Early Fruit Harvests

The standard pagan calendar of eight sabbats sets out two of them for harvest – the grain at Lammas / Lughnasa at the beginning of August, and the tree fruit at the Autumn Equinox. I have particularly noticed this year how by August most of my soft fruit picking will be finished, that which started in June shortly before the summer solstice.

Right now I am spending a good hour of every day picking fruit – strawberries, alpine strawberries, loganberries, raspberries, black, red and white currants, gooseberries, morello cherries… Not all get done every day, and luckily the blackcurrants finish before the gooseberries start, but I am still picking around four or five types of berries a day for several weeks, on top of any vegetables. I then spend more time in the evening ensuring that those we don’t eat or cook immediately get stored in the freezer whole or as purée to be turned into ice-cream, or as jam or jelly.

Apart from strawberries, few of these fruits get a mention in any book of festivals, pagan or otherwise such as the many Steiner-Waldorf books for celebrating with children. So why is this amazing bounty almost completely overlooked in the yearly cycle?

Two reasons I suspect currants in particular have failed to gain much popularity is that first they don’t really grow wild, and second you wouldn’t want to eat many raw berries. They are much better cooked! They are also small and insubstantial individually; it takes a lot of berries to make even a sauce or condiment for a meal. This is quite unlike pome and larger stone fruit where one fruit is satisfying by itself, picked and eaten raw off the bush. Neither do currants travel well; a handful of berries is never going to be as sustaining as a pocket full of apples over a few days of walking. So they have never entered our folklore. However I do not see these as reasons to ignore them. Their flavour and colour is so much more intense than most other fruit that a little goes a long way. They crop better than imported ‘superfoods’, contain at least an equal amount of antioxidants, and blackcurrants contain a very high amount of vitamin C; during the 1940s blackcurrant syrup was distributed free to young children when oranges became unavailable. Even today 95% of blackcurrants in England get turned into Ribena apparently.

So this weekend I am celebrating the fruits of the harvest by coming up with as many new ways to use the berries as possible. Whitecurrant jelly goes well with pork, as redcurrant jelly or fresh sauce (redcurrants, balsamic vinegar, honey, heat gently 10 mins) does with lamb. Blackcurrants need something robust, but work well with red cabbage. Blackcurrant ice cream seems to be a favourite here, almost replacing the previous favourite of whitecurrant and Drambuie ice cream that we invented a few years ago. (Whitecurrant purée, sugar to taste, double cream, Drambuie. Churn until frozen.) Redcurrants are traditionally used in Linzertorte and summer pudding, but I am seeing what other cakes or tarts I can come up with. And blackcurrant cheesecake always works well. I might be in danger of turning into a kitchen witch at this rate…

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Flowers and Weeds – Part 2

Whilst writing last week’s post I had great difficulty in directing my thoughts, because weeds kept wanting to encroach and change the focus of the post. So I decided to split it into two parts; here is the second, dedicated to the type of plants some call ‘weeds’ but which flower alongside ‘flowers’ in my garden.

The most common definition of a weed I found online is:

A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.

In my early days of gardening, I used to try to impose my control over what grew, removing the wild plants and replacing them with favoured flowers and shrubs grown from seed or bought in. Over time most of the non-native ones either died off, or were removed as looking out of place. I now have a rather more fluid definition of a weed in my garden, which can vary depending on what the plant is, where it is growing, and how much of it there is:

A weed is a plant that doesn’t bring joy into your heart.

Our lawn area contains many plants which do not come under any definition of grass. We have in the past sprinkled feed and weed around it and put much effort in to restrict the plants to grasses. However after I started to feel energies with my hands, I realised I much preferred a mixture of grass and clover and daisies and dandelions and self heal and mosses and whatever else wanted to grow there to just plain grass. So it was much easier just to mow it and enjoy it as it was. My aim today is not to eradicate anything, but just keep some kind of balance between all the different plants that grow. The only real weed in our lawn at present is a thistle rosette that I don’t particularly want to sit on! Conversely, grass or other lawn plants become weeds when they get into the flower or fruit areas.

In the vegetable beds most of the weeds are plants that I enjoy elsewhere in the garden, but don’t want competing for nutrients with crops I want to eat. Valeriana officinalis, or Yarrow or violets are the most common invaders; interestingly all three are useful plants medicinally, and that to me says something else about weeds. Just like an illness comes because we need it for some reason, so do the plants we need to heal ourselves come and surround us. I am going to suggest that:

Weeds are the plants most suited to the growing conditions, and to what you need personally.

I have been wondering if there is a general dislike of weeds because they are trying to tell us something we don’t want to know…

First, weeds being suited to the growing conditions. This may seem fairly obvious, because that is why they are successful. However, you can use the weeds as markers to tell you what kind of conditions you are providing. I have had an explosion of creeping buttercup in one area of my garden – the soil has become acid and compacted there. Nettles grow along the hedge – fertility is good there and the acidity in balance. Violets spreading across the front garden – there are several ants nests.

Second, weeds being what we need personally. Spiritually, I believe very strongly that all is connected, and we have everything we need even if that is not necessarily what we want. I don’t know what draws the weeds we need to us, but either like attracts like; they are successful under the same conditions in which we are trying to live; or because they are our spiritual allies. Whichever, we have the choice over whether or not to take notice of them.

So this week I have taken this a step further, listed all the plants which are currently doing incredibly well by themselves, needing constant keeping within bounds (whether or not I planted them originally), and then investigated what they offer medicinally. This was my list, minus buttercup (ranunculus) and columbine (aquilegia) for which I couldn’t find any medicinal value, both being toxic to humans when eaten fresh.

  • Betony (Stachys) – coughs and lungs, also a relaxant for de-stressing and related complaints.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum) – said to contain the spirit of fairies; digestion, infections, cleansing, also nutritious. They are so common that it may be we as British people have great need for dandelion at this time.
  • Yarrow (Achillea) – said to improve alertness and psychic ability; healing wounds, PMS or other blood-related complaints, immune stimulant for colds and flu.
  • Stickyweed (Galium) – cleansing lymph system; see earlier post, Joys of Spring – Stickyweed.
  • Valeriana – relaxant, for muscles or stress; probably not me who needs this one!
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria) – wonderful tonic for women. (Fruits contain iron, folic acid, vitamin C)
  • Avens (Geum) – catarrh, or as clove substitute; chew the root for teeth troubles. Not me, again…
  • Holly (Ilex) – said to protect against evil spirits; catarrh, pleurisy, coughs, colds, flu.
  • Mallow (Malva) – expectorant, all sorts of lung conditions.

Hmm, you’d never guess I suffer from lung troubles looking at this list! And I can see the problems of the rest of my family reflected as well. While there are many herbs I do use that are not included here (because they do not spread by themselves) some of the above list were unfamiliar to me before writing this post. I intend to get to know them better over the coming months, and will let you know how I get on.