older, the blackberries I picked were for my kitchen and, as well as pies and jam, I began making wine from the bounty.  Blackberry wine makes a wonderful base for mulled wine in the winter especially if you add fresh orange juice, cinnamon and a pinch of cloves.


The blackberry name derives from brambel, or brymbyl, which means prickly and is also known as the bramble, goutberry and scaldhead. The name scaldhead is from the belief that children who ate too many blackberries, subsequently suffered with a disease of the scalp called scald head.  As an aside, did you know that the Anglo-Saxon name for the blackberry was the bramble-apple?

Blackberries have been part of the diet in England since early Neolithic times.  Seeds from the blackberry were found in the stomach contents of a Neolithic man dug up at Walton-on-the Naze in Essex in 1911.  The ancient significance of blackberries is also apparent from several myths that surround it.  It was believed that the blackberry bush helped protect the dead from the devil and they were often found planted on graves to protect the loved one from evil.


There are many folk tales surrounding the blackberry, the most common one being a debate on the correct time to pick them, as the season runs from August until November it is suggested that the early-ripening berries are the best.  According to biblical tales, when the devil was cast out from heaven he landed on a blackberry bush, afterwards he's said to have cursed the blackberry because of its thorns. So any blackberries picked after Michaelmas day (29th September) are said to have the devil's spittle on them.

There is also a folk taboo about not picking blackberries after 10 October, because during the night the Devil either spits, stamps or urinates (depending on which telling of the tale one reads) on every bush. The origin of this myth relates to Lucifer having been cast out of heaven at Michaelmas (29 September), which corresponds with 10 October in the pre-1752 Julian calendar. The warning probably has more to do with the presence of leaf hopper insects, that form a saliva-like foam barrier around themselves before hatching into the adult insect.

Blackberries were considered to be sacred to the old Pagan deities and dishes made with blackberries were included on the feasting menus of the day.  In some folklore, blackberries symbolise generosity, whilst in others it symbolises grief.  Old wives used blackberries in charms to create wealth, and in days gone by in England, walking underneath blackberry runners was said to be a cure for many ailments including rheumatism and whooping cough, or chincough as my Nanna called it!


Blackberry is one of the most easily identified wild herbs that grow in the UK; almost everyone is familiar with them, thanks to the tradition of blackberry picking, which is still practiced by 'townies' today.  The blackberry belongs to the genus Rubus and the Rosaceae family and has no fewer than 2,000 varieties.  It grows up to 3m and comprises a mass or prickly arched stems, which often grow down to the ground to root and form new plants.  The stems from spring to late autumn are covered in leaves that have three to five leaflets which have a white or grey downy underside.  The flowers have 5 petals and appear from late spring to early summer.  These can be white or pale to deep pink in colour and most forms of the flowers have a rather pleasant scent.  The flowers fade in late summer to produce fruits which are green at first, changing to red and being fully ripe when they turn deep purple to black.

The wild varieties are wonderful, but some people believe that cultivated varieties have a better flavour.  Personally, I don't think the flavour of wild berries picked by your own hand can be bettered.  The blackberry season begins at the start of July and continues up until early October if the weather isn't to cold and damp.  It's best to pick the berries little and often to encourage the formation of more fruit and the best time to pick them is when the weather is dry because wet blackberries won't keep longer than a day.  Note: It is not advisable to pick blackberries growing close to busy roads due to the toxins from the traffic fumes.


Blackberries are perennial plants that bear fruit on biennial canes.  The roots live on indefinitely, sending up new shoots each year that will produce fruit in their second season and then they die.   Blackberries grow well with absolutely no care in the wild, but you need to do some routine maintenance when cultivating blackberries to prevent your garden turning into a blackberry patch!
Choose a site that gets full sun.  Blackberries will tolerate some shade, but the more sun they have the more fruit they'll produce, especially in cold regions.  Prepare the planting area well and dig in plenty of compost to provide the right soil conditions.

The soils should be free draining but have the ability to retain moisture.  Buy healthy plants from a reputable source and plant them in early spring or in autumn.  Plant the blackberry plants in the ground at the same level they were in their pots, spacing them about four feet apart.  Cut back your blackberries to about six inches above the ground and then water well and apply a thick mulch to help retain the moisture in the soil, which is useful when the fruit is setting.  If the blackberry is starved of moisture the berries will not be plump and full.

Pests and disease can be a problem so keep an eye out for blackberry rust.  This disease shows itself as red spots on the top of the leaves, followed by yellow spots on the underside of the leaf which eventually turn black.  Aphids can be a problem, especially on new shoots in early spring,  so spray with an organic pest control such as a liquid soap spray.  Mildew can also be a problem as can botrytis which is a type of grey mould.  There isn't currently an effective organic control for mildew, but you could try treating with a sodium bicarbonate solution using 5 to10g per litre of water.  With mildew, prevention is better than cure so do not over water your plants in the winter, giving them adequate ventilation and do not letting them dry out in summer.

Medicinal Use

Since the 1st century AD, blackberries have been used medicinally.  The Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (c40 - 90 AD) advocated using the berries for treating sore throats when made in to a gargle and chewing the fresh raw leaves to stop gums bleeding.  The leaves have been used for cleaning wounds and for staunching blood flow.  The leaves are also useful as a tonic and have astringent properties.  They have long been used to help cure dysentery, diarrhoea and piles.  They are also a good source of tannin, flavonoids and gallic acid, whilst the berries are a rich source of vitamin C and contain pectin, making them an ideal choice for jam making.

