Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

half a hundred herbs

  • Gifts from the Garden

    sprays of pink martagon lilies against a background of meadowsweet and yellow flag foliage

    This is our last summer in this garden, and it has been especially generous. In spite of the long cold spell, everything seems to have done well. The tulips were magnificent, the witch hazel (which sulked and grew very slowly for about ten years) suddenly put on about a metre of new growth, the roses are outdoing each other in flower production and the chamomile bed has bulked up nicely. I have been trying to grow these martagon lilies for at least twenty years, and now, here they are.

    gallica roses in full bloom

    The berries are doing well too. For the first time I got enough blackcurrants to make a pot of jam, and the branches of the redcurrants are bending with the weight of berries. I’m not sure what to do with them – there is only so much redcurrant jelly two people can use, and though they combine very well with other fruit – especially raspberries, I’m running out of ideas. Possibly the blackbirds will solve that problem for me! The gooseberries did very well too, but the sawfly caterpillars found them, and the bushes are looking pretty stark just now.

    I have started a pot pourri pot in a cafetiere – just the thing to keep the layers of petals pressed down. You layer partially dried rose petals, aromatic leaves, lavender and anything else fragrant – I have lemon balm, scented geranium leaves and verbena, and I will add lavender bog myrtle leaves and costmary as I go – with sea salt and a few drops of brandy, press down hard and leave to mature for several weeks. When we get to the new house, I will break up the petal-cake, mix it with some properly dried rose petals for glamour, and some spices, and it should make the new house smell like home.

    a bowl of pot pourri and a candle

    I have also finally achieved two things the herbals all tell you to do, and which I have always found impossible up to now. One is to make furniture polish scented with sweet cicely. Apparently the trick is to crush the green seeds and leave them in a mix of beeswax and turpentine gently melted together (very gently – turpentine is inflammable. The book suggests leaving it in the sun, but the sun in my garden wasn’t hot enough) until the scent is imparted to the liquid. I strained the seeds out afterwards, which wasn’t easy, because the mixture sets while you’re looking at it, and the result is excellent.

    The other is furniture polish from horsetails. Horsetails have been the bane of my life, and I was dying to find some use to make of them. The trick is to leave a LOT of horsetails to soak in water for several hours, and then simmer the mix for 15 minutes. This is anti-social. It smells vile. The strained liquid, however, is a very fine silica solution, and it does indeed polish pewter very well without scratching, leaving a lovely pearly glow. Credit for finally making these remedies work goes to Herbs About the House by Philippa Back, published in 1977 by Darton Longman and Todd. It’s long out of print but actually available on Amazon.

    I have taken cuttings, potted on seedlings and divisions of my favourite plants, and I’m saving seeds as they come. Glasgow doesn’t seem to run to big gardens, and what they do have seems to consist of astroturf and patio entertaining spaces, but I am laying my plans. The half-a-hundred herbs will find their places in the new garden!

    a row of lavender heads, and a welsh poppy

  • 50 Years Ago

    Robert MacFarlane was talking on Twitter this week about herbals, and asked if anyone had one or used one, so I said I had made one and then I thought it might be interesting to show you mine.

    three pages of a herbal
    my herbal

    I suppose it is fifty years ago, give or take, since I created my first herbal. You can see that There have been a few changes over that period – the smaller, faded and discoloured pages are the first ones – we didn’t have A5 paper in those days, and my handwriting has developed some since then. It isn’t in the original binder, either – that succumbed to hard wear several years ago, and I now have a very robust one from Staples.

    My drawing skills haven’t though! That little yellow picture of peppermint was cut from an original paper bag of Ricola cough candy – which I still buy – and the little picture of salad burnet on the bottom page was laboriously traced and coloured, but bears very little resemblace to the real thing. These days I rely on photos, which are quicker and give me much better results.

     herb bed with pinks, lavender violets roses and southernwood

    I’m still adding to it, as I learn more about the place plants have in our lives. I have used it to cook from, make medicinal teas, skin balms, pot pourris and more recently, to dye from.

    bottles of tarragon and chive flower vinegar, jar of mint sauce

    I used it for the Half a Hundred Herbs posts, the Haggards poems, and for the background for my translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs, and I’m using it now as material for the ‘inspired by herbs’ newsletters. That’s not bad, for fifty years!

  • Expressing the Earth – the Herbs

    When we visited the Kilmartin Museum, my first port of call was the lovely herb garden planted alongside the path. I had been struck by this last time I was there, because it seemed very different to a lot of recent constructions, which often come straight out of a picture book, without regard to climate or local tradition. This garden had a lot of local plants, mostly native, but not all – Highland herbalists were in touch with healing traditions all over the world, and were willing to import or try out new ideas. They were all well-grown and in good condition, and divided into beds according to their uses for healing, dyeing, cooking and fibre – including flax and nettle – and beautifully labelled and displayed.

    I had planned to talk about the herb garden in my presentation, and emailed the Museum so I could credit the designer, and it was with great trepidation that I discovered it had been designed by Patsy Dyer, who was coming to the conference in her other guise as storyteller!  Unfortunately we were scheduled against each other, so she couldn’t come to my presentation and I couldn’t go to hers, but it was lovely to meet her.

    I distributed copies of The Charm of Nine Herbs to everyone who came, and I was delighted to find how much interest there was in my subject. The gist of my talk was that pre-scientific herbalists didn’t necessarily operate by magic and guesswork, but by observation and experiment, adapting their practice to the locality and the climate, as well as the patient, but presenting their knowledge in a way that suited a culture without books. Dependence on a uniform set text radically changed not only herbal practice, but the way we thought about knowledge, and I added that having access to the internet, with a whole mass of data, observation and opinions, was teaching us to relearn  the one-time skills of verification and adaptation of information to our own particular needs.

    This went down a lot better than I thought it might! I had a lot of fascinating conversations about such things as the placebo effect, the herbal practice of a holistic approach to illness, the doctrine of signatures and the revival of old physic gardens. I’m going to try and put all  the things I said into some coherent form, and may add it to the Half a Hundred Herbs page.

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