Friday, April 29, 2011

It's Rose Hip Time!

It’s Rose Hip Time!

Rugosa 'Alba'

Rose hips are the fruits of the rose, formed after the petals fall from the flowers. Quite a few rose varieties are so highly bred that they are more or less sterile and form no, or at most a few, hips, while the hips of many Hybrid Tea roses are unpromisingly hard, woody and light yellow. The wild species roses and their first and second cousin hybrids however are often arrayed with extravagant swags of jewel-like  heps in glowing red or rich deep orange with rose-and-apple flavoured soft skins 

Not only are these hips beautiful but they are also very rich in vitamin C. Up until the middle of the twentieth century children were still dosed on rose hip syrup, especially in winter. During World War 2, when Britain was cut off from Continental supplies of drugs, the women and children were asked to gather herbs from the countryside as well as seaweeds from the shores as a raw source of drugs. Along with approximately 750 tonnes of dried herbs such as dandelion root, elderflowers, and rose hips. Traditional delights made from rose hips included rose hip conserve (sometimes called rosehip marmalade), rose hip jelly, rosehip sauce, and a variety of sweet tarts. 

      Wild Rugosa Rose. Single and semi-double varieties produce the most hips.

Rugosa roses were bred from the beach roses of northern Asia. In Japan they are known as the Ramanas Rose, and they are also found wild along the coasts of China, Korea and southern Siberia.  These roses are not just beautiful, they are remarkable for many of their characteristics. Firstly they are wonderfully salt tolerant, capable of growing effortlessly along the edge of beaches, their leaves protected by a particularly thick cuticle (waxy outer covering).  This has earned them the names of 'seaspray roses' and 'beach roses'. They have a natural thicketing habit if planted on their own roots or,  if they have been budded,  with their bud union below the soil level. Rugosas are the perfect choice for seaside and harbour side gardens, reducing erosion and acting as a barrier hedge while they also bloom prolifically from spring to late autumn. Rugosas are also extremely cold tolerant (down to as low as minus 30 degrees C for many varieties), yet they also grow well in high summer temperatures. Rugosas will grow in soils composed almost entirely of sand yet will thrive on quite heavy soils.  (Add lots of compost to improve such sandy seaside soils - washed and composted seaweed is a particularly good soil improver.) The same thick cuticle which protects against salt spray, in combination with the wrinkled (rugose) texture of the leaves, allows the handsome foliage to shrug off disease. As a bonus Rugosa foliage has excellent autumn colouring. 

All but the fully double flowered varieties (including rare hybrids such as the light yellow double flowered 'Agnes') bear huge glowing red hips which can be almost the size of plums. They are very rich in vitamin C and ideal for rose hip jam, rose hip jelly, rose hip syrup and other recipes. The flowers are large, beautiful, very prolific, borne in clusters, and have a fragrance that is a mixture of carnation and rose. All Rugosa varieties form handsome shrubs. Prune them in late winter, removing the oldest cane each year from the third season onward, together with any broken or dead canes, and then cut the remainder back by 1/3.

Rose hips (the fruits formed after the petals fall) are produced in abundance by Rugosa roses during the rose season, with hips and blooms often mingling together to create a wonderful display. The autumn harvest is the most bountiful. If using dog rose or eglantine hips for these recipes there will be a single harvest of much smaller fruit in autumn. Most Hybrid Tea roses have tough fibrous fibrous yellow to orange hips that are not well suited to these recipes.  

                                                   Rose Hip Recipes

Garnered from my various magazine articles and book ‘Our Heritage of Old Roses’ ( by Judyth A. McLeod).

                                                           Rose Hip Tea

A delicious herbal tea high in vitamin C (and good for cold symptoms -  although it isn’t necessary to have a sore throat to enjoy this treat) can be made by gathering, halving and deseeding the ripe hips. The hairs inside rose hips can be irritating, so use a teaspoon to clean out each half rose hip. I rinse them in water and pat them dry before placing them out in the sun arranged on cake cooling trays over newspaper or kitchen towelling The almost plum-sized Rugosa hips make this chore quite easy. If insects are hovering, cover the drying hips with fine netting or butter muslin. If drying time takes a few days, bring the trays inside overnight to avoid dew. Alternatively, dry the hips at the lowest oven temperature with the oven door open. Store the dried hips in an airtight container.

