January and February can be dreary months, no place more so than in the garden; whilst a few bulbs are beginning to make their presence known, it takes a brave flower to face the cruel, harsh elements of Winter…. A few do rise to the challenge though – winter pansies and jasmin, hellibores and of course, witch hazel….
The one we have here in this garden, Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witch hazel) has done itself proud this year…. Planted soon after we moved in, some thirteen or fourteen years ago, it has taken its time to establish and get its roots down; this is the first year it has really flowered well….
‘Hamamelis’ literally means ‘together with fruit’ – flowers, fruit and next year’s leaf buds can all appear together on the plant…. It is a shrub with several tricks up its sleeve; its early flowers, the foliage that turns to pleasing Autumn colour before the leaves fall….and then it has its party-piece…. The Hamamelis produces a seed pod in the form of a two-part capsule that contains just one black, glossy seed – the pod explodes open and can catapult the seed up to 30ft away….
Witch hazel is a genus of flowering plants in the Hamamelidaceae family; there are four species native to North America, one in Japan and another in China….
The first to be called witch hazel – because of its resemblance to the European hazelnut tree – is the Native American species H.virginiana. It was discovered in 1687 and first grown in England by Henry Compton, the Bishop of London….
The Japanese variety (H.japonica), which is similar to H.virginiana but with bigger flowers, was first introduced to Europe in 1863. In Japan the witch hazel is known as ‘mansaku’ – translating as ‘rich crop’. Folklore says when the flowers appear in great numbers a good crop is predicted for the coming harvest….
The Chinese (H.mollis) was first marketed in the West by the Arnold Arboretum, Massachusetts, in 1914. Although similar to H.viginiana it has a much stronger scent and is sometimes considered to be the most attractive of the witch hazels, as its flowers have a less twisted appearance. Native to central and Eastern China, it matures into a large shrub or even small tree, but potentially reaches only up to 10ft in height in our gardens….
The Latin ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’ and refers to the leaves which turn a buttery yellow in the Autumn. The yellow flowers are usually tinged red at the base, with 4 long petals, 4 short stamens and grow in clusters. Flowering from mid to late Winter through to early Spring, it is an ideal plant to cut a few stems from to bring indoors, so that its lovely citrusy fragrance can be enjoyed….
Since the 1930s hybrids have been produced from the two Asian species, forming the Hamamelis Xintermedia hybrids: the first named ‘Arnold Promise’ arriving in 1963 has fragrant, yellow flowers. In 1969 ‘Diane’ was brought to us, with its lightly scented red flowers and long flowering season. Since the mid 80s a whole host of new varieties have been introduced to the market….
Witch hazel is a fabulous feature plant; the darker varieties produce spectacular Autumn colour, changing from green to yellow, to orange and finally to dark red…. It is perfect for the British climate, as the winter chill is needed for full flowering potential to be achieved; it is incredibly frost tolerant and is disease resistant…. Witch hazel is easy to grow but prefers non-chalky soil and is extremely low maintenance….with no need for pruning – just remove any dead wood….
Of course, witch hazel’s talents don’t stop there…. The bark, twigs and leaves contain tannins and polyphenols which can be extracted and added to water (sometimes with alcohol) to produce distilled witch hazel…. Thomas Newton Dickinson, a Baptist minister, was the first to distill witch hazel commercially. He built a distillery in 1866, after learning of its medicinal properties from Native American Indian tribes. He used 86% double distilled witch hazel with 14% alcohol – the brand is still available today….and little has changed to its formula….
Witch hazel is a natural astringent – removing excess oil from the skin and shrinking the pores. It helps prevent spots, blackheads and blemishes and is one of the best treatments for acne…. It is often added as an ingredient to beauty and health products….
It is useful to help fight signs of aging and can reduce puffiness and brighten the eye area – (just take care not to get in the eye itself, as it will sting)…. It is also known to help fade bruises and speed up the healing process….
Applied to minor cuts and scrapes witch hazel will stem. Bleeding and is a good choice for the cleansing of wounds – (especially the shop bought variety as it usually contains isopropyl alcohol)…. Used after shaving it will stop any nicks from bleeding and will help prevent razor burn….(good to use after a wax treatment too, ladies)….
It will also relieve the itching caused by insect bites and stings – sooth a baby’s nappy rash and will cool down sun burn…. It is thought to help eczema….
A few drops inserted into the ear canal will help break down troublesome ear wax…. It can help varicose veins, by temporarily reducing the swelling and so relieving pain…. It is a common ingredient used in haemorrhoid treatments….
