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Colours of Autumn

As nights draw in and the sun’s warmth diminishes, colours of harvest flood the land. Amongst hedgerows, reds of rosehip and haw shine brightly with subtle shades from bright red to deep crimson. High above, vermillion rowan berries hang in tantalising bunches. Single crimson leaves from cramp bark branches, thrust colour into fading grass.

I use a lot of hawthorn products during the year, making tinctures from flowers with vodka and haws with brandy. I gather ripe berries wherever I am - from trees along my field edges in the Cotswolds, my garden hedge in Solihull and trees from as far apart as Yorkshire or Bristol, depending on my travels. I’ve also made hawthorn vinegar, so people who don’t like to use alcohol, can have an alternative format to choose from.

I rarely collect rosehips. The problem is the time it takes to process the hips before drying. You should cut them in half with a sharp knife, then thoroughly deseed before putting to dry in a warm, airy place. The seeds are very effective itching powder. My long-suffering husband, when offering to help, soon complains his t-shirt is uncomfortable and his hands itch. I don’t suffer quite as badly, but holding the individual hips make my thumb joints ache, so very few get put to dry. The majority lie abandoned in a bowl to shrivel into hardness in their own time until I can pour them into a glass jar to use in syrups and decoctions throughout the winter.

Another red comes from apples. Usually the wild crabapple goes from green to yellow once it is ripe and falls from the trees. Along one Cotswold wall is a red crabapple tree, its fruit shining above green brambles and speckled stone.

St John’s wort oil is another bright red influence on my life over the summer, sitting on the kitchen window ledge beaming scarlet rays when sun shines. The beginning of October is time to strain the flowers out of the oil and put it all away in a cold larder.

The other major colour of autumn is black – blackberries, elderberries and the deep black/purple lustre of a copious sloe harvest hiding behind the thorns of the blackthorn trees.

We usually think of blackberries as something to put in desserts, either pies or puddings, but blackberries, like rosehips, are a good source of Vitamin C and can also act as an astringent along with cinnamon if you’re suffering with loose bowels that won’t respond to usual treatments. They make a delightful tea with other herbs such as Echinacea and elderberry - a pleasant immune enhancer to ward off any lurking virus.

I continue to wax lyrical about elderberry and its anti-viral properties. My parents help collect large amounts of berries so we can try new recipes. Elderberry Elixir is made with brandy and honey, taking at least two months to mature. I also put up several jars of elderberry tincture and make elderberry syrup using leftover elderberries. There are elderberries waiting in the freezer to be made into more syrup when the need arises.

Sloe gin is not something I make every year, but when juicy, purple, blushing sloes beg to be picked, I acquiesce, buying enough gin to make up a bottle and a half of liqueur to sit in the hot cupboard in my kitchen beside infusing vinegars of motherwort and sage to be ready for Christmas.

We should never forget gold and orange. Calendula flowers are prolific rays of sunshine to cheer everyone up after constant rain. Someone once told me she was convinced calendula was helpful in combating her winter blues and judging by the delight the flowers bring to everyone who sees them, I totally agree with her. The softness of the petals makes them a joy to harvest, while the resin coating your hands afterwards reminds you what you’ve been picking. We have been able to make a fresh flower tincture while sun shone and on less bright days, the golden heads dry by the kitchen stove.

All herb flowers take a long time to dry; the processing itself is an exercise in patience. It can take an entire October weekend to process herbs I’ve dried during the summer. This includes taking petals off all calendula flowers, spending up to two hours sitting at the kitchen table balancing a bowl on my lap before pouring them into their glass jars and hiding them from the light in paper bags. The prize is using the dried petals for tea during the darkest days, warding off infections and bringing enjoyment with every sip.

Gold is also found in the most unexpected places – hidden in roots of some of our most helpful plants. Goldenseal, useful for its action supporting mucous membranes is known for its golden roots, but dyers woodruff roots also shine with gold before offering up a red colour to the dye. Nettles, too, have tangled golden roots which, when processed, offer support and treatment to aging prostate glands.

Finally, there is always green. When the marshmallow in my garden starts to seed, I go down with my basket and strip stems of as many soft, green leaves and pale green seeds as I can. These make dark-green, silky oil to use for lubricating dry or diabetic skin and other hidden places. The dried leaves are kept for teas to sooth irritated bowels or dry lungs.

Vervain grows profusely during most of the year. Infused oil can be made with either fresh or dried aerial parts. The oil comes out dark and green with no distinctive smell. This is an anointing oil to help assist an understanding of the passing of the year, allowing us time to rest before growth begins again.

Every season has its own unique array of colours, shapes and scents. As sun sets to bring evening dusk, so brilliant colours of Autumn lead us towards both quiet and chaos of winter.


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