 To prepare the tea. add a small piece of crushed cinnamon stick together with a small handful of crushed dried hips to the teapot, fill the pot with boiling water, cover, and steep for five minutes. In summer the crushed dried hips can be mixed with a handful of fresh mint, rather than a cinnamon stick, to make a very refreshing tea, served either hot or iced. Strain the tea before drinking (or chilling) and use a light honey such as clover honey as a sweetener.

                                                         Rose Hip Tart

.This recipe is modified from a 1671 book The Art and Mystery of Cookery Approved by the Fifty-five Years Experience and Industry of Robert May. Apples were not included in the original resipe which requireda much larger supply of hips. As apples and roses are both from the botanical Family Rosaceae and have compatible flavours this compromise works well. You may also like to try substituting the apple with peeled, sliced quince which has been simmered with a little sugar until soft, and then drained of excess juice. Quince turns a pretty shade of pink after cooking and has a rose scent.It resembles a very large golden rough-shaped pear and is available in autumn.

6-8 cups of ripe cleaned whole Rugosa hips
white castor sugar (we use raw sugar for most things but it would overwhelm the flavour in this recipe)
3-4 Granny Smith apples, depending on size 
lemon juice
shortcut pastry (either bought or your favourite recipe)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2-3 thinly sliced pieces of ginger (preferably in syrup, alternatively crystallised)
1 x 22 cm pie dish (preferably metal)
plain flour

Cut each hip in half and use a teaspoon to clean out the seeds and any hairs. Wash and pat dry.  Peel and core the apples, then cut into slices around 50 mm wide, dipping them into lemon juice to prevent discolouration. Roll out pastry on a floured board to line the bottom of the pie tin. It should be around 2-3 mm thick and 30 cm wide. Roll out a second piece around 25 cm wide and the same thickness. Line the pie tin with the larger circle of pastry, pressing it gently into the sides and letting excess pastry overhang. Create the filling by alternating layers of apple slices and rose hips until they are used up. Finish with a generous sprinkle of sugar, about 2-3 tablespoons, the cinnamon and the ginger slices. Cover with the smaller circle of pastry and crimp the edges together with thumb and forefinger to make a neat edging. Use a sharp knife to remove any excess pastry around the edge. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to chill the pastry (particularly if baking in the middle of an Indian summer), then glaze the surface with a little beaten egg,. Cut a small cross in the centre of the top to allow steam to escape, then sprinkle over with sugar and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees C until golden brown. Serve warm or cool with vanilla icecream or whipped cream.

                                                     Rose Hip Purée

If making a pie seems like too much effort, try serving scoops of good quality vanilla icecream into pretty glasses and top with this rose hip purée, adding a rose petal or two just before serving..

6 cups of ripe whole Rugosa hips, washed and cleaned
castor sugar (about 4-5 tablespoons)
juice of one lemon
1 vanilla pod
1 litre of water

Cut the hips into halves and use a teaspoon to clean out the seeds and any hairs  Place  the cleaned hips into a heavy bottomed saucepan and cover with the water which should be above the level of the hips. Gently simmer until the hips are soft (usually around 30 minutes). Add a little additional water if necessary while simmering and stir occasionally.  Remove the pot from the heat and allow the pulp to cool slightly, then mash with a potato masher. Pass the pulp through a fine sieve (discarding the residue in the sieve) and return it to a clean pot. Add the vanilla pod, sugar and lemon juice, and simmer very gently, stirring regularly, until the sugar has dissolved and the purée has thickened. Cool, remove the vanilla pod (which can be cleaned and dried for another occasion), pace in a covered bowl or container, and store in the refrigerator for up to a week..