Culpeper advocated the use of buds, leaves and branches of the blackberry for treating putrid sores in the mouth and throat.  Gerard recommended mixing blackberry leaves that had been first boiled in water with honey, alum and a little white wine to make a lotion for washing the face which is the same decoction he also recommended for 'fastening' the teeth.  In Robinson's 'New Family Herbal' the leaves when boiled in a lye solution are said to be good for washing the head that is itchy, although doing this tended to make the hair go black.

Blackberry extract is excellent for cleansing the body and removing toxins and impurities.  Add some blackberry extract or homemade blackberry cordial to peppermint or chamomile tea to give the body a boost.  A dash added to yarrow tea is useful for treating colds and flu, as is blackberry vinegar, which has long been a remedy for treating feverish colds.

Culinary Use

The juicy berries are traditionally made into jam, pies, crumbles, wine and vinegar.  The fruit should always be picked over and washed before eating or cooking.  When cooked, blackberries are often combined with apples as the two flavours compliment each other.  Another reason for adding apples to blackberry jam is they supply the acid and pectin necessary to help the jam set, without the need to add artificial pectin.  The berries and the young shoot tips make a good wine and the leaves and berries can also be dried and used as a tea.

Blackberries freeze well too.  Pack them in rigid containers and freeze for up to 1 year.  You can use the fruit from frozen for many hot puddings - just increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes.
Blackberries have another use in the kitchen but not in a culinary way.  The fruit when mordanted with alum gives a slate blue natural dye whilst the roots yield an orange colour that can be used as a dye for wool and cotton.

© Debs Cook

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Strawberry & Lemon Verbena Fool

This absolutely delicious summer dessert recipe is from Sophie Grigson's book 'Herbs'. I had the pleasure of watching her make it at the Herb Society President's Day back in 2007, its now a firm favourite on the puds menu in our house, next year I'll have to experiment using very low fat fromage frais and quark instead of the mascarpone cheese.

Serves 3- 4

A small handful of lemon verbena leaves
45g (1½oz) Sugar Cubes
340g (12oz) Ripe Strawberries (hulled)
250g (9oz) Mascarpone Cheese
Few springs of lemon verbena for decoration.

Method - Put the lemon verbena leaves into a mortar or strong bowl, with the sugar cubes. Pound with a pestle or the end of a rolling pin, until the sugar is crushed, and the lemon verbena leaves have disintegrated, colouring the sugar a beautiful green.

Now crush the strawberries with a fork (a food processor is too harsh). Gradually work the crushed strawberries into the mascarpone cheese, with enough of the verbena sugar to sweeten to taste. Spoon into individual dishes or glasses and serve topped with a spring of lemon verbena and a strawberry fan.

Note: A point worth noting if you make the above recipe, or use lemon verbena in any culinary dish, is the leaf is rather coarse. When I ground the herb with the sugar in the above recipe, it left little 'strands' of verbena but these can be removed before adding to your strawberry and mascarpone mixture. It wouldn't be much of a bother if the strands are left in, but chopping the lemon verbena leaves before you grind them with the sugar helps to make the strands shorter and makes grinding them to nothing easier.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Soapnuts (Sapindus mukorossi)

Having only heard of Soapnuts before and having decided to try and become greener in 2008 I thought I'd give them a try and ordered some from an online source. My order arrived today, which is timely as I need to do a wash. The soapnuts look like a cross between a chestnut and a rosehip and have a rather pronounced smell of vinegar!

The instructions say to place 8 soap nut shells in a small cloth bag and add to the washing machine. It further states that the soap nuts can be used up to 3 times at lower temperatures. But you're advised to used a fresh batch for heavily soiled items. When they've have no cleaning power left you just put the soap nut shells on the compost heap!

There are several types on the market, I got Sapindus mukorossi, which is better known as the Chinese Soapberry. The soap berry contains saponin, a natural detergent which is used to clean clothes and the nuts are quickly becoming popular as an alternative to manufactured, chemical soap powders and detergents amongst the environmentally friendly people. They're said to be safe for washing silk, woollens and other delicate fabrics. How they cope with stains and ground in grime is yet to be tested.The fruits of Sapindus muorossi have a slightly irritant effect on the mucous membranes. Whilst the fruit of the Soap Berry (Sapindus saponaria) contains an irritant sapintoxin which can cause a rash or blisters to form on the skin.

Sapindus muorossi is used medically as an expectorant, emetic and for treatment of excessive salivation, epilepsy, chlorosis, and migraines. Soap nuts are among the list of herbs and minerals used in Ayurvedic medicine, and are used as a treatment for eczema, psoriasis, and for removing freckles. Soap nuts have gentle insecticidal properties and are traditionally used for removing lice from the scalp, I'll try making a spray for the roses and see what effects that has come the summer as well. They have antimicrobial properties and are beneficial for septic systems and greywater.
I'll post more about their cleaning power and how good I think they are when I've tried them out, will also use the homemade lavender vinegar to have a total eco friendly wash and see if it will be a good substitute for fabric softener. Watch this space.....

Some of the above information has been taken from the Wikipedia page

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Flower Power

I've been growing herbs for years, and using them in cooking, but only late last year with the encouragement of Sarah Head have I begun to harvest herbs and make my own remedies, I started with herb vinegars back in October 2007 with the very last of the lavender flowers in the garden and a handful of lavender leaves. I also made lemon verbena vinegar, rosemary vinegar and sage vinegar. So far this year I've made peppermint tincture, honeysuckle honey, honeysuckle vinegar and rose petal vinegar. The vinegars have a lot of uses, cosmetic, culinary, medicinal and domestic. I'm intrigued by some of the oxymel recipes in Julie Bruton-Seals book 'Hedgerow Medicine', these call for 1 part vinegar to 5 parts honey, and as you can use a variety of vinegars and honeys, this could turn out to be a very nice way of curing sore throats and other winter ills.

