Posts Tagged ‘plant medicine’

October Flower Stars

I’d been growing Mexican pink evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri) for years; it always came up somewhere near where it had been the previous year, with its red-veined, golden-hearted pink flowers and delicate, clean scent. And then this year, I could find it nowhere. I felt quite upset about it.

Then a few days ago at the beginning of October, long after it normally blooms, I discovered in the grass one flower in bloom. It was a very joyful moment. And here it is:

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Not too far from the evening primrose, another star blooms its way into the autumn. One big borage plant with flowers that just keep coming:

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Recalling the flowers and fruits of the summer as it races by…

The summer races by, and with different plants flowering (and fruiting) at different times, it’s easy to forget that the woad was blooming for weeks early on, and the Jacob’s ladder, the garden sage and the knapweeds, all these flowers now over and replaced by marigolds, cosmos, marshmallows, wild carrot. Blackcurrants followed raspberries followed strawberries. I’ve kept a (somewhat desultory) photo record this year, and here are some (though by no means all) of the plants which have been flowering and fruiting – in the garden, in the woods, and down by the sea. Beginning from today and going backwards!

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Squash, as yet unidentified, climbing up through the hawthorn tree, at 7 feet already and showing no sign of stopping – spot the growing green gourd through the leaves (Photo: today, 19th August 2016).

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An Alberto’s Locoto chilli (Capsicum pubescens) in its second year. No flowers or fruits last year, but both plants overwintered in the conservatory, and have burgeoned this summer. There are over 20 juicy fruits on this one to date, and more flowers appearing as I write. Seeds originally from The Real Seed Catalogue.

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4 o’ clock plant fully out by 5.30pm (6th August) with lovely yellow flowers and marvellous scent. Native to the Americas and in the Nyctaginaceae family (Mirabilis jalapa). Still blooming away two weeks later.

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As of 6th August, a small number of butterflies had appeared on the buddleia and elsewhere in the garden. Over the past few hot and sunny days, the numbers have increased slightly, mostly peacocks and scarlet admirals, along with one or two painted ladies and meadow browns.

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Into the woods to discover slender St. John’s wort, enchanters nightshade and scullcap.

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Marshmallow in the first week of July. This plant, which has been with us since 2012, has really come into its own this year.

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Out of the garden and into the wild dunes. Ancestor sea peas were in abundance throughout June and July, as was fellow legume restharrow.

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Back in the garden, a meadow brown butterfly visits the knapweed. And (below) I rescue several valerians whose leaves have been decimated by an unknown decimator!

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Red roses, strawberries, wild honey and a bunch of fresh and fragrant herbs for the first wild yeast mead of the summer. We drank it fresh and delicious at only a couple of weeks old.

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Sage (Salvia officinalis), moon daisies and Jacob’s Ladder doing their glorious things in June.

Rehabilitating Valerian

Valerian rehabilitatedThe poor old valerians in our garden have been ravaged by goodness knows what this year (and last). I’ve not yet seen the culprit responsible, but the news is not all bad.

Valerian (I mean the native, wild, medicinal Valeriana officinalis here, and not the commonly grown and escaped Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), which can be seen in red and white versions in gardens and on walls in the summer) easily restores itself from the strongly aromatic roots.

20160715_192259-2 lowresSo I just dug them up and put them in pots (using homegrown peatfree compost topped with a layer of bought peatfree to suppress the weeds) and they’ll be sprouting new leaves within a week or so.

Valerian is one of my (many) favourite plants, and has been used through the ages as a herbal sedative, and for insomnia. I sometimes drink the tea to help me relax, and find it does the trick.

Mostly though I love the plant for itself… and I’m determined to discover who else does next year and see if I can stop the great stripping!

Pics: Valerian repotted; Valerian reviving a week later (15th July 2016); Valerian flowers (all by Mark In Flowers)

Valerian in flower July 2016

A Mead of Fruits, Flowers and Herbs

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This morning I got my first mead of the summer on the go – red roses, strawberries, wild honey, spring water and a bunch of fresh herbs, most from the garden, and everything apart from the honey from no further than two miles away.

The fresh herbs include anise hyssop, apple mint, lemon balm, spearmint, yerba buena (what would we do without the mint family?), along with some sunflower fellows: alecost leaves and mugwort flowerbuds.

Over the next ten to fourteen days there will be vigorous stirrings and smellings and bubblings and fizzings, followed by very merry drinkings!

See this post for how to give it a go yourself: How to Make a Herbal Mead Elixir

How to make a Herbal Mead Elixir

This month the 8th issue of Dark Mountain (and first themed book and paperback) was published. Titled Technê, it is a wide-ranging collection of essays, reflections and maker guides on all aspects of technology and tools. At its launch at the /i’klectik/ art lab and cafe in Lambeth, I demonstrated in six intense minutes how to make a wild autumn mead, whilst Charlotte gave a slideshow of some of the artworks and photographs in this densely illustrated volume. I also joined the crew for this issue as proofreader and Charlotte co-edited the book and wrote two of its pieces. This is the first, a short practical one about making mead, which also appears on her own blog:

How to make a Herbal Mead Elixir – by Charlotte Du Cann

This is a mead made for a talk about Dark Mountain at the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios, Whitechapel, last June. My fellow editor Steve Wheeler and I had been invited to present our talk without any technology or power, as part of a ‘de-industrialising‘ workshop called ‘Breakdown breakdown’, organised by the artist and activist Brett Bloom.

I took a jar of mead along as part of the performance.