To sooth a sore throat, gargle with natural (no alcohol) witch hazel; it can ease the symptoms of tonsillitis, laryngitis and sinusitis….
Pure witch hazel will also help reduce the swelling and discomfort associated with gum disease and can relieve the pain of a troublesome wisdom tooth…. Mix together a teaspoonful of pure witch hazel with a drop of clove oil and myrrh oil to rub on the gums of a teething baby….
As you can see witch hazel really is one of Mother Nature’s most precious natural remedies; can you really afford not to have a bottle to hand in your bathroom cabinet…?
There seems to be no end to the wonders of witch hazel…. If you missed the last blog post but would like to read more about this very special and versatile plant How divine….
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered….”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson 1878
With the arrival of the good weather it dawned on me there really was no excuse now, time to get outside and do some serious jungle clearance in the garden…. That’s how I found myself on my knees for three hours, pulling out ‘weeds’…. When my aching back could take no more, I hauled myself to my feet and stood back to survey my handiwork and was quite disgruntled that it really looked no different to when I had first started…. The only evidence I had to show for all my hard toil was a bucket full of wilting, sad-looking, unwanted vegetation. With a sigh, I plucked out a piece of limp greenery and inspected it…. There was something vaguely familiar about it, or maybe a similarity to something else…. After a moment of pondering, it ‘clicked’ – it reminded me of spinach. Naturally, I had to go and investigate – what was this little plant and could I eat it….?
My ‘spinach’ lookalike turned out to be Lambs Quarters; and indeed is a relative of spinach and perfectly edible…. This got me wondering to what other culinary delights might be lurking in the garden…. I was in for quite a surprise….
Lamb’s Quarters: A single plant can produce up to 75,000 seeds, as a result this makes Lamb’s Quarters one of our most common garden ‘weeds’. It was initially thought to be native to Europe but evidence has been found that even American Blackfoot Indians used it in the 16th Century. There is obviously a good reason for the widespread existence of this abundant little plant; Lamb’s Quarters are excellent at restoring healthy nutrients to the soil. They are also capable of providing us with plenty of healthy nutrients too; they are a good source of vitamins A and C and contain calcium, phosphorus and some thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron. The leaves, shoots and flowers are all edible (as are the seeds but not to be consumed in excess as too many can be toxic). Lamb’s Quarters can be eaten raw in salads but sparingly as they contain some oxalic acid – but once cooked, this is removed. Cook as you would spinach, preferably by steaming; add to soups, stews, casseroles, egg dishes – in fact it can be used as a replacement in any dish requiring spinach, as it is in effect ‘wild spinach’. It can be preserved for winter by drying or freezing…. Pick young leaves to enjoy the mild, spinachy taste….
Lamb’s Quarters Pesto : 3 handfuls Lamb’s Quarters leaves
1 handful grated parmesan cheese
1 handful pine nuts
2 chopped cloves garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
Place all ingredients in to a blender and blend until combined and smooth.
Store in the fridge in a glass jar for up to a week (or freeze for up to 6 months)….
Ground Elder : Yes, that stuff! The bane of many a gardener; this invasive ‘pest’ of a plant was first recorded in Britain in 1578 but was most likely introduced by the Romans as a herb. It is also known as Bishop’s Weed, probably because it was once commonly used by monks. Another name given to it is ‘Gout Weed’; in old folk-medicine it was a treatment for gout…. Also handy to know, is that a poultice made of the leaves is a good remedy for insect bites, burns and minor wounds….
In the Middle Ages it was cultivated as a food crop as it was one of the first edible greens to emerge in the spring. It is best harvested between February and June (before the flowers appear) and can prove to be very versatile…. Eat raw in salads, dress it with olive oil, lemon juice and a twist of black pepper….or put it in a sandwich. When cooking it can be treated like spinach; pop it in a pan with a large knob of salted butter, cover and cook until soft – serve once again with black pepper. Ground Elder can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, omelettes, quiches and pies…. There are countless ways of consuming this ‘fiend’ of the garden….
Purslane : This half-hardy ‘weed’ was once to be seen growing in the beds of gardens in the Middle Ages, as it was thought to ward off evil spirits! Nowadays, we know it is good for us in other ways; it is high in vitamins A, C and E and is also a source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. With its salty, lemony, sour, spinach like flavour, it is a lively addition to salads and sandwiches, with a satisfying slight ‘crunch’ to the leaves…. Again it can be cooked as you would spinach, it can be added to soups and stews – and is great in a stir-fry…. In French cookery it is used with equal amounts of sorrel to make the classic ‘Bonne Femme Soup’. As a more simple alternative, try a quick and easy….
