In praise of rocket

The herb rocket

The herb rocket, Eruca sativa, is my favourite salad item. It is easy to grow, and in my opinion has a much more interesting flavour than lettuce, being slightly peppery.

I think it’s great on pizza, or teamed with steak and new potatoes as an alternative to peas and chips. Being high in vitamin C and potassium, it is good for you too.

rocket herb pizza

Rocket adds interest to pizza

There is evidence of rocket being grown since Roman times, and Virgil even mentions it as an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, it is thought to have been avoided in monasteries for similar reasons, but was often grown by the general public and was considered suitable to eat when mixed with other lettuce leaves. From its home near the Mediterranean, it is widely grown across the World, being found in the cuisines of Europe, North Africa, South America, the Gulf states, West Asia and Northern India.

Growing rocket from seed

Rocket is a suitable seed for children to try as it germinates reliably and grows quickly. Sow in a warm position March to July 0.5cm deep, and thin to 15cm apart. Keep well watered and harvest May to October. The great thing about thinning salad seedlings is that you can eat the rejected plants! The seeds are best germinated on a windowsill or somewhere warm, but can be moved to a cooler position once they have come up. Keep the tips pinched out to encourage bushy growth and discourage flowering, which makes the leaves tough. Sow a few seeds every few weeks so that as one batch is used up, another becomes available.

rocket seedlings

Rocket seedlings in a pot in the greenhouse in April, awaiting thinning

Due to rocket’s high nutrient levels, it is popular for culinary purposes. Other than use in salad, leaves can be briefly wilted in a stir-fry, and the seeds are also edible and are sometimes pressed for their oil. Do comment below if you know of a medicinal use for the plant!

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The herb Marsh Mallow | Althaea officinalis

Growing the herb marshmallow

As the name would suggest, marsh mallow grows in damp places. It is a tall perennial, with flower spikes growing to about a metre high, and forms a clump of soft grey leaves. The flowers come in shades of pink and white. It enjoys a sunny position and will even thrive in a pot if well watered. It flowers in late summer.

herb mallow flowers

Mallow growing in the herb garden alongside calendula and borage

Culinary use of Althaea officinalis

Most people will know that marshmallow sweets used to be made from the roots of this plant, but did you know that all parts of Althaea officinalis are edible? Young tops and flowers can be eaten in salads. In poorer times, the foraged root would have been boiled and served as a vegetable.

wild mallow flowers

Close-up of wild mallow flowers

If you’d like to try making traditional marshmallows, many recipes like this one from learning herbs shortcut digging and cleaning the root by substituting for commercial marshmallow root powder. Of course anyone foraging for roots must be certain they have identified them correctly and must ask the landowners permission before digging.

althaea herb

Althaea enjoys damp soil and sunshine

Medicinal use of the herb

Medicinally speaking, the plant has been used for centuries. In fact the name Althaea is from the Greek, meaning “to cure”.  Writings by Dioscorides (first century AD) and Pliny on the use of mallow have been found, and Pliny says,

“Hippocrates gave to drink a decoction of its root-juice to wounded people thirsty because of blood loss, and [applied] the mallow leaf itself onto wounds with honey and resin; similarly onto contusions, luxations and swellings; and he applied it as above onto muscles, sinews and joints;he gave it to drink in wine to people suffering from spasms or dysentery [1].”

Quite an all-rounder! It is also believed to have been used by the Ancient Egyptians as a treatment for sore throats.

marshmallow foliage

Marshmallow has grey downy foliage

Marshmallow contains a mild mucilage which can relieve irritation of mucus membranes by forming a protective coating. For example, marshmallow root has been traditionally used to make cough medicine. However, it is thought that it may also line the stomach preventing absorption of medicines, so care is needed, and it may also affect blood sugar levels.

althaea officinalis river cornwall

Althaea officinalis spotted by a river in Cornwall

marshmallow pollinator

Single marshmallow flowers are popular with pollinators such as bumblebees

[1] Laurence M.V. Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes, Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth- Century Greece, p263