I'm increasingly becoming interested in using the flowers of herbs in a variety of ways, most people don't give flowers a second glance beyond their perfume, but there are so many things that you can make either cosmetically or culinary from things like marigold, lavender, roses, pinks and evening primrose and many more herbal flowers as well. Two of my favourite uses for lavender flowers on a culinary level include Lavender Biscuits and Lavender Lemonade. Armed with a garden full of delightfully scented herbs and flowers and a lot of recipes and enthusiasm I'm going to have a go at making some flower powered goodies that can be eaten, used to treat our ills and for bath time treats.

I've spent this morning in the garden and kitchen, after harvesting some lavender, roses and marigolds I've made a litre of lavender vinegar, this stuff is great as an alternative to fabric softener in the wash, add a touch to the water when cleaning the windows, use in the mop bucket to mop the floor to help disinfect and fragrance the room and as a bonus you can use it to add zing to summer salad dressings.

I also made some marigold tincture, most recipes I've seen call for using the fresh petals only, but I added half of the flower heads as well because they smelt so good and it seemed a shame to waste them. I have some dried marigold petals so I'll make a batch of tincture with those and see which smell better. I'm going to use the tincture to make a cream, as I've just read that marigold cream is good for treating spider veins (thread veins), something I suffer from, as did my Mum. In a few days there will be another batch of marigolds ready for use and I'm going to make an infused oil with them, following the method Sarah showed me, from there I'll progress to making my first salve or cream, using the recipes I've gathered.

I also checked out my rose petal vinegar and discovered that despite having a beautiful colour, the vinegar hardly smelt of roses at all 😒 Not to be deterred, I strained the vinegar from the first batch of petals and added fresh petals from the garden and a couple of handfuls of dried Rosa centifolia petals.

As I've read that highly scented dried petals give better results than fresh if the the fresh are not very highly scented. I've also made a small batch of purely dried rose petal vinegar, to see which is better. I have to say that I used my hands to squash all the vinegar from the first batch of petals and afterwards my hands felt incredible soft.

I'll have to pick some fragrant wild roses and try with those, the type I'm using from the garden are Rosa Mundi ‘Rosa gallica versicolour’, one of the gallica type of roses, which is a lovely old rose, with semi-double blooms with large with splashes of pink and white on a crimson background. It is fragrant, but maybe not fragrant enough! Incidentally, 'Rosa Mundi' is said to be named after 'Fair Rosamund', the mistress of Henry II back in the 12th century!

Friday 20 June 2008

A Tusser Mussie

Every time I read an old book on the subject of herbs I learn something new. A while back I was doing some research in to the Tudor uses of herbs and came across Thomas Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, a poem written in 1557, that includes a lot of old herbs and flowers. Below is a list from the poem of 21 strewing herbs for example. I've added the original spelling of Tusser's in brackets, along with any notes he made at the side of each herb where appropriate, for historical interest.

Basil (Bassell), Lemon Balm (Bawlme), Chamomile (Camamel), Costmary (Costemary), Cowslips (Cowsleps and paggles), Daisies (Daisies of all sorts), Fennel (Sweet fennell), Germander, Hyssop (Hysop, set in February), Lavender, Spike Lavender (Lavender spike), Cotton Lavender (Lavender cotton), Marjoram (Marjoram, knotted, sow or set, at spring.), Maudeline (Mawdelin, [which was the name Camphor Plant 'Tanacetum balsamita' was known by at that time]), Pennyroyal (Peny ryall), Roses (Roses of all sorts, in January and September), Red Mints (Red myntes), Sage, Tansy (Tansey), Violets & Winter Savory (Winter savery).

Further into Tusser's poem in the 'Herbs, Branches And Flowers For Windows And Pots' section he writes of the Gillyflowers and the Gilliflowers. I assumed it was a spelling mistake and he was referring to the same plant I have always know as the gillyflower the clove pink, so I left it at that.

Then recently whilst reading Mary Thorne-Quelch's book 'Herbs & How To Know Them' I came across something that stunned me. According to her, Cheiranthus cheiri is the wallflower that was know as the Gillie Flower or Gilliflower in Tusser's time. Whilst Gilly flower or Gillyflower is the Dianthus (clove pinks).

Recently I sowed seeds of a new variety of pinks called Victorian pinks and some 'Tudor Tapestry' stocks, stocks are also from the wallflower family, so this evening I began thinking about creating a Tusser Mussie patch. And filling it with herbs from Tusser's time, and adding little plant labels with the old world spelling on. Last week I managed to get some gilliflowers (Cheiranthus cheiri) so with the stocks, pinks and other new items I have its looking like the Tusser patch will emerge. And joy of joys gilliflowers appear to be edible and if memory serves me correctly you can make wine with them, just as you can with the clove pinks, something else to experiment this year on my list of edible flowers :)

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Rose Petal Vinegar

Like most herb vinegars its really simple to make, 1 part flower/herb to 4 parts vinegar, you can use any sort of vinegar (except brown malt vinegar!) I usually use cider vinegar, but for the rose petal vinegar I used white vinegar, white vinegar allows the colour of the rose petals to shine through, whilst darker coloured vinegars make the resulting vinegar look 'muddy'.