Purslane and Potato Soup : 250g chopped Purslane
250g peeled, diced potatoes
1 litre vegetable stock
3 tablespoons single cream
seasoning, to taste
Sauté Purslane in butter; add stock and potatoes. Simmer until potatoes are tender.
Add seasoning. Puree soup mixture in a blender; stir through cream.
Serve garnished with fresh Purslane….
Chickweed : Oh, how can we possibly call this one a weed? It is a gift from Mother Nature, herself…. This highly nutritious plant is available nearly all year round and was once thought of as a valuable food source during the winter months…. Packed with vitamins C, B6, B12, D and A, it also contains magnesium, phosphorus, copper, flavonoid (rutlin), iron, zinc, calcium and beta-carotene….but don’t be deceived, despite all that it has a mild flavour, almost like iceberg lettuce. Therefore, it makes an ideal salad base and is great in a sandwich. It can be cooked but chop it up finely, as it can become a little ‘stringy’. Put it in soups and stews, add it to quiches, pies and omelettes – pile it on your pizza….
However, the benefits this wondrous little ‘super food’ offers don’t stop there! It has many medicinal properties too. It can help with circulation and stomach disorders and as an aid for rheumatic and respiratory conditions (especially those where there is a lot of mucous present). It is also known for its skin soothing effects, making a good emollient or can be administered via poultices, compresses or baths. It can be used to treat ulcers, boils and abscesses; it will alleviate bites, stings and blisters – even nappy rash! It is thought to help with eczema and psoriasis symptoms…. I must admit, I now have so much respect for the humble Chickweed….
Nettles : Those horrible, pain inflicting plants we’ve all been stung by at one time or another….but they’re only trying to protect themselves and the precious cargo of young wildlife they offer a home to; namely the caterpillars of some of our most beautiful butterflies….
If you are brave enough to attempt to prepare them for culinary use, they provide an excellent source of vitamin C and minerals – particularly calcium, potassium, silicon and iron. They were once used to ‘revitalise’ the body after the winter period and are believed to help with arthritic conditions and eczema. Some herbalists use them to treat hay fever and skin allergies….
Never, ever, attempt to eat them raw – for obvious reasons…. Use the young leaves and cook like spinach (older leaves are high in calcium oxalate). Add to soups and stews….steep in boiling water to make nettle herbal tea…. Of course, you can always take the sting out of them by turning them into beer or wine….
The Cornish use them in the production of Cornish Yarg; a handmade, semi-hard cheese that has a creamy taste.
After pressing, the cheese is wrapped in nettle leaves, in a decorative manner; this then attracts natural moulds which occur in varying colours. The mould helps with the ripening process and gives the cheese a subtle, ‘mushroomy’ flavour….
Dandelions : Admittedly, this is one ‘weed’ that, to a certain extent, gets a ‘stay of execution’ in our garden – as the family bunnies love them…. Rich in pollen and nectar, this hardy perennial is also very attractive to insects, including bees…. So, another good reason to leave them put. However, they certainly have their uses in our kitchens too….
The young leaves are good in salads but older leaves are best blanched to reduce their bitterness; they can also be used in stir-fries…. Dandelions are a good source of potassium….
The roots can be used to make herbal ‘coffee’…. At the end of the plant’s second season, lift the roots, wash well, chop and dry…. They can then be ground to make ‘coffee’. Another, more familiar drink, made from the fermented roots, is Dandelion and Burdock; now marketed as a soft fizzy drink, it was once sold as a health drink during Victorian times….
The dandelion flower can also be used to make a very pleasing wine…. This personally brings back childhood memories for me…. Many a happy hour was spent helping my Dad pick dandelions for his homemade wine….
Dandelions are well-known to help with liver and kidney ailments as they have a diuretic effect on the urinary system; they may help to reduce fluid retention and help the body to get rid of toxins. They are good for gallbladder complains and are an effective laxative….
Another name dandelions are known by; ‘piss en lit’ – yes, seriously – when translated from the French it means ‘wet the bed’….
Clover : A member of the pea family, clover is high in protein, beta carotene, vitamins B and C. When picking the flowers, choose fresh blooms that have no signs of browning on them. Rinse well in cool water and blot dry with kitchen paper….
Toss the whole heads in to a salad, or dust with flour and pan fry for a tasty nibble…. Alternatively, they can be frozen into an ice-cube and make a pretty addition to a cold drink….
The flowers are known to help with eczema and psoriasis; also if used as an infusion or syrup, they can alleviate coughs and bronchitis. Clinical studies suggest they can aid in menopausal symptoms due to compounds called isoflavines found in both the flowers and leaves; these isoflavines possess mild oestrogenic properties….