Honey and water infused by botanicals make the simplest, most off-grid, hands-on, archaic, indigenous drink you can find anywhere. You can conjure mead elixirs from any fruit or leaves or roots, depending on your intent or sense of adventure. Fragrant elderflowers, bitter dandelion roots, birch bark, hawthorn berries; the mead circles of rural Tennessee, according to master fermenter Sandor Ellix Katz, make them with just about with anything. Ours had a fruity theme: conference pear, lemon balm, apple mint, lime blossom honey. The key ingredient in mead is raw honey. The honey has to be non-pasteurised, so it contains the wild yeasts that make fermentation happen.

Midway through the presentation, just after Steve had whirled about the circle of people, reading from his Dark Mountain piece, Ragnanok, about modern warrior training in Sweden, I passed the mead around to see if anyone could guess what it was. No one did, although a girl from Finland did say it reminded her of something her people made with raisins.

‘Well, if you know your Nordic mythology,’ I said, ‘you’ll know that when Odin and his sky warriors weren’t preparing for the Last Battle, they were drinking mead!’

The first time I encountered mead, I was investigating plant medicine in Oxford. One night, I dreamed my head was covered in bees. It was intense. The second time was at an editorial meeting in London. Six of us had been running a newspaper against the odds and were closing shop after three years. We sat in a circle, feeling The End drawing nigh, when the managing editor exclaimed, ‘Let’s have some mead!’ and brandished a Kilner jar containing an elixir of rose petals, redcurrants and windfallen cherry plums. Five minutes later we were all falling about laughing. I thought I was going to burst with happiness.

‘It might be the end of the world as we know it,’ I declared to the audience. ‘but at least we can have a good time!

INGREDIENTS:

1 handful each of mint and
lemon balm leaves

1 ½ litres of pure spring or
boiled water

1 pear (organic), chopped (or
any unsprayed seasonal fruit)

½ jar of raw honey (small
local producers rarely process their honey)

1 ½ litre Kilner jar

METHOD:
Pick a good handful of lemon balm and mint leaves from a garden or unpolluted location, and make them into a strong tea with some of the water (just off the boil). The water needs to be pure non-carbonated spring water. If you use tap water make sure it is well boiled,
or left open overnight, to rid it of chlorine (although it may still contain chloramines depending where you live). Let it cool.

Dissolve the honey with some of the cooled tea in the Kilner jar, then add all the rest of the ingredients, plus several fresh lemon balm leaves.

Leave the jar somewhere warmish and visible. Every day take up a wooden spoon and swirl the mixture briskly anti-clockwise and then clockwise.

It doesn’t matter if you keep the jar open or closed, but if you close it you need to ‘burp’ the jar every day. It will make a satisfying hiss as the CO2 escapes and froth vigorously. Each day the mead will look different. The colour and fragrance will change. Transformation is happening!

After about 10 days it is ready to drink – though you can bottle and keep it for years. It is particularly delicious mixed with wine, fruit cordial, apple juice and/or sparkling spring water.

All the ingredients in this mead are traditional herbs for relaxing and cheering you up. Contrary to expectation, facing the end of the world as we know it can be a cheerful thing, as every attempt to deny the situation, or to keep things going against the odds, disappears. It opens up a space you didn’t think was there. Suddenly you can see what or who was around you all the time, but you were too fraught to notice. 

The alchemical mead jar at the centre of the talk was a kind of metaphor for the Dark Mountain Project. I wanted to show hown if you gather some creative uncivilised ingredients (people) together, they can made a heady, healing and joyful brew. What is happening in that Kilner jar is the magic and medicine of fermentation – communities of microorganisms working together, exchanging material, creating new forms, making life happen. All the active ingredients in honey are dormant until you mix them with water, and then everything wakes up. The yeasts that live on the surface of leaves and the skins of fruit add to the live action and flavour. The sweet nectar of flowers gathered and processed by millions of bees feeds them, and then us. Rewilding in a jar.

Sip, share and enjoy!

Images: front cover of Dark Mountain 8 designed by Andy Garside; a late summer mead with cherry plums, rowan berries and mallow (Mark Watson); Mark in action at recent Raw Food and Drink demo at Giddens & Thompon’s Bungay (photo by Josiah Meldrum)


Flowers, Fruits and the Colours of the Day

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Every year I sow heavenly blue morning glory seeds hoping that they’ll flourish and flower together with the (yellow) sunflowers. Every year they tend not to do either, preferring to stay inside and push out some blooms when they feel like it. On Sunday (30 Sept) I found three truly glorious ones in the conservatory when I’d almost forgotten about them.

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The chillis have done really well this season. The slim red ones here are Ring of Fire, They bite like hell and have the extraordinary effect of bursting about six different flavours into your mouth in the two seconds before the skoville factor hits and all subtlety vanishes! The small red ones are the Apache variety, again hot but less so with good flavour for general cooking and salsas and beans. The yellow ones are Ají Limón or Lemon Drop chillis used a lot in Peru. They took a long time to germinate, grow & ripen but wow! what a fantastic multiflavour, multiaroma chilli. Like the Ring of Fire they smell great raw – just don’t rub your eyes (or nose) with your fingers afterwards – they’re really hot! You can get the seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue and then save your own for next year. Well worth it for the colour alone.

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The fiery hummingbird sage comes back year after year with its compellingly pungent leaves and bright red flowers. A native of northeast Mexico, I started growing it in 2003 from seeds gathered at a herbalist friend’s land in Arizona. Here in Suffolk I keep it going by cuttings every couple of years. So far they’ve set no seed though.

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And then sometimes you just have to leave the house and garden and get out a bit amongst the subtler but equally stunning wildflowers. Here is Charlotte ’52 Flowers’ walking amongst the flowering Devil’s-bit Scabious on a nearby common last Sunday (28 Sept).

On Making Space for Nature with Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title ‘Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers’ as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.

She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:

“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”

She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

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Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

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A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

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Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

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The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.

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There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

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In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

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Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard