Native Plants and Trees
This page is a month-by-month guide to our native plants and trees, their edible and medicinal uses, and includes seasonal recipes for foods and drinks made from what you can gather in the garden or from the hedgerows. It is also a gardening guide to growing the native plants and trees, based on my own experience and experiments. This has led to my interest in native plant guerilla gardening, also included here. We can all play our part in re-wilding the countryside and our own gardens too by planting native plants and trees. We can then gather them for medicines and food and they will help restore the diverse eco-systems so needed by the bees and other wildlife.
January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December
Harebell ~ Campanula rotundifolia
A few years ago I had the good fortune to spend some time travelling along the tiny lanes of Cornwall. We constantly marveled at the rich variety of native plants that grew along them, burgeoning with health, a mass of insects and bees, a wild colourful gorgeousness of the everyday humble native wild flowers and grasses that those tall roadside banks created. The trees hanging overhead created cool tunnels of green - the effect was like stepping into a magical world, a natural wonderland. It reminded me of my childhood, when all the green lanes, hayfields and field edges were filled with wild flowers, rich with colour and alive with insects, vibrancy and life.
Farming has undergone a massive shift in the last 50 years, becoming an industry, controlled and directed by the government. During this time we have seen a massive loss of wild life habitat and natural diversity, as field edges have been sprayed with herbicides and insecticides, hedgerows and trees have been ripped out and the safe havens for wild plants and wild life have been destroyed. With this has come a great depletion of our native wild flowers, (an incredible 96% loss in our countryside is the official figure) as well as our native insects and the loss and ill health of our bees, our essential pollinators.
The wetter summers of our changing climate have seen a return of the native plants. Councils and farmers have less money for herbicides and recent years have seen much less cutting back of the verges, so that plants can re-seed themselves. There are now many dedicated nature reserves and sanctuaries for wild life and disused industrial sites such as old quarries, the canal edges and old railway networks have been reclaimed by walkers and communities as natural reserves, creating wildlife and wild plant corridors. It is heartening to see the native plants are making a come-back.
It is also heartening to see that a general understanding is beginning to take hold.... that we need our bio-diversity, we need our wild edges and all the creatures and plants that have lived here for thousands of years - they are part of the health and balance of the land and part of our own health and wellbeing too. If the land is depleted then so are we, as all things are connected.
A Wild Flower Meadow
It is wonderful when you find yourself in a true wild flower meadow. Left to grow or cut for hay. They are filled with all kinds of nutritional and beneficial native plants and herbs and used for winter food for horses and other animals. They are cut just as the flowers are seeding, so that the seeds fall and re-grow again the following year. In this way the rich diversity of plants remains.
I gathered Long ribbed Plantain leaves and Red Clover flowers in a local meadow and also found Coltsfoot leaves that were growing along the edge of the lane. I brought them home and made them into tinctures to combine later into a cough and chest mixture for the winter.
(See May 2012 for Tincture Making method)
Tussilago farfara and Long Ribbed Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) are wonderful for chest and lung congestion and chesty coughs, and Red Clover is a much prize herbal remedy that works as a general restorative to the whole system: assisting the lymph system to throw off infections, cleansing the blood, promoting expectoration of mucus from the body, soothing the nerves and helping to promote sleep.
When these are ready in a month's time. I will strain off the plant matter and rebottle them in dark jars. Tinctures last 3 to 5 years so it is a good idea to make them when you come across the plants in their prime. I will also make some into a Honey Cough Elixir by combining them all together with an equal amount of clear local honey.
Long Ribbed Plantain ~ Plantago lanceolata
I collecting seeds of the Long Ribbed Plantain and the yellow rattle, both of which were dropping. The Salad Burnett wasn't ready, but I made a mental note to find some or buy some and sow all three together this autumn.
Salad Burnet ~ Sanguisorba minor
(See July 2012 for Salad Burnett)
Yellow Rattle ~ Rhinanthus minor
This beautiful plant is the key to successful meadow growing as it is parasitical on grasses and weakens them. This gives the wild flowers a better chance to compete with the grasses and become established. The seeds are best sown in the autumn between September and November, as the winter cold helps them to germinate. Sprinkle them directly in patches of roughened bare earth between existing grass.
This is the time to be out on the land exploring. Throughout the land are many ancient track-ways, ridge-ways, hollow-ways, port-ways and other 'ways' that were once used by travellers and are still there to be followed. There are trade routes and packhorse routes that give us a glimpse of the lives and history of the past. They can lead us to forgotten beautiful places, hidden valleys, springs and wells, caves, hill forts, earthworks, Bronze and Iron Age burial mounds and settlements, and places where industry once flourished and nature is reclaiming. Take off your clothes and lie in the long grass, go wild swimming and skinny dipping. Let the sun warm and brown your naked skin. Walk barefoot, in contact with the Earth and natural water, whenever you can.
