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Herbal Harvest

(This article appeared in an edited form in Herbs magazine during 2003)

Lughnasadh has been gone a month and Mabon will soon be upon us. Already the fruit trees are groaning in the orchards, wasps have started on ripe plums and pears and apples are dropping onto the grass to trip us as we walk past. Nights are drawing in and our thoughts turn to preserving what remains of summer before autumn and winter grab the abundance from our grasp.

The summerhouse at the end of my garden is full of herb filled paper bags suspended from the central beam. My first job on return from holiday was to go through all the bags that had been drying for two months and transfer the leaves and flowers into glass jars to store in the larder for use during the next twelve months. They have to be separated from any woody stems in case there is any moisture left which might rot the dried herbs during the winter and make them unusable. I had my first disappointment when I found that some elderflowers that I’d left to dry on my new trug had gone mouldy underneath - my own fault for not checking the flowerheads regularly and turning them to allow the air to dry all sides equally.

Then it was time to harvest the next crop – long stemmed vervain with it’s tiny pink flowers, fluffy stems of white horehound with flower whorls at the base of each leaf, golden heads of calendular , sprigs of sage and thyme and bundles of peppermint, spearmint and catmint. My elecampagne flowered for the first time this year – large yellow suns on long stalks at the top of a four foot high stems surrounded by enormous leaves spanning nearly 18 inches by nine inches. The plant roots are used for coughs, but I don’t want to sacrifice the plant after only two year’s growth, so I’ve experimented with drying some of the leaves and flowers to add to my eclectic cough syrup.

A visit to my Cotswold herb garden yielded a boot (trunk) full of herbs to process and dry. The echinacea flowers and stems were ground in the coffee grinder and covered with vodka to steep in a cool place for three weeks before straining and using as an immune system strengthener. The tall scullcap aerial parts needed no such drastic treatment, they could be torn into manageable pieces and stuffed in a handy Kilner jar before adding the alcohol. Mugwort was covered in sunflower oil and heated in a double boiler for four hours to produce a rubbing oil for painful joints with the most amazing pungent smell. The presence of flowers in the oil means that it can’t be used for people with allergy problems, but for others, the addition of cayenne pepper to the mixture can help with deep penetration.

The chamomile yielded an abundant harvest of long, fragrant stems. This year I am preserving only the leaves and flowers to try and reduce the bitterness that dogged last year’s crop. If it turns out that I’m using the wrong variety yet again, I shall fill some sleep pillows with the dried herb instead!

The milk thistle heads are still drying in their paper bag, but soon I shall don stout gloves and attack the heads with a stirring stick to remove the seeds from their sharply spiked home. I’m hoping to make a tincture to dose my sons with when they return from alcoholic sprees!

I treated myself to some fresh dandelion leaves out of the field to add to my salad, dressing it with whole leaves of marjoram, mint and parsley, rather than chopping them finely as I normally do. The bursts of separate flavours were really quite something to savour!

The woodsage and sweet woodruff  I had transplanted on my last visit seemed to be growing happily above the “well” and some Cornish ferns were added to the collection of shade-loving plants under the hawthorn, willow and elder trees. Back in the herb garden, the tiny borage seedlings of May and scrawny sprig of tansy had all grown into large, flowering plants surrounded by bees. The hyssop, lemon verbena and motherwort were all flowering as well and were cropped to be dried for future use or made into fresh herb tincture. My parents were glad to see the back of the motherwort, since it had pricked their hands every time they cut the flowering stems off! The beautiful pink whorls of flowers belied their sharp spikes!

My parents also collected several bags full of calendula flowers that took several hours to separate into dried petals and seeds to use for next year’s harvest. It was interesting to note that the calendula at the farm have produced mainly orange flowers while the ones in my garden are mainly yellow when the packets came from the same manufacturer!

The woad has lost most of its yellow flowers now and has produced a host of black seeds that we gathered in profusion. Unfortunately, the coriander turned out to be the wrong variety for seed gathering and so they were dug up and used to start a new compost heap amongst the nettles by the fence. The huge feverfew plant will also have to go since I have no use for it and it is taking up far too much room.

My two tiny meadowsweet plants produced their first feathery flowers this summer. I have left them to self seed for next year and went in search of meadowsweet to gather along the banks of the River Eye in Upper Slaughter. I had seen a clump of early flowering meadowsweet in July when I took some excess herbs down to the village fete to be sold, but I did not anticipate the whole side of the river would be covered in the plant! I managed to gather a generous handful and brought it home to produce another infused oil to soothe aching joints and muscles.

Like mugwort, the oil is a deep dark green, but without the characteristic scent of the plant. Tansy and vervain oil, which I infused on subsequent days last week, are also green, although the Tansy is lighter than the others. The bountiful harvest of calendula allowed me to make some infused oil. My last infusion had come in useful when my eldest son developed impetigo on return from holiday and couldn’t get a doctor’s appointment for antibiotics for a week. I made him a bright yellow salve with calendula oil and teatree essential oil thickened with beeswax to cover the sores and keep them from cracking.

The new calendar oil is a deep orange colour. It is such a useful ingredient for any skin care product. I treated myself some new moisturising cream recently made with an aqueous cream base to which I added calendula and rose petal infused oil, St John’s Wort tincture and some whisked up aloe vera gel from the plants in my living room! It is scented with lemongrass essential oil and brings a wonderful freshness to the morning after a shower!

Outside, the marshmallow has grown almost as tall as the laurel hedge. I have been savouring it’s pink flowers in salads recently along with the glorious yellow and orange flowers produced by the self seeding nasturtiums. I found a recipe recently for a “Great Rite” salve using marshmallow leaves and seeds. It would be a wonderful gift for a handfasting…if I knew any happy couples!

In the shady border, the woodsage has flowered, along with pink bergomot and blue gentian, while the  pink soapwort and fluffy mint flowers are trying to escape onto the lawn! The poor goldenseal looks very moth eaten, but I know it will come again next spring. The valarian has been cut back now the flowers are gone and I shall have to decide whether or not to make some fresh root tincture this autumn. The southernwood is flowering for the first time this year, belying the myth that this herb cannot flower in England’s cold climate!

My kitchen windowsill is filled with jars of St John’s Wort oil simmering in the sunshine and turning the characteristic deep red colour. The finished oil has the most wonderful silky feel to it. I use it for all kinds of skin abrasions, burns and sunburn in conjunction with other wound healing plants such as plantain and occasionally comfrey leaves. Recently I have been giving samples to friends with sciatic nerve/back problems to mix in equal portions with rosemary essential oil to rub on the affected area to soothe the pain.

It is the St John’s Wort plants which show that summer is nearly over most poignantly. Every day the yellow star flowers are less in number and the red tipped green seeds cover most of the plant. The frantic round of picking, drying, tincturing and infusing will soon be over and we shall be able to rest and evaluate the fruits of our labours before starting to plan what will happen in the herb garden next year!


Sarah Head - email


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