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Herbs from the countryside by Steve Andrews
Do you like to use herbs in your cooking, for medicinal reasons, or maybe for other purposes? Do you have your own herb garden, or do you have to buy the herbs you like to use? There is another way of getting many of these amazing plants, and for free!
Foraging is often thought of as a way of gathering wild foods on a ramble through the countryside, and so it is, but besides edible plants, fruit and fungi, there are many medicinal and culinary herbs that we can look out for too.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a very popular herb that can often be found growing by the sea, on waste ground and along riverbanks. It has tall stems topped with umbels of yellow flowers and its leaves are delicate, feathery and have a strong aroma of anise. In fact the whole plant smells like anise-seed if lightly bruised.
Fennel seeds make a great herbal tea and are good as a treatment for indigestion and chopped fennel leaves are used in sauces for oily fish, or maybe as a salad ingredient. The seeds are a spicy ingredient for curries and many other dishes.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
Vervain (Verbena officinalis) is a very delicate and weedy-looking plant with tiny mauve-violet flowers that easily go unnoticed but it is a very useful medicinal herb with tranquilising properties and as a treatment for fevers. Vervain grows on waste ground and along paths.
Also known as “enchanter’s plant,” “simpler’s joy” and “holy herb,” vervain has associations with supernatural forces and has often been used for magical purposes and in divination. Included in my book Herbs of the Northern Shaman, it is a herb held sacred by the druids, and is said to be an ingredient in the “Cauldron of Cerridwen” magical drink. Because of its relaxing properties, including the ability to enhance dreaming, vervain has been used to help inspire writers and poets.
St John’s Wort
Well-known as a natural alternative to Prozac, the St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a common medicinal herb that is used for its antidepressant properties. St John’s wort grows in fields and grassy places and on waste ground.
St John’s wort is traditionally gathered on St John’s Day (24 June), and it is said that hanging up bunches of the herb will help ward off evil. I don’t know about the truth of that superstition but Its golden yellow starry flowers are certainly a joy to behold.
Marjoram (Origanum vulgare) is another common herb. It is found growing in clumps in grassy places and on banks, especially where the soil is chalky. Often called “oregano,” the leaves of this herb make a great addition to many savoury dishes and in soups and stews.
Marjoram has pinkish-purple flowers and is in bloom from July to October.
No need for a country ramble to forage for lime blossoms because the lime tree (Tilia europaea) is commonly planted in parks and ornamental gardens, as well as being used to line many a town and city street. Make sure you gather lime flowers from out of the way of the traffic fumes though.
Lime blossoms perfume the air in June and July and are a real attraction for bees. Lime flower honey is especially delicious. The flowers are traditionally used to make a very refreshing and relaxing herbal tea. Lime blossom tea is very popular in France where it is known as “tilleul,” and it is also a beverage enjoyed in Spain, Portugal and other European countries.
Young leaves of the lime tree make a great sandwich filling or just eaten as they are.
The above selection is just a small number of the really useful herbs you can find growing wild. My advice is to get a good book on foraging and get out there and see what you can find. Gathering wild foods and herbs is an excellent way to connect with Mother Nature!