Today, up on the Linden Field, I found the wild garlic is all set to flower. I’d rather forgotten about harvesting the leaves. Now there is a lush Ramsons verge the entire length of the lime tree avenue. And there are carpets of them too along the old railway embankment and in the woods below Windmill Hill. It’s not too late to gather the leaves either, though best to be picky and opt for the newest growth. The flowers can be used too, cooked in soups or raw in salads and pesto sauce. Both leaves and flowers are fairly mild in flavour and consumption provides the added benefit of pepping up the constitution since they are rich in vitamins K and C. The only drawback for many is the smell. It can be especially pungent on warm afternoons and earned it names such as Stinking Nanny and Stink Bomb. But garlicky odours aside, the freshly opening flowers do a fine job, creating their own terrestrial starscapes, lighting up the woods and shady peripheries.
The dandelion is surely a plant to be reckoned with – whether you see it as wild flower, weed or herbal pharmacopoeia. You certainly can’t beat them for brightness. Or for persistence.
When I’m wearing my gardener’s hat, which is mostly, their presence in and around the vegetable plots infuriates me, and I gouge them up as soon as I spot them. Yet this is probably counter productive. I’ve read that the plant’s pugnacious tap root thrusts down through unpromising soil and unlocks nutrients from below. A huge advantage then. Also, the roots, if you do dig them up, can be roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute, and though it may not match up to your favourite Arabica, will at least give your liver a good clean out.
The leaves, popularly used in French salads (and inspiring the original name ‘lion’s tooth’ dent de lion) act on the urinary system, hence the many other much ruder old country names: Jack-piss-the-bed, Tiddle-beds, Old man’s clock to mention only a few.
But old country lore aside, scientific studies have shown that the plant is bursting with nutrients: minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Even the flowers are edible, though apparently tasting best before they open. Well! I did once see a recipe for dandelion flower fritters, and they certainly looked very pretty. Perhaps instead of casting them as villains of the plot, I should welcome them as a most useful, free and therapeutic crop. As with most things in life, much depends on your chosen perspective.
In these viral days – virtual and actual – we could probably all do with some regular infusions of lemon balm tea. Medical herbalists prescribe it for anxiety, shock, insomnia and all round jangled nerves. Simply brushing your fingers against the stems fills the air with a lemony minty freshness that lifts the spirits. Last night as I was standing at the kitchen door, waiting for the couscous to fluff up, I saw these sprigs among the montbretia leaves, briefly lit by the last of the sun – a glow to savour then between our present squalls of wintery rain and high winds. Last Saturday it was all heat and high summer here in Shropshire. This Saturday the weather clock has regressed to early March. Strange times all round. Time to brew some lemon balm methinks.
And so many associations too: old tales of a princess and a poisoned spindle, of a derring-do lad with thorny ramparts to vanquish and kisses to impart. Then there’s the therapeutic qualities of Rosa canina, the dog rose. Herbalists have long used the dried petals in compresses for the eyes and as a tea to soothe digestion. And of course the bright red hips of autumn are still valued for their high vitamin C content. If you were a child in Britain during WW2, and indeed for some years afterwards, you will still remember the taste of rosehip syrup, promoted by government during the war-time absence of citrus fruit. The hips are said to have 30 times more vitamin C than an orange.
And rose petals are indeed edible. In times past I have been known to crystallise them with a coating of gum arabic, rosewater and caster sugar, delicately applied with a small paint brush. Once they had been left to dry in a warm place, I would serve them with creamy lemon syllabub and homemade meringues. A memory then of my culinary ‘dog days’ – of a June without deluges, and the dog roses scrambling airily through hedgerows suffusing the lanes with their delicate scent.
All the same, the flowers do look rather lovely scattered with raindrops – not too many, mind. Which rather brings me to John Coltrane, and my favourite version of My Favourite Things. I’m hoping some you like it too:
This week Patti has set the ‘favourite things’ theme, so pay her a visit and be inspired. And here’s what she says about the Lens-Artists weekly challenge: “If you’re new to the challenges, click here to learn how to join us. Remember to link your post here and tag it Lens-Artists to help us find your post in the WP Reader.
Next week, it’s Ann Christine’s turn to lead the challenge, so be sure to visit her blog. As always, Amy, Tina, Ann-Christine, and I are delighted that you’re joining our challenges!
This marigold had its photo taken on 22nd January. She was growing in my strawberry bed, one of several plants that have spread themselves hither and thither on my allotment plots and been quietly flowering all winter. They make their own sunshine, don’t they. Though I think even they will have been defeated by the current Siberian onslaught. I have not ventured over the field to see.
For hundreds of years the marigold has been much loved by herbalists. Its properties comprise a complete pharmacy – from healing skin conditions to boosting the immune system and many disorders in between. I usually just add the petals to salads, or as a garnish to rice dishes. The colour alone is enough to lift the spirits.
