Thursday, 7 April 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

If you went down to the woods in the twilight hours yesterday you might have found me under a pine tree gathering needles and leaf mould to go in a trench for our blueberries. Our gardening mentor said leaf mould and pine needles are acidic, so today I will make a trench for the acid loving blueberries and get them planted at last.
 Whilst climbing the hill to the woods I noticed that the bilberries covering the heathland are in flower and the blackberry bushes now have good sized leaves. These plants were both added to my apprenticeship list this year as I thought I should know how to use what was on my doorstep – well at the end of my garden at least!
 I decided I must try bilberry leaf tea and when I read that it contains anthocyanins which are anti-aging substances I was more determined! These bitter compounds increase blood circulation to blood vessels in the extremities including the brain. They also reduce inflammation and pain, and relieve muscle spasms. I was not sure at first if I had true bilberries as  in our area there are hybrid bilberries crossed with cowberries which do not grow in many other places but from the description here I think they are normal bilberries; dark reddish pink flowers and pointed leaves. I made a tea this morning from fresh new leaves, it is yellowish, bitter and strong tasting and I would drink it for its benefits but not as a pleasant tasting drink.

Bilberry flowers
 Last night I had blackberry leaf tea and looked up its properties; it is apparently an excellent tonic and a remedy for mild anaemia. I used the soft and tender feeling new leaves and let them steep in boiling water for ten minutes which gave a bright, light yellow-green tea, slightly astringent and tasting a bit pea-like. I enjoyed my cup of tea, it is always relaxing to sit with a cup of fresh herb tea, it tastes better and has more vibrancy than dried shop bought tea.
Bramble leaves for tea

 We’re already a week into April and a new month means new tasks to those of us who are Sarah’s herb apprentices.
 This month I need to look at the herbs in my area, which ones can be harvested and how can I store or use them. I also need to look at using them for food and to share recipes with other apprentices which will be fun and I’ll see how many recipes I can get my family to eat which may be more tricky!  
 I have been eying up the stinging nettles around my compost bin, I know from past experience that my family and friends will eat nettle soup; once they tried it they enjoyed it. While working on dandelion flowers this month I will try and incorporate the greens into our diet, I will need to see what else I can find to harvest.
My favourite nettle soup recipe was passed on by Sarah:
Nettle Soup
225g (8oz) young nettle shoots
2 carrots diced
1 ½ pints vegetable stock
2 onions chopped
3 potatoes sliced
Seasoning to taste
Simmer ingredients for 25 minutes, cool slightly and liquidise. Add a swirl of cream.
(From Herbs 2003 Vol 28 No3)

 As we passed the nettle patch last night Mr Moon Gazing Hare mentioned weed killer, I reminded him about the nice soup we will have and thought I’d better start using more nettles. I put nettle tops into a lunch box, covered them in cold water and put them in the fridge to soak overnight. I first tried this at the herb sanctuary and could not believe that a pint of nettle maceration contains more calcium than a pint of milk. I tried my maceration this morning, it is not strongly flavoured and I think it has a slightly sweet taste. In the spirit of Sarah’s instructions to encourage family and friends to consume more I thought I will try this out on them, if they don’t like it I could dilute it with elderflower syrup or even orange squash to give a drink rich in minerals.
Nettle maceration ready to stand overnight

 This month’s theory is about pain, concentrating on migraine and headaches so there’s lots of research to do. I shall look at migraines and headaches separately.
 The seasonal tasks are to make a crab apple flower essence and as many dandelion flower projects as possible, I have my first flowers in the garden today. My first worry is as usual, where am I going to find crab apple trees?  I shall of course continue to get to know the dandelion, my ally this year.
 This month’s terminology to learn is nervine and vulnerary.
Nervine:  nervine herbs soothe, nourish and calm the nervous system and are used to treat mild to moderate anxiety. Examples are chamomile, lemon balm, skullcap, wild oats, valerian and wood betony.
Vulnerary: vulnerary herbs help broken skin to heal. Examples are comfrey, calendula, plantain and St John’s wort.

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