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Fruits of the Fall

To those of us who glory in the fruits of the earth, Fall is a time for berries and roots. It is a time for stretching high into bramble bushes or blackthorn trees or digging deep into the ground to try and follow the tortuous path of those plants which delight in stony soil!

My fall gathering begins during the first weekend in September when my husband and I travel to Bristol for the International Kite Flying Festival. The sun is still hot and the evenings warm. The kite fliers and their admirers gather in a public park on the top of a hill overlooking the city. While others watch the flying pink elephants and deep sea divers or wonder at the formations performed by "The Decorators" with their four-string Revolution kites, I wander happily amongst the hawthorn and elderberry trees, picking the first of the red and black harvest. The hawthorn berries I infuse in brandy to make a wonderful heart tonic that is now being requested as Yule presents by discerning friends! The elderberries I make into either a rob or a syrup to use as a Vitamin C boost for colds during the winter. One year I made elderberry jelly by mixing the berries left over from syrup making with cooking apples from our garden tree. The jelly was wonderful on toast on cold mornings.

Blackberries are a favourite fall berry, whether gathered from the brambles in my garden or from the hedgerows of my parent's farm in the Cotswolds. I usually freeze most of them to use later in pies or bramble jelly, but some I will infuse in cider vinegar to make either a tasty salad dressing or a soothing drink with honey for a sore throat.

Roots  give you a completely new perspective on a plant. However well you think you know a plant and understand it, roots give you a fresh insight. They may be shallow and have lots of small tendrils, like plantain or they may be more difficult tap roots, like dandelion, horseradish and comfrey. It is also a salutary experience to realise that by taking the root, you are asking the plant to sacrifice itself to your needs. That need not be always the case. With plants like docks, dandelions, horseradish, comfrey, burdock, you can very rarely dig up all the tap root and a new plant will regenerate from the small part left in the ground, but think very carefully with some plants, such as wild echinacea or osha, before you harvest any wild roots. There lies the way of extinction.

Dandelions, horseradish and burdock are plants that I have harvested for their roots and ended up with back ache in the process! Dandelion roots are plump and store more sugars in the fall, compared with their thin, bitter spring counterparts. Dandelion and burdock are both herbs which strengthen the liver and provide a cleansing action for the body by acting as a diuretic. Dandelion also helps by adding potassium to the body which other allopathic diuretics may remove.

Burdock is an extremely clever plant. Not only does it have seeds which stick to anything that has fibres and won't come off! It also has a tap root that forks and goes in completely the opposite direction from where you think it is!

After gathering roots, I wash them in cold water and try to remove all the dirt with a small nail brush. Once they have dried, I finished preparing them by cutting thin slices and putting half to dry in the bottom of my oven on the lowest heat setting (remembering to leave the oven door open so that evaporating water can escape) and tincturing the rest.

The horseradish root, which makes a wonderful poultice as well as sauce, I usually grate by putting fresh pieces of root in a coffee grinder. Even with the grinder lid firmly in place, you still have to protect your eyes from the juice if you don't want to spend the next few minutes in tears!

Fall is also about preparing for Yuletide treats and one of my favourites is sloe gin. Sloes are wild plums that grow on the blackthorn tree. In ancient times, the long thorns were used as needles. Picking sloes has to be done carefully as the thorns are very sharp. In early September the sloes are still green, but by the middle of October their skin has turned the deepest purple. Once picked, each sloe has to be pricked with a darning needle before popping into an empty wine bottle until it is half full. Sugar is then poured over the sloes and the bottled filled up with gin. The most magical moment is when the bottle is shaken for the very first time and the liquid turns a beautiful pink colour. It has to be stored in a warm place for three months, before decanting, but then it's ready to drink.

All too soon, the first frosts are upon us and berries change their constitution on the trees or bushes. Picking some late hawthorn berries last year, I was horrified when the resulting brandy was cloudy and full of precipitated pectin. Never being one to waste something I have put effort into, I used this brandy to soak the fruit in to flavour my Yule cake and no-one was any the wiser.

As the nights draw in and the temperature drops, the last glorious feast of colour is tinged with sadness as the earth prepares for its long sleep. Fall is a time of preparation for the quiet of winter, with a harvest of stored good things to keep us happy and healthy during the leaner times.


Sarah Head - email


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