I’m also hoping that Debbie and Becky won’t mind my killing two challenges with one marigold:
Six Word Saturday Please visit Debbie to see a very shaggy sheep.
March Squares For this month Becky has set us the daily challenge of posting square photos featuring either squares or circles. You may post as inclination strikes.
Badda, Othoo, Olokwai, Eroronyit, Mjunju, Kiwowa – are just some of the names that Kenya’s peoples use for this super-tree. Here, in the Maasai Mara, its lone presence on the grasslands adds a sense of drama. Perhaps the spare silhouette springs some ancestral memory. For if we believe that humankind evolved in the Great Rift, then we must have an ages-old association with this tree, and not only as a source of food, but for firewood, the making of shelters and tools and, most especially, for medicine.
All the photos here were taken in the Mara, but the range of the Desert Date (Balanites aegyptiaca) extends across much of Africa, and into parts of the Middle East and India. But wherever it grows, its multiple uses have long been valued. Much like the baobab, it is a natural pharmacy. Every part of this unassuming tree has been scientifically shown to be packed with pharmacologically active substances.
Saponins are the key compounds. They protect the immune system, decrease blood lipids, lower cancer risk and cholesterol levels. They include diosgenin, from which hormones for the contraceptive pill may be produced. In short, the tree’s parts – roots, shoots, bark, fruits and seeds – have been shown in laboratory tests to have many healing and prophylactic properties: anti-fever, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-parasitic, anti-cancer, antioxidant and liver-protecting. (For more scientific details see Bishnu P Chapagain 2006.)
And so it is that the practices of generations of traditional healers, from Africa to India, (and so often sneered at) may now be vindicated: all along they have been barking up precisely the right tree.
For example, the Pokot pastoralists of northwest Kenya make a decoction of the root to treat malaria. They also boil the root in soup to ease oedema and stomach pains. For heartburn, the Akamba of central Kenya make an infusion of bark. Throughout East Africa, the root is used to get rid of intestinal worms, and as a general purgative. The bark is used as a fish poison, and when mixed with fruit will kill freshwater snails and copepods that host the parasites that cause Bilharzia and Guinea Worm respectively, both scourges in many parts of Africa. In Sudan herbalists use Desert Date to treat jaundice, and in West Africa the fruit is mixed into porridge and eaten by nursing mothers. The seeds, when boiled, produce an excellent oil that is used in food preparation and to soothe headaches. Over 4,ooo years ago in Ancient Egypt this oil was a prized cosmetic. So much so, that the seeds were placed in tombs beside the dead as if to suggest that, in the afterlife, this was a tree that no one could be without.
In fact Balanites thus once grew in profusion along the Nile Valley, and were possibly cultivated. But they are also well adapted to arid and semi-arid conditions, tolerating both sand and heavy clay. Their vertical roots reach down 7 metres, while the horizontal roots may extend 20 metres from the trunk. It can also cope with stock and wildlife grazing (the characteristic canopy is shaped by browsing giraffes), flood, and grassfire. Their boughs and long, thin spines photosynthesize even when the leaves drop off. This makes them a valuable famine food. No matter how dry, each year they can produce up to 10,000 date-like fruits. The flesh is bitter-sweet, but eaten by humans, their stock and most wild game. In fact elephants are one of the main propagators of this species, at least in Africa. While most other creatures spit out the stones, elephants swallow them, depositing them in due course in dollops of ready-made compost.
In Kenya the Pokot and Turkana also eat the tree’s young leaves and shoots, boiled, pounded and fried with fat. The Maasai eat the gum, and the Marakwet boil the seeds and eat them like beans. In other parts of Africa the small flowers are stirred into porridge, and the fruit is fermented to make alcoholic drinks.
And then there is the wood. This is an excellent cooking fuel since it burns with little smoke. The wood is durable and used for house-building. It is also easily worked to make yokes, wooden spoons, pestles, mortars, handles, stools, combs. Resin from the tree stems is used to stick feathers on to arrow shafts and spear heads to shafts. The Turkana use it to repair cracks in tool handles. And the tree itself may be grown in farmsteads as a living fence that can be cropped for both human needs and livestock fodder. While it is protecting domestic animals and crops it is also fixing nitrogen in the soil.
And now you know why I called it a tree of life. It is ripe for development too, the kind of development that can only enhance existence on the planet. In fact one gasps at how much potential can subsist within a single tree species. AND THIS IS JUST ONE TREE. But doesn’t it show, and with glaring clarity, that instead of destroying the world’s wild places (and for mostly very pointless reasons), we need to protect and learn from them, and learn, too, from those indigenous peoples who still know them intimately and understand where the real treasure lies.
Copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
For my earlier post on the baobab:
Flickr Comments for more ‘D’ words