For this vinegar I used rosa mundi petals plus a few Cardinal de Richelieu heads which are a deep pinky purple, above is a photo of what the vinegar looked like after just 1 hour in the sun and below is the result after 3 hours!

I'm so glad that I used white vinegar now as I don't think the colour would have been as pretty with cider vinegar. I'll try using white vinegar with Hidcote lavender and see if it turns the vinegar lilac like it does lemonade. I forgot to take a photo of the vinegar when I first made it when the vinegar was just white, I'll be making some more in a few days time and will remember to take another photo then.

Using Rose Petal Vinegar - You can use rose petal vinegar in the mop bucket, in bath water, in salad dressings and you can also dilute it half and half with rosewater to make a wonderful tonic for the skin. Or why not make a rose petal oxymel with 1 part rose vinegar to 5 parts honey, great for sore throats. Rose vinegar is also good for cooling sunburnt skin, soak a cotton wool ball in the vinegar and apply to the sunburnt area.

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Herb Day June 1st 2008

A bit late I know, but at the beginning of the month I helped out on the Herb Society stand at Herb Day which was run jointly by Garden Organic and the Herb Society over at Ryton. It was a lovely day, there was a lovely cookery demonstration by Sophie Grigson, she actually converted me to gin, but only if it has elderflower cordial in!  Caroline Holmes gave an interesting talk on the plants in the Poison Garden at Alynwich and Jenny Jones gave a couple of guided talks around the herb garden at Ryton to members of the public and Herb Society members.

Kim and Rob Hurst from The Cottage Herbery were at the event selling herbs, I picked up a Tree Spinach (Chenopodium giganteum), a Camphor Plant (Tanacetum balsamita) and a new African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x basilicum) as the one I had last year died, hopefully now I have the greenhouse I'll be able to overwinter the tender herbs. But the best part of the day was meeting people and hearing what they had to say about herbs, answering questions where possible and recruiting new members to the Herb Society, I'm helping out at Gardeners World Live on the HS stand on the morning of Saturday 14th so if anyone reading this is going, please drop by the HS stand G496 and say hello!

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Honeysuckle Honey & Honeysuckle Vinegar

After the fragrance of the honeysuckle wine made on Saturday evening, I decided to try my hand at making more herbal goodies with the wonderful fragrant honeysuckle from the garden, and this time honeysuckle remedies seemed like a really good idea. However as the fragrance is only in the flowers from early evening I had to wait until tonight to pick the flowers I needed. I thought I was going mad this afternoon when the honeysuckle smelt of absolutely nothing, so if you're going to try this, make sure you wait until your honeysuckle is at its most fragrant in the evening.

The honeysuckle honey recipe is from Julie Bruton-Seals book Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies and its really easy to make, fill a jar with honeysuckle flowers, pure on honey (I used 3 parts acacia honey to 1 part orange blossom honey, because that's all I had in) and leave it in a sunny window for two weeks, (remember to press the flowers down into the honey if they rise above the surface or they'll go brown) after the two weeks are up, strain the honey from the petals and bottle and label it, its a perfect remedy for sore throats. Dosage is 1 teaspoonful as needed or three times a day.

Because I'd had some success with the lavender, rosemary, lemon verbena and sage vinegars I made last year I decided I;d try using honeysuckle flowers and make a honeysuckle vinegar. I thought I could combine it with the honeysuckle honey to help with winter sore throats. It can be used cosmetically as an astringent toner for the skin, or it can add a floral kick to salad dressings, or I could maybe add a splash to the mop bucket like I do the lavender and rosemary vinegar. The scent of the honeysuckle is really strong, I filled my jar three quarters full and then poured in enough cider vinegar to cover the petals, a quick stir to make sure there was no air bubbles, and as I put the lid down it already smelt wonderful.

I'm going to have a try at drying some petals for pot pourri next, and maybe see if I can make an infused oil with more of the fresh flowers. I can't wait for the lavender season to begin, I'll try the same floral honey method with the lavender and see what happens. This year I'll be making a huge supply of the lavender vinegar as its wonderful stuff and really easy to make.

Monday 12 May 2008

Lavender Lemonade

This is a wonderfully different summer drink to try, and really easy to make, you can make a still or sparkling version to suit your taste. It definitely tastes better served chilled whichever version you make.


1 tray ice cubes (for serving)
40g Fresh Hidcote Lavender Flowers
500ml boiling water
150g white sugar
Juice of 8 lemons
1250ml cold water


Place the lavender into a bowl, and pour boiling water over it. Allow to steep for about 10 minutes, then strain out the lavender and discard. Mix the sugar into the hot lavender water, then pour into a 2 litre capacity jug.

Squeeze the juice from the lemons into the jug, getting as much juice as you can. Top off the jug with the rest of the cold water, and stir. Taste, and adjust lemon juice or sugar if required.
Serve in tall glasses over ice, decorated with lavender sprigs (optional).

Tips - For a sparkling version make up as directed but use sparkling spring water instead of still. For adults you can use the lavender base to make a wine cooler, top up with sparkling wine instead of water.

Note: You can use any kind of angustifolia lavender, but only Hidcote lavender will colour your lavender lemonade a pinky purple colour. Don't use French lavender or any of the resinous piney scented lavenders as the resulting lemonade will not taste very nice.

Lavender Biscuits

Makes 18-24 (Depending on size)

100g Butter
50g Caster Sugar
175g Self Raising Flour
1 Tsp Lemon Zest
2 Tbsp Fresh Lavender Flowers

Method Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the flour, lemon zest & lavender flowers and knead well until the mixture forms a dough.