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The Blackden Trust Herb Collaboration

Herb Talk at the Old Medicine House

The Herb Society has many local groups and a list of speakers available to give talks on a variety of herb-related topics. Sue Hughes, Trustee of the Herb Society delivered a presentation to the Tatton Garden Society at the Blackden Trust on 30 June.  The Blackden Trust manages the Old Medicine House, a Tudor apothecary’s residency which was moved to the Cheshire site from Staffordshire in the 1970s.

old medicine house

Developing the herb garden

Planting herbs blackden

Planting herbs at Blackden a couple of years ago. The garden is now thriving

Sue says,
“The Herb Society have been working with the Trust to develop a herb garden based on the plants listed in John Gerard’s Herbal.  John Gerard was a son of Cheshire, being born in Nantwich in 1545, and the Herb Society owns a copy of a 1636 version of his Herbal.”

Folklore of herbs

Sue’s presentation was on the historical uses and folklore of herbs, including references direct from the Herbal in particular where Gerard describes uses of herbs in the north of England.  For instance,
‘The women of our Northerne parts especially about Wales and Cheshire do turne the herbe ale-hoofe into their ale; but the reason thereof I know not’.
(Ale-hoof was the common name for ground ivy).
For marjoram Gerard says,
‘the leaves boiled in water, and the decoction drunke, easeth such as are given to over much sighing’.
herbal folklore
Sue reports,
The group greatly enjoyed learning about the herbs and along with a tour of the house they also had the opportunity to view the Herbal and tour the Herb Garden.

Visiting the Medicine House

The Medicine House and garden are open to booked groups and for a range of conducted tours.  Look at the website for more details www.theblackdentrust.org.uk.  Perhaps you will encounter the herbs of John Gerard and discover some of their history,
‘The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry, driving away sadnesses, dullnesse and melancholy’.
sue hughes blackden
The Herb Society copy of Gerard’s Herbal is due to be displayed at the Garden Museum in London which reopens in early 2017 after extensive refurbishment.
Image credits Sue Hughes.

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Self-seeding herbs

Live and let live in the garden

Many flowering herbs do have a tendency to set seed, often in the most unlikely places. In my garden, I believe in letting seedlings stay where they are until I can identify them!

Wall herbs

wall herb robert

Herb robert, Geranium Robertianum, readily self-seeds into cracks in the wall, and was traditionally used for toothache, nosebleeds and healing wounds.

Herbs in the veg patch

There is a lot of bare soil in my veg patch in early spring, and a few herbs have been known to colonise it!

Milk thistle

milk thistle herb foliage

Milk thistle, Silybum marianum leaves are very distinctive, and this herb self-seeded its way from someone else’s garden into my veg patch – presumably via a bird! I live on the South Coast of the UK, and it is thought to be a native of this area although it has naturalised in various places around the World. Milk thistle is cultivated as an alternative medicine associated with protection of the liver, although clinical trials are ongoing.

medicinal milk thistle

Chamomile flowers

chamomile herb flowers with kale

Chamomile comes up every year in my garden in among the kale and I’m pleased to see it, drying the flowers for tea year-round. This variety of Chamomile flower is Matricaria recutita (syn. M. chamomilla), known as German or blue chamomile.

Herb flowers

borage calendula flowers

Borage and marigold both seed themselves around happily. I leave the borage or starflower, Borago officinalis to flower wherever it germinates and use it fresh from the plant as a decoration on summer punch. Current scientific investigations include its use as an anti-inflammatory. Seeds of the pure white strain of this flower are now commercially available, but I personally prefer the more common vivid blue seen here.

My pot marigolds, Calendula officinalis predictably self-seeded themselves in a pot, so I rescued them, using them as an edging plant for my vegetables. I dry the calendula flowers and petals and add them to potpourri. The petals are a bright additive to salads, but in the American Civil War and World War I, calendula flowers were used when dressing wounds to promote healing.

