Happy Imbolc

The 1st/2nd February may be the start of Spring, but Imbolc was not a sunny day here this year!

Maybe I should be glad – it is said in Scottish folklore, that if the Cailleach wishes to make Winter last longer, she will ensure Imbolc is bright and sunny so she may gather lots of firewood. If the weather is foul that day, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Winter is nearly over. It was so windy that I had trouble taking any photographs at all, although at least our everlasting fog has been blown away. The poor snowdrops in my garden, pictured in snow at the start of February two years ago, have not had enough warmth or sun to open properly yet this year and are now looking ragged.

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

But an unexpected find: Rosemary just coming into flower. It is a wonderful Winter herb, full of flavour through the darkest months when nearly all the softer herbs have lost their leaves or disappeared below ground, as well as giving shape to the garden. Then just when I start thinking the ‘evergreen’ plants are looking stiff and tired they spring into new growth, or bring out these wonderful blue flowers. It makes a great herbal tea, full of robust energies – as well as being anti-bacterial anti-septic, and an antioxidant. I also like it mixed with my other winter herb, Thyme, which is great for coughs.

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Winter Herbs – Thyme

I enjoy using herbs in a seasonal way, using a succession of different herbs or wild plants (some might call them weeds) through the year, depending on what I can find. I have tried drying herbs for winter use, especially when shrubby plants such as sage have needed pruning anyway, but I found I never use them; I would rather pick something fresh according to the season and what is growing well at the time.

Luckily there are a few herbs I can pick at any time of year, one of my favourites being Thyme. Only the hardiest varieties survive here in Derbyshire, but I currently have two types in my garden. T. vulgaris I grew from seed which does very well, and another whose name is since lost which has slightly larger leaves and a more rounded flavour, but is only borderline hardy. A little goes a long way with both types, so I use it regularly in tiny quantities through the winter for soups, stews or herb tea. (As with all very strong herbs, don’t use the same herb every day and extra care should be taken if pregnant.)

As a tea, Thyme is great for reducing or thinning mucus, so really helps with winter coughs and colds even for those without lung conditions. I pinch off two or three tips and pour boiling water over them, cover and leave it to infuse until it is drinking temperature. It combines really well with rosemary, which is great for an energy boost, and in early Spring, marjoram which also helps to clear sinuses. Combined with sage it makes a good gargle for a sore throat. It is said to be anti-bacterial and anti-septic, so is good to use directly on the skin as cooled tea or as a salve where it can help with skin conditions, joint inflammations, or cuts and bruises.

Thyme is a survivor, growing in the harshest conditions between cracks in paving slabs or rocks, or on dry mountainsides in the wild. It can even cope with being walked or trampled on. It is said to increase courage and inspiration for when you are doubting yourself. In medieval times, women used to sew thyme into scarves for knights to wear in battle to help them be brave. Earlier uses included room purifications by the Romans, temple purification and offerings by the Greeks, and Egyptian embalming. Some modern pagans use it to cleanse and purify a room instead of sage.

Some writers have suggested that wearing a sprig of thyme will help you see fairies… for some reason it is thought that fairies are very small and can hide among the tiny leaves. I’m sure some can fit here, but not any fairies I’ve seen!