Gently roll out on a lightly floured board. Scatter the flowers over the rolled dough and lightly press in with the rolling pin. Cut into small rounds with a biscuit cutter.

Place biscuits on a greased baking sheet and bake in a hot oven 450F/230C, gas mark 7 for 10-12 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove at once and cool on a wire tray.

You can use the lavender you grow in the garden to make these biscuits. I'd recommend using English Angustifolia Lavender's such as the Munstead or Hidcote varieties as they have a sweeter flavour and aroma. The French aka Butterfly and Spanish Lavenders (L. stoechas), have a more camphorous aroma and are not as appetising in my opinion. I've tried using French Lavender and it was a little too medicinal for our tastes, so I stick to the sweeter angustifolias now. You can use the finely chopped leaves of lavender as well if you’re short of flowers. Best time to harvest the flowers from the garden is just as they begin to open in the summer, use them fresh or dry them for winter use. You can use the flowers to scent sugar, I do this myself and use it when baking and making custard.

If you can't grow your own, good suppliers of Culinary Grade 'English' Lavender are: -

Norfolk Lavender
The Hop Shop
who also make a rather nice Lavender Grey tea blend.

The Great Goji Berry Con!

Everywhere these days some product or other is having 'Tibetan' or 'Himalayan' goji berries added to it, its even being put in chocolate now! Goji berries are being marketed as a wonderful super food that can help cancer patients with reduced white blood cells after chemotherapy, allegedly. There is no real evidence to support that claim as yet, or indeed any of the other claims being made by the online health shops that jump on the band wagon to make a pretty penny out of the latest health fashion.

But everywhere its being marketed as a super food, and people are falling for it in droves because its being marketed with the mystical influence of Tibet and Himalaya! Why because something is linked to eastern mysticism are we more inclined to buy it? Are we that gullible that we need to swallow added mysticism with our herbs, because it will do us more good? I don't doubt this herb has healing properties, but I am cynical about the claims being made about it, with no evidence to back it up.

Until this week I knew very little about the goji berry, aside from the fact that we'd mistakenly bought a pack a few months ago, in a rush to get out of the health food shop on route to somewhere else. We were actually after a packet of cinnamon coated cranberries! Si tried them, as did I and we weren't impressed. So we were happy to never touch them again, I don't care how much something does me good, if it tastes as nasty as that I won't take it unless I really, really have to! But then I recently got a wonderful book by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal called 'Hedgerow Medicine' and I was stunned to discover that the goji berry has been a naturalised plant in the UK for over 250 years!

Please note most places sell it as goji berry, they never tell you the name its commonly known as in the UK, which is Lycium, or its Latin name Lycium barbarum syn Lycium chinense. And wonder of wonders now I know it can be easily grow over here, the fact that some of the health shop packs just say goji berries and don't say where the country of origin is, makes me even more cynical, how many people think they're getting mystical tibetan berries for their hard earned cash?

No country of origin leaves the gullible shopper to make the tibetan connection for themselves and who wouldn't after all the media hype, with the additional veil of not knowing goji's grow in the UK. It can be found in the wild in Lincolnshire, the midlands and various coastal areas in the UK.

I partly feel stupid, a few weeks ago Joe Swift one of the Gardeners World team planted some goji berry plants on his new allotment on the programme. And I sat there in the goji darkness (in my pre Lycium days) wondering how on earth he would manage to grow these exotic plants from the Tibetan mountains, in London, on an allotment! Now I know they'll grow easily in the UK, because they already do, pssst I wonder if he knows?

Incidentally did you know that as from April 30th 2008 the UK government has banned the import of lycium plants, its okay to import the berries and seeds but not the plants, so all the plants being sold in the UK from now on will have been raised in the UK (see DEFRA - Prohibited Import of Goji Plants) and if the plants are being raised over here, will we see more commercial goji berries farms cropping up, and will that mean that the price will go down? The cynic in me doubts it, but if the price does come down, I wonder what that will do to the goji's super food status?

The story of how the goji berries got into the UK is down to a chap called Archibald Campbell who was the Duke of Argyll (1682 -1761), and around the 1730's he had some tea plants imported to his home, the full story can be read in Julie & Matthew's book. What I do now know about Goji berries aka also Duke of Argyll's Tea Plant, Chinese Wolfberry, Box Thorn & Matrimony Vine is that it has antioxidant properties, its full of beta-carotene, is high in iron and riboflavin (B2) and has goodly amounts of selenium and vitamin C, it can also help to promote a healthy gut flora. I'm tempted to have a go at growing my own and seeking them out in the wild to wildcraft, makes me wonder how many other 'wonder products' the public get sold under some other name actually grow in this country. Incidentally the flowers of the Lycium are really pretty making yet another good another reason for growing it, but left to its own devices it can take over the garden so be warned.

Sunday 11 May 2008

Honeysuckle Wine

Today I went to one of Sarah's wonderful workshops at the Sanctuary, I always come home from her workshops inspired to try things out and it gives me a renewed incentive to get on and make things. Before going to Sarah's winter workshops last year, the only herbal remedies I made for myself were the obvious ones, like peppermint tea. But since the workshops I've made tinctures and herb vinegars and over the next few weeks I'll be progressing to infused oils and salves.

Inspired once again I decided to stop talking about what I'm going to do with the honeysuckle in the garden and actually get on with it. When we came back from the cinema a couple of nights ago, the scent of the honeysuckle in the garden as we walked up the path was breath taking. I couldn't decide whether to make a vinegar with the flowers, or pick 2 pints of them and make wine. Then there's a recipe I'd like to try using honeysuckle from the new Hedgerow Medicine book I got this week, its honeysuckle infused honey, which is good for sore throats.

I thought that if I pick the honeysuckle bare I'd have no sweet scentual delights (yes its a deliberate spelling mistake, I like mixing sensual and scent together to describe some aromas!) to tantalise my nose and the birds won't get the berries! Maybe I can do a deal with nature, one year the honeysuckle makes herbal delights for the house, and me and the next the wildlife reaps the delights? But I didn't have to worry, we went out and picked 3 pints of flowers for the wine and got the wine started, it smells wonderful, and the honeysuckle is still smothered with flowers, so tomorrow I'll pick the flowers to make the vinegar and the honey and there will be plenty left over for the birds and bees and to delight my nose for another month if I'm very lucky :)

For anyone that is interested here's the recipe for my honeysuckle wine... This is one of the first wines I ever made. My hobby started back in 1991 after watching a TV programme called 'Fruity Passions' on the BBC. It was a beginners guide to country wine making, the presenter was a lovely lady called Margaret Vaughan whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting. The programme took my interest in flowers and herbs to a new dimension and I've been a country wine maker ever since, as the line of demijohns up our stairs demonstrates. The recipe below is my variation on the recipe from Margaret's book. Her version was given to her by 'Mrs Smith', a lady from her village who was known for curing asthma and freckles with her honeysuckle wine.


• 3 Pints Honeysuckle Flowers
• 3lb White Granulated Sugar
• 1lb Sultanas, washed & chopped
• 1 Lemon (Juice of)
• 1 Orange (Juice of)
• 2 fl oz Earl Grey Tea brewed strong (use 2 tea bags and let steep for 10 minutes)
• 6 Pints Water
• General Purpose Wine Yeast

You can decrease the amount of sugar to 2½lb if you prefer a dry wine. Using half white and half golden granulated sugar adds a rather unusual taste to the wine


• Using only the flower heads rinse them under the tap and shake off as much water as possible (I use a salad spinner to dry them).

• Once dry add the honeysuckle petals to you wine fermenting bucket with the sugar, sultanas, orange juice, earl grey tea and the lemon juice.

• Add the boiling water and stir the wine until the sugar has completely dissolved.

• Activate the wine yeast following the instructions on the packet and once the wine must is cooled add your yeast starter.

• Cover the wine and leave it for 4-5 days depending on the room temperature, the warmer the room the quicker the ferment.

• After the 4-5 days strain your wine into a demijohn. If you don't have enough must to fill the demijohn to the neck then top it up with cold boiled water.

• Leave the wine to ferment for approximately 3 months. By then it should be clear and ready for bottling.

• This wine will end up medium sweet with a wonderful floral aroma and will be a light golden colour. Leave to mature and take out the following year when the honeysuckle blooms.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Jack By The Hedge (Alliaria petiolata)

Out walking the other day I noticed the first of the Jack By The Hedge or Garlic Mustard as its called by some people growing. I love this wild herb although it falls in the wild flower category in a lot of the books. Its a biennial plant that smells remarkably like garlic when the leaves and stems are crushed and they taste lovely, a favourite salad mix of mine at this time of year is garlic mustard, rocket, wild garlic leaves, sorrel and young dandelion leaves.

The leaves are bright green in early spring, with a slight reddish tinge to the very new growth, which darken as the year advances. Appropriately named, this is a plant of hedgerows, but it mostly grows in shaded places. It doesn't like full sun, hence growing under tree canopies and underneath the hedgerows, you can also find it lining riverbanks if there is suitable shade. It can become very invasive, as it self seeds readily, so if you want to grow it in the garden, you'll have to keep on top of it.

The best of the flowers appear in April and early May, but you can occasionally find a few blooms right through until August and you can sprinkle them on salads. The whole plant can be used to obtain a yellow dye, so anyone interested in plant dyes may like to seek this one out.

Today its no longer used medicinally, but Garlic Mustard has been used as an antiseptic, to promote sweating and to relieve the itching caused by insect bites and stings! The seeds were once used to make snuff, to promote sneezing. You can use the leaves to flavour soups and salads, but one of my favourite uses for them is to make a pesto with the leaves.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

4 Cloves Of Garlic
150g Garlic Mustard Taproots
200g Garlic Mustard Leaves
100g Basil
250g Pine Nuts
250ml Virgin Olive Oil

1. Chop the garlic and garlic mustard roots in a food processor.

2. Add the garlic, garlic mustard leaves and basil and chop.

3. Add the pine nuts and chop coarsely.

4. Add the olive oil and process until you've created a coarse paste.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Beginners Guide To Herb/Wild Flower Identification

I was at a herb workshop back in December 2007 and one of the ladies attending with me, asked about books that were easy to carry around with you, to help identify herbs whilst out and about. There are a few good ones that I'll list below. It's also a good idea to take along a note book and write down where you see the herb growing, time of year etc, just in case you're not sure if it is a young nettle shoot or something else. I use my camera as a 'notebook' if I come across a plant I don't know or I'm not sure about, I take photos of the leaves, stems, flowers and any other bits that may help identify the plant as well as an over view and when I get back use my larger books to identify the plant.

It also helps to make a note of height and width etc and any unusual things about the plant. An easy way to identify new plants is to first know what to expect, so discover what does grow locally by checking the Postcode Plant Database run by the National History Museum. By entering the first part of your postcode you will generate a list of all the local flora in your area. From there you can look the plants up and make notes of the edible ones, and document a way of identifying them before you go out. Make sure you take note of the growing season. No point in going looking for hawthorn blossom in September! Local medicinal herbalists and local council experts often arrange wild flower walks so they're worth attending. Medicinal herbalists tend to do herb walks during Herbal Medicine Awareness Week, so keep an eye out.

As well as wild flower/herb/plant books, I also use Botanical Society of the British Isles Flora Search index and the British Wild Flowers websites. You can use the links above to find pictures that you can print off to help you identify specific herbs. Varying habitats and locations will also pay dividends as different herbs grow in different conditions.

I should stress if you're not 100% certain what a plant is, you should never pick it and use it medicinally, so many plants look like other plants you could be wrong. There's also the legal and ecological aspect of wildcrafting (see the guide below). Anyway as not all herbs actually have that title, and some of them are listed in wild flower books despite having medicinal properties, I've listed a few wild flower and herb field guides that I think would be useful to the beginner. The marks out of 10 are my own personal guide as to how useful I've found them. There are other really wonderful and useful books for identifying wildflowers and herbs, but not all of them are portable, so I've kept this list to the ones that can easily be carried around.

Collins Nature Guide - Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe ISBN 0-26-167403-X This is a good little guide that shows colour photos and not illustrations, it also shows groups of plants on a page so you can see others in the same family. 7/10

Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain & Europe.
ISBN 0-26-167405-6 Another useful guide that shows colour photos making it easier to identify things. 7/10

Food for Free (Collins Natural History)
ISBN 0-00-219865-7 This book by Richard Mabey helps identify common wild plants and herbs such as meadowsweet, elderberry, wood sorrel. It also has seaweed, trees and fungi in it, an all round good guide with some nice recipes in for using the wild bounty once found, but its hard to identify some of the plants from the illustrations. 5/10

Herbs of Britain and Europe (Michelin Green Guides) ISBN 1-85974-928-3 Basic book, it costs just £2.50 and will help you identify some things such as borage, comfrey and garlic mustard, the illustrations are not always to scale and it does have things you're not likely to find on a trip to the canal or local hedegrow. 3/10

Easy Way to Wild Flower Recognition (Larousse easy way guides) This book is by John Kilbracken and is doesn't have an ISBN number as it was published in 1985. I got mine via Ebay so you may be able to find it there or through Amazon. Despite having illustration drawings this book is excellent in that it takes you step by step to identifying the plant it starts by asking what colour are the flowers, you then move to the number it tells you to with plants with flowers of that colour, it then asks what the leaves look like, what are the flowers shaped like, what size, each page eliminates what the plant isn't until you get to what it is! A brilliant beginners book and taught me an awful lot whilst out in the field. 10/10

Wildcrafting Guidelines

The term wildcrafting denotes a high degree of ecological awareness and a deep respect for the living Earth that sustains all life forms. We have a duty as custodians of nature to ensure that the same plants and habitats will be enjoyed by future generations.

• Before gathering any wild plant, check that it is not threatened, endangered or protected. If in doubt, contact the statutory plant conservation agency in your locality/country – the address and phone number should be available from your public library or your local Tourist Information Office.

• Be careful not to trespass when picking plants and never take material from a nature reserve or protected site.

• Gather modest quantities (no more than you need) and only from places where the plant is growing in abundance. A stand of plants must never be harvested in its entirety.

• In Britain and many other countries it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner, irrespective of whether it is a protected species. Once permission has been granted to dig up a common plant, do so in moderation and do not leave holes in the ground. These should be filled and levelled with the disturbed soil from where the plants were uprooted.

• Never gather plants that have been exposed to traffic fumes, factory emissions, agricultural chemicals, or any other form of pollution.

• Never introduce an alien species into the wild. There are many cases of alien plants that have naturalised in a locality, but due to their rampant growth have stifled native species.

• Collecting wild flower/herb seeds for private gardening must also be done sparingly and only common species should be gathered. Always leave behind plenty of seed for the birds and for the plant to self-seed.

• Always tidy up after harvesting to ensure the area appears undisturbed by your activities.

• Wildcrafting is also about mindfulness, about never taking anything for granted and remembering always to give thanks.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Dandelion Wine

The weather here was lovely today, so we went and picked dandelion flowers to make wine with, I say we, but Simon did all the picking and the de-stalking. A wonderful fragrance came from the bag, which I hope will transfer to the finished wine. We've not done much wine making for a couple of years, but as I'm meant to do a talk sometime in the autumn/winter on making herb wines, I thought we'd get some herb wines made up, so we can offer samples. This means having to make lemon balm wine, rose petal wine, lavender wine, blackberry, elderflower and berry wines and a few more besides. As we make each wine I'll post the recipes here.

After tasting rhubarb champagne that one of the ladies brought along to one of Sarah's workshops back in January, I'm hooked, and this year our crop of rhubarb is marked for making some of the delightful stuff. Really easy from the recipe I found, like making elderflower champagne, which is another lovely summery drink.

We're also going to make some herb beers like ginger beer, plus I want to try making some meadowsweet beer and some herb liqueurs. Homemade Dandelion & Burdock is on the cards as well, both as cordial and beer. And Mrs Grieve in her Modern Herbal has a couple I fancy trying including this one:-

Herb Beer that needs no yeast - Use equal quantities of Meadowsweet, Betony, Agrimony and Raspberry leaves (2 oz. of each) boiled in 2 gallons of water for 15 minutes, strained, then 2 lb. of white sugar added and bottled when nearly cool. Intriguing, no yeast! I shall give it a try and see what happens. Whilst we were out earlier, we found some lush patches of young nettles, so we're off to pick some if the weather is fine at weekend, although we can't decide whether to make some nettle beer, nettle wine or Christopher Hedley's wonderful 'Iron Tonic' with them? Maybe we'll have to make all three!

The dandelion wine recipe I use is below, its a tried and trusted recipe that a neighbour gave me about 12 years, the resulting wine is medium sweet and delicious.


1½ litres Fresh Dandelion Petals
5 litres of water
250g Sultanas
3 Oranges
2 Lemons
4cm piece root ginger (peeled & grated)
1½Kg Granulated Sugar
2 Tbspn Cold Strong Tea
Yeast Sachet (Sauterness type, make up a starter as per pack instructions)
Campden Tablet


Pick dandelion flower heads only and remove all the green from the flower leaving you with just the yellow petals, place in a bucket and boil 2½ litres of water and pour over the flowers. Cover the flowers with a clean cloth and leave to steep for 2 days, stirring each day. On day 3 pour the contents of the bowl into a large enamel saucepan (not aluminium), add the thinly pared rind of the orange and lemon, ginger root and sugar and bring to the boil stirring until all the sugar has dissolved.

Put the sultanas and the juice of the oranges and lemon into your bucket, pour on the pan contents and add the other 2½ litres of cold water. Cover the bucket once again with a clean cloth and allow to cool to about 70F, 20C then add the cold tea and the yeast starter. Cover the bucket with a lid and leave in a warm place for 3 days.

Strain the liquid into a demijohn and leave to ferment out.

Monday 21 April 2008

Wild Garlic, Chicken & Mushroom Pasta

It's wild garlic time again yum! I thought I'd try something new this year, usually I add the wild garlic to soups and make pesto with it, yesterday I made this creamy pasta dish, which Si loved and will become a seasonal favourite for us. It was quick to make and we used left over roast chicken from Saturday.

100g Penne Pasta (dry weight)
200g Boneless chicken diced
150g Chestnut mushrooms
1 clove garlic roughly chopped
1 Onion 200ml single cream
Knob Butter
Wild garlic leaves thinly sliced
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Mozzarella Cheese 


1. Cook the pasta for 5-10 minutes depending how you like it.

2. Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and garlic for four minutes

3. Add the chicken and cook for one minute. Season to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper, add the cream and warm through.

4. Stir in the wild garlic leaves.

5. Drain the pasta and add it to the creamy sauce to the cooked, drained pasta and stir well. To serve, spoon onto a serving plate and put the mozzarella cheese on the top. Serve with salad and warm fresh crusty bread.

Saturday 19 April 2008

When is a Weed not a Weed?

Herb Robert
Herb Robert Photo © Debs Cook

The answer to me is obvious, when it’s a herb, and most weeds are herbs in disguise! One of my pet hates is when people use the term weed for anything they either don't want to be there, are ugly, or prolific e.g. dandelion, one man's weed is another man's herbal cure! Hence the reason I got involved with filming the Countryfile programme about the dandelion. I hate to see valuable herbs being maligned and treated as second class citizens. It constantly amazes me what grows in the hedgerows and waysides, so many things we can use to cook and cure.

A lady I know contacted me to say she’d been plagued by a weed called Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) in her lawn, she’d previously told me that she suffered from eczema and wanted something that could help. In the past Herb Robert has been used to treat eczema, it has astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Sometimes Mother Nature grows the things we need to heal us right under our noses, we just have to know where to look! You can make a tea with it, use 1 teaspoon of dried Herb Robert per cup, it tastes a bit funky so try adding some crushed fennel seeds or lemon verbena to perk up the flavour. If you're not happy taking Herb Robert internally, then make an infusion of the leaves, allow to cool and bathe the eczema patches with it. Herb robert has also been used to treat toothache and nosebleeds, and it has diuretic properties and was once used as a cure for dysentery!

The lady went on to tell me how she had another weed in her garden that she had trouble eradicating, she called it ‘Sticky Weed’. It turned out to be Goosegrass or Cleavers (Galium aparine), another herb with medicinal uses. Goosegrass is a traditional springtime 'tonic' helping to eliminate toxins from the system when taken as a tea, it's also used by some medicinal herbalists to treat M.E. and glandular fever. It's also been used for ages as cheap free edible greens although I find it a bit too chewy for my liking.

In my garden aside from cleavers and dandelions, 'weeds' are Sun Spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), Wood Avens better known as Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum), Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), Speedwell (Veronica officinalis) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) I know! But around these parts, yarrow is considered a weed! There are a few others as well but the ones listed above are some of the prettiest and all have some medicinal use, although not all are safe to use these days e.g. Sun Spurge, the sap was used to treat warts but no longer as it's toxic.

What grows in your garden without your intervention gives you a clue to what the area used to be like e.g. marshy, woodland, fenland etc and also what sort of soil you have. I have a theory that if a plant is treated as a weed and made to feel unwelcome then it does its best to grow more prolifically to spite the gardener! Acknowledge its existence and explain to it that you want to grow 'X' in that space and you may find it will be less troublesome. We kept getting eyebright and clover growing in our lawn, so much so that no grass would grow, so we took out the lawn and planted more herbs made bigger beds and we've had no clover or eyebright since (although I do miss the eyebright such a pretty little flower!). I'll be back to this topic in due course, I have a mind to document all the wonderful herbs growing in the wild and investigate their uses.