Fennel in the borders

bronze fennel flowers pollinators

Pollinators such as hoverflies love fennel flowers, Foeniculum vulgare, because they form a flat landing pad. I very much enjoyed a talk by Herb Society President Toby Buckland recently, in which he pointed out that fennel secretes a chemical which deters the growth of nearby plants. This plant was self-seeded in the border, so I soon had my husband onto the job of weeding it out (see below)!

Fennel has an aniseed flavour and can be eaten as a vegetable or herb, and the seeds make a pleasant tea which refreshes the digestive system.

aromatic fennel leaves

Spot herb seedlings

There are many more self seeding herbs including lavender (especially if grown in gravel), marjoram (it grows in cracks in my patio), and lemon balm to name just a few. So don’t be too quick with the hoe, you might be missing an opportunity!

Read more about herbs in my Sussex garden

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Flowering herbs in my garden | Summer

Memories of Summer herbs

Now we are into November, and Autumn is truly upon us, I’m enjoying looking back at a Summer of flowers in my Sussex garden.

borders with herbs in my back garden

My back garden – bronze fennel, roses and geraniums, golden hop and self-seeded cerinthe.

The term ‘herb’ is pleasingly general

I look around my garden and see many plants which have been of use to previous generations. It’s lovely to find that plants I have grown for their decorative nature can also be put to good use in times of need. Saponaria used as a herbal detergent in my previous post is a good example.

Self-seeded herbs

borage herb hammock

Self-seeded borage herbs flowering in the veg plot of my summer garden. I often use it as a cucumbery addition to Pimms and fruit punch – I hear you can freeze it into ice cubes too – perfect for a G&T !

self seeded herbs

Marjoram self-seeded in the cracks on my patio – I hang the flowers in small bunches to dry for potpourri making. The borage in my veg patch produced a second generation this year and was joined by self-seeded evening primrose and geraniums.

Making herb tea

herbs growing in my garden mint

I grow mint in pots in my garden to stop it spreading. I make tea from the fresh leaves. When it starts flowering I cut it back to encourage new leafy growth. I do the same with my lemon balm although the flowers aren’t so eyecatching.

lavender herbs in pots

Mint is not the only herb I like to grow in pots. I grow three plants of lavender for tea in zinc florist buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. Of course lavender flowers can be dried and stored for use year round. If I remember rightly this variety is Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’.

My favourite roses and geraniums

I love making potpourri from flowers in my garden. Rose petals add fragrance and colour in shades of pink, while hardy geraniums are not particularly fragrant but do dry to pleasing shades of blue and purple. I used my favourite Rosa Mundi petals amongst others in my potpourri recipes for Herbs magazine September issue*.

roses geraniums

Clockwise from top left: Rosa mutabilis varies in shade between dark and light pink; Geranium palmatum is bigger with more decorative leaves than most species; Rosa mundi has a long history in this country, prettily striped flowers and a great fragrance; a bee visiting geranium x magnificum.

See what herbs were flowering in my garden in Spring

*Herbs is the journal of the Herb Society and is published quarterly. Download our membership leaflet top right of this page to find out about joining.

 

Bees and insects in the garden

Encouraging insects in the garden

Did you know it was National Insect Week last week? It is well known how important insects are in the pollination of food crops, and recently honey bee colony collapse disorder has brought new fears of a decline in this vital insect. There is much information available online about encouraging insects and the National Insect Week website has hints and tips for a more insect friendly garden year-round.

Photographing insects in my garden

Being a keen amateur photographer, I have spent many hours in my garden photographing the flowers and insects with mixed results.

ladybird insect grass

An early ladybird climbing grass this March

blue butterfly herb garden

Common blue butterfly on a leaf of golden hop

rose chafer beetle insect

Rose chafer beetle on spirea

Of course local weather has a large effect on the populations of insects. The early ladybirds I saw in March could have been severely affected by late snow, although this year we were lucky here in the South East.