The Elderflowers were late flowering this year but when they arrived it felt like a great celebration to herald the sun and Summer. Sprinkle them fresh on salads and fruit salads or bake them into cakes.
Drink an infusion of the flowers as a daily tonic and also as an expectorant to throw off excess mucus in head or lungs, for coughs, sinusitis, catarrh and hay fever. An infusion of the flowers makes a cooling lotion for the skin or for bathing tired eyes and drunk before bed are a sedative to help sleep.
Pick the Elderflowers and gently pull them from the stems with your fingers. It's a good idea to dry them for later use or make them into a tincture
They can be dried in a very low oven or in brown paper bags placed in a warm dry airy place. Turn them over with your hands frequently to keep the air circulating. Don't over-pick and let some of the flowers carry on flowering, so that they become Elder berries.
(See Drying Herbs July 2012)
Flower honeys (See June 2012)
Herbal and Flower Syrups
They can be drizzled on to porridge, ice cream, yogurt, as well as made into hot drinks.
1. Half fill a pint jar with leaves, flowers or fruit.
2. Cover with apple juice and let it steep for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
3. Strain off the plant matter.
4. Bottle and Label. Will keep for 3 weeks in the fridge.
The more traditional method that will keep for many months.
2 pint glasses of leaves, flowers or fruit.
1 pint glass of water
1. Bring the plant matter and water to the boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes and then strain through muslin.
2. Measure the liquid. For every 2 cups of juice add 1 cup of sugar and bring back to the boil in a clean saucepan. Stir and gently boil for about 10 minutes and pour hot into sterilized dark bottles.
3. Tighten the tops while hot. Label and date when cool.
Elderflower Cordial - As the elder comes into flower and fills the air with its heady scent, at least one batch of elderflower cordial or elderflower champagne must be made! Add other perfumed flowers such as roses or aromatic leaves such as peppermint, to create new and interesting flavours.
12 large heads of elderflowers
3 lemons, chopped.
600g (1lb) sugar
4.5 litres (8 pints) of boiling water
2 table spoons (1oz) cream of tartar
1. Put all the ingredients in a large bowl. Pour on boiling water and stir well.
2. Leave for 24 hours stirring occasionally.
3. Strain through muslin and pour into clean bottles.
4. Dilute to taste with still or fizzy water.
5. Will last a week or so in the fridge or can be frozen in plastic bottles for later use. (Don’t fill the bottles to allow for expansion.)
Try adding oranges instead of lemons, and use a little less sugar.
4 pint glasses (2.3 litres) of flowers stripped from their stalks or calyx
1 gallon (4.6 litres) of water
8 oz (225g) minced or chopped sultanas
3lbs (1.35kg) sugar
6 fl oz (175ml) cold black tea
I teaspoon yeast
1. Pour boiling water over the flowers and leave covered for 3 days. Stir every day.
2. Strain off the flowers. Bring the liquid to the boil adding the juice and finely grated rind of the lemons and oranges, sultanas, tea and sugar. Return to the bucket and when lukewarm sprinkle the yeast on top.
3. Cover with a tea towel tied round the top of the bucket with string and let this stand for a week.
4. Carefully strain off all the ingredients, and pour into a clean demijohn, and fit the fermentation lock. Bottle when fermentation stops.
July is a busy month for harvesting herbs and especially flowers. I am busy making tinctures (see May 2012), macerations/herbal oils (see June 2012), or drying herbs to put aside for winter use when the fresh herb is no longer available.
Drying leaves, fruit, roots and flowers is the most basic and traditional way to store herbs. Dried leaves and flowers deteriorate after one year so they need to be cleared out and re-collected every year. Fruit, seeds, berries, roots and bark will generally last for two years.
Before harvesting make time to sit with the plant, observe and absorb its presence and vital energy. Enjoy it in its full power before you pick it. Check in with yourself how the plant makes you feel. Write any words that come to you in your journal, draw a little picture. Be spontaneous, let your inhibitions go and engage. Go wild! Have a conversation! Talk, hum or sing to the plants. This is what the aboriginal and tribal people do and perhaps you will find this easier than you think! It creates a joyful connection to our own wild spirit as well as to the plant.
If you haven't time for a long connection, then simply always remember to harvest the herbs with a thankful and open heart. Before you pick them take a moment to appreciate them and enjoy their beauty and their vitality and always thank them. Take photos!
