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.