To make red clover tea – pick 3 or 4 fresh flowers; remove stems and place in an infuser (if you have one) – if not, straining will be required…. Pour over boiling water and allow to steep for at least 5 minutes…. To make a refreshing version, add a couple of mint leaves with the clover blooms….
Ox Eye Daisies : Not really a ‘weed’ as such, rather a very pretty wild flower – but if left unchecked in the garden they can soon get out of control…. So, waste not want not….
Ox Eye Daisies are tasty when eaten raw, add flowers and buds to salads…. Alternatively they can be fried in tempura batter (rather like you would a courgette flower); makes a great savoury when paired with chilli or sesame seeds – or for those with a sweet tooth….dust with icing sugar after frying….
Ox Eye daisy buds can also be pickled like capers….
Put in to a saucepan….
500ml white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon each of salt, peppercorns and mace
2 chopped garlic cloves
Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least an hour….
Meanwhile, fill two 1/4 litres preserving jars with Ox Eye daisy buds,
then press down so the jars are 3/4 full….
Once cool, strain the vinegar mixture through a sieve to remove solid ingredients
and pour liquid in to jars until full.
Cap and keep for a few weeks to mature….
Or, how about using Ox Eye daisy leaves as an accompaniment to a curry….
150ml coconut milk
150g natural yoghurt
Juice of half a lime
20g Ox Eye daisy leaves
Chop the leaves finely. Put yoghurt, coconut milk and lime juice into a bowl and mix.
Add leaves and stir through to combine thoroughly….
Allow to stand at room temperature for 10 minutes….serve with your curry….
Finally, we come to dessert…. Now, here’s one that really did surprise me…. I had no idea this could be eaten…. (and I am actually quite thankful we don’t have this particular one in the garden)….
Japanese Knotweed : One of the most invasive plants around and extremely difficult to eradicate….laws exist as to the means of its correct disposal…. Knotweed grows approximately 3 foot a month and its roots can go down to a whopping 10 foot! It was first introduced to Britain in about 1825 as a garden plant and has since become a thorough nuisance…. It is spread via the roots; just a tiny piece, the size of a postage stamp, is enough to produce a whole new plant. If you are going to use it for culinary purposes it is strongly advisable to burn any unused material – as nobody wants to be responsible for inadvertently spreading this highly invasive plant….
Knotweed can be eaten raw but it is best cooked. It has a lemony, tart, crispy, rhubarb-like taste and can be used in just about any recipe that calls for rhubarb….
The best time to pick it is mid April to May; the stems have to be gathered whilst they are still tender i.e. before they become hard and woody. Ideally, the shoots should be between 6 to 8 inches in length….
Knotweed is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, it also has zinc, potassium, phosphorus and manganese. It is suggested it can help treat and prevent Lyme’s disease…. It also contains resveratrol – the substance found in grape skins, that is known to protect against heart attacks…. In fact, beer or wine can be made from Knotweed (personally, I think I’ll stick to a decent glass of red)…. It is also possible to make a tea; the Japanese call it ‘Itadori tea’…. Simmer shoots for 20 minutes, strain, add sugar to taste and serve chilled….
Knotweed and Date Crumble
20 lengths Knotweed, cut into 5cm chunks
A good handful or two of chopped dates
4 tablespoons orange juice
225g plain flour (sifted)
110g light brown soft sugar
Make crumble by rubbing flour into butter until it resembles breadcrumbs.
Stir through sugar….
Place Knotweed and dates into an oven proof dish, pour over orange juice.
Cover with foil and bake at 180°C for 10 minutes.
Remove foil, cover mixture evenly with crumble and bake for a further 20 minutes,
Serve with custard or cream….
Sounds yum, doesn’t it….? In all honesty though, it would take an awful lot of crumble to eradicate one Knotweed plant….probably best to get it disposed of properly….
So, there we have it…. Next time I’m working in the garden, I will think of it as ‘maintenance foraging’ as opposed to ‘weeding’….although I’m not quite sure if I’m ready to cross that bag of rocket off the weekly shopping list yet….
Of course, it goes without saying….if you do decide to take advantage of Nature’s free veggies….be both 100% certain they come from a totally weed-killer free environment and that they have been correctly identified…. Also, as a lot of these plants are used in herbal medicines it is strongly advised not to participate if pregnant or breast-feeding…. Far better to be on the safe side….
“There was a young farmer of Leeds,
Who swallowed six packets of seeds,
It soon came to pass
He was covered in grass,
And couldn’t sit down for the weeds….”
– Limerick – Anon.