Rose chafer beetles love it in my garden. I have a large clump of Rosa Mundi they often visit, and I find their large c-shaped larvae in my compost heap (these are often well over an inch across, not to be confused with vine weevil larvae which are a similar shape but much smaller at nearer 1/4″). But last year was a very cold Spring: they emerged too early and missed my roses by about a month. Luckily they resorted to our spirea bush, but this year there have not been so many of this handsome creature.

Bees in the herb garden

I’ve been using the Wildlife Trust bee identification pages to spot bees in my garden as I’m no expert. But even I can tell there are quite a few different ones about! If any of these are incorrectly identified, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

borage herb carder bee

Common carder bee in my herb garden this year, enjoying the borage

red tailed bee hardy geranium

Red-tailed bee on a hardy geranium

bee comfrey

Early bumblebee piercing comfrey flower

Industrious bees have bitten a hole in the comfrey Hidcote Blue flowers in the image above, to reach the nectar more easily. I spotted the holes but it took a while to get a picture of one actually doing it!

Other bees I have seen in my garden this year include buff-tailed bumblebees and honeybees, in fact I have a neighbour a few doors away who keeps hives. I think the only reason I haven’t photographed them is that they are so fast moving!

Bees and the Herb Society

The Herb Society has taken a great interest over the years in the importance of bees in the environment, and our website has a wealth of information on the subject: Herb Society bee aware. A herb garden is a perfect place for bees. Many of the plants are nectar-rich and native (or developed from native species), meaning that the local bees and plants have evolved together. Herbs that are grown for their medicinal or culinary uses are less likely to have modified flowers (such as doubles), which are of less use to the insects.

Send us your insect pics! If you have an insect photo you are particularly proud of, do email it to ruth@herbsociety.org.uk and I’ll give you a mention!

Flowering herbs in my garden | Spring

Many herbs in my garden are now in flower

I live on the Sussex coast in a Victorian terraced cottage about a mile from the sea. I have a small town garden and try to squeeze in a few herbs wherever I can. From March onwards you can see a succession of traditional culinary herbs flowering in my garden such as thyme, chives and rosemary. Chamomile, comfrey and violas have their uses too, and I love my jasmine and scented leaf pelargoniums flowering under glass.

front door

Making herb tea

I am not knowledgeable about the medical uses of herbs, but I enjoy flowers and my garden, and use the plants wherever I can. I enjoy making fresh peppermint, lemon balm and chamomile teas. Chamomile flowers are a big favourite of mine with their apple-like fragrance and simple blooms. Once dried, they can be used in a sleep pillow in a similar manner to lavender. In fact my main hobby is using flowers from the garden in craft, and that often means drying them for use later.

harvesting chamomile herb flowers

Harvesting chamomile flowers to make tea – I dry them for use year-round.

Herbs under glass

scented leaf pelargoniums

My friend Mercy is an avid collector of scented leaf pelargoniums so there are always a few overwintering in my lean-to. Sometimes I dry the leaves and flowers for potpourri.

jasmine flowers

Jasmine flowering in my greenhouse – I don’t make use of it in any way other than to enjoy the enveloping fragrance, but I do hear it has a role to play in hormone regulation.

Flowers in my garden

garden flowers violas

Violas are such a cheery plant in early Spring. I press them for art projects or crystallise them to decorate cakes.

early comfrey flowers

This yellow comfrey (traditionally named knit-bone) is one of the earliest herbs in my garden, flowering from early March.

blue comfrey herb

This comfrey Hidcote Blue grows up to five feet tall and greatly improves the quality of my compost when I cut it down after flowering, due to its high nutrient levels.

early rosemary herb flowers

Rosemary flowers: my plant is still small, but I am looking forward to being able to harvest straight twigs for use as skewers on the barbeque.

Herbs later in the year

As I write this in early June, my pots of lavender are just coming into flower. My favourite flower, the ancient stripy rose Rosa mundi has two buds just thinking about opening, with many more behind. Other herbs such as borage and calendula are on their way. So perhaps another post later in the year!

Do you have any herb pics you’d like to share?

Do email them to me at ruth@herbsociety.org.uk and I will share them with other herb enthusiasts on Facebook and Twitter.