~ Always harvest on a dry day, when the sun or wind has dried the dew from the plants. This is best around midday or early afternoon.
~ Herbs are harvested when they are at the peak of their energetic potential. This is usually as it is just coming into flower. If you are harvesting the flowers, fruits or seeds then look for that optimum moment when they are at their best.
~ Take some from many plants so that you don't deplete the whole plant's energy. This is especially important when foraging from the wild.
~ When gathering out in the countryside, only pick where there is a great profusion of plants. Pick so that you would not know you had been there. Leave plenty behind to flower and seed. Be careful that you know the land has not been sprayed. Cut sensitively with scissors or secateurs and place in brown paper bags or baskets. Never pick flowers from the countryside (its illegal these days) (unless there is great profusion.)
As always write everything down in your herb journal: the date and where you picked it together with the uses of the plant. This is invaluable to look back on.
Methods for Drying Herbs
1) Collect the herbs in brown paper bags or baskets, and then lay them out on a tray. Strip the best leaves from the stalks and discard any leaves that have been eaten, have any mould, fungi, growths, eggs or insects living on them. Always check the backs of leaves for insect eggs or cocoons etc. Gently pull flowers from their stalks or calyx. Check over fruit to ensure you save only the freshest unblemished fruit.
Put the very best into clean brown paper bags to dry, and label and date them. Everything else take back outside and put in the compost or in any out of the way edge place.
2) Herbs should be dried out of the light with plenty of air circulating around them. I have found paper bags are best and I keep any brown paper bags I get for this purpose. They can be used several times. Always label the bags with the name of the herb, the date and where you picked it. This is good practice and a good habit to get into as plants can change a lot in the drying process. Even if you think you will know what it is, it is surprising how you can forget, especially if you bag up several herbs over a period of a few weeks.
3) Leave them in a dry warm environment for several weeks. The bags can be put in the airing cupboard if you have one, hung over the wood-burner or left on top of radiators. Importantly you need to ensure that air can circulate around them and they are kept in a warm airy place to dry.
4) Shake the bags and turn the leaves over with your hands every few days. It is essential to do this to stop any mould getting in to the herbs while they are still drying.
Storing Dried Herbs
~ It is light that destroys the herbal properties of herbs, so at its simplest herbs can be stored all year in brown paper bags, although if they are kept in the kitchen they will need to be kept in a plastic container or airtight tin to keep them dry.
~ Keeping the paper bags in a dedicated leather or cotton bag is the traditional medicine way and these are hung somewhere warm and dry, near a radiator or fire.
~ Putting them into dark glass jars is good in a kitchen because of the condensation. Clear jam jars are ok if they are kept in a dark cupboard or keep the jar in a brown paper bag.
Self Heal ~ Prunella vulgaris
A native perennial found growing on the edge of woodlands and fields and all edges. Flowers June to September.
In the Garden: An attractive garden plant with bright purple flowers, much loved by the bees. It grows well from seed and will grow well in containers. It will self seed.
Part Used: The whole plant, including the flower heads.
Herbal uses: It is a major wound herb, but more than this it is a herb that will help boost the immune system, help the adrenals. Dry and make into a restorative tea. Externally you can use an infusion on wounds etc or make into a macerated oil for wounds, sores, ulcers and piles. (See June)
Metaphysical Use: To open ourselves to our own healing and to our spiritual path. It brings the gift to shine and stand proud in our own truth and to be open to communication from the heart.
In the Kitchen: Pick and dry the flower heads as they come into flower (leave some for their seeds)
Drying herbs - see above
Tinctures - See May 2012
Herbal oil - See June 2012
Mullein ~ Verbascum thapsus
A native biennial, found growing on sunny banks, disturbed ground and waysides, also known as Aaron's Rod, Hags Taper and Torch Plant. It has beautiful fragrant flowers, which begin at Midsummer and gradually work their way up the flowering stalk. In the past the finished spikes were dried, dipped in fat or oil and used as a slow-burning taper or torch.
In the Garden: Mullein is a tall and striking plant that likes dry ground. Grow from seed and allow it to self-seed along the wild edges.
Part Used: Leaves, flowers.
Herbal Uses: Make a herbal oil from the flowers and use for ear infections. It reduces pain and fights infection. The leaves and flowers are good for the lungs and the throat. Make into tea or tincture for all respiratory infections, bronchial infections, coughs, asthma, and glandular imbalance. It calms and strengthens the digestive system and the nerves. Previously the leaves were dried used in country tobacco.
In the Kitchen: Make oil from the flower buds and flowers. Dry the leaves or make into tincture.
Drying herbs - see above
Tinctures - See May
Herbal oil - See June
January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December