                                                         Rose Hip Syllabub

Syllabubs with their froth of cream and delicate flavour have been a delight of English cooking for centuries.  The most favoured syllabub was made with rich cream, white wine, the juice of a lemon yogether with its finely grated rind, and sugar. Try this variation:

1 cup heavy whipping cream
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup thick rose hip purée
80 g castor sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater

Mix all the ingredients together in a basin, with the exception of the cream, and chill for 2-3 hours. Whip the cream until it is stiff and holding peaks. Gently fold the purée mixture through the whipped cream. Spoon into pretty individual glass dessert dishes or coupe champagne saucer glasses and chill well for an hour before serving, placing a couple of red petals on top of each dish a the last moment...

                                             Rose Hip Soup or Nyponsoppa

This is a Scandinavian favourite, sometimes served simply for breakfast but more commonly as a dessert, often with little almond biscuits. Use the above recipe for the rose hip purée. Nypon means ‘rosehip’.

4 cups of rose hip purée, pressed through a fine sieve
2 tablespoons of a mild honey such as clover
2 tablespoons lemon juice’
1 tablespoon of cornstarch
5 tablespoons of Greek-style yoghurt or sour cream

Heat all the ingredients other than the yoghurt together. Add a little water before heating if the purée is too thick. Ideally this soup should be velvety in texture and similar to a thick soup. Taste and adjust the flavour if desired with additional honey or lemon juice so that the soup has just the right balance of sweetness and sharpness that is to your taste. Mix the cornstarch in just enough water to create a thick slurry. Stir this in, and then continue to simmer the soup until it is clear. Serve in bowls with a good spoonful of yoghurt or sour cream swirled over the surface. 

                                                       Rose Hip Jelly

Rosehips contain a good level of pectin, the natural setting agent in fruit, but the level of pectin is variable depending on the type and ripeness of rose hips used. In this recipe, powdered pectin is used to ensure a gel is achieved. However, if wished, substitute by adding 3-4 apples, preferably still under ripe, to the hips before cooking., roughly sliced. To boost pectin levels, Choose fully ripened hips and wash in a colander before use.
An aside: For our American cousins, their expression‘canning’ is the equivalent of the English/Australian/New Zealand expression ,bottling’ – this seems to cause endless confusion as ‘canning’ conjures visions of preserving in tin cans. We know of one lady who spent three years in Victoria before returning to the United States  considering Australia a bewildering and profligate backwater when shop after shop wre unable to supply her with ‘canning equipment’. The English ‘putting up’ of pickles, jams etc. can also cause confusion.

8 cups of ripe Rugosa rose hips, halved, all seeds removed with a teaspoon an hairs washed out of the hips
1/2 cup juice of lemon juice, freshly squeezed
6 cups water
1 packet pectin or I flat tablespoon powdered pectin
white sugar

1.     Place the halved and cleaned rosehips into a saucepan with the water, bring to the boil, then turn     the heat back, cover, and simmer until the hips are soft (approximately one hour).
2.     Remove from the heat and roughly mash the contents of the saucepan (a potato masher is fine),
3.     Either line a colander with a couple of layers of clean cotton tea towel, place the colander above a clean bowl, add the mashed heps and allow to drain into the bowl overnight or place the mash in the centre of a doubled square of cheesecloth, pull the cheesecloth up so that the corners meet, secure well with string , and hand thi sack over the back of a chair so that it drains into a bowl overnight. The beautiful clarity of a perfect fruit gel is spoiled if you squeeze out the last remaining liquid from the mash so resist the temptation. Measure out the volume of liquid and add an equal volume of sugar. It will probably be about 3 cupfuls.
4.     Return the liquid to a clean large pot  and add the sugar and lemon juice.
5.     Sterilise the bottles by placing them on a tray in a 120 degree oven for 20 minutes minutes. Place plastic lids in a bowl and pour over with boiling water. Bottles can also be sterilised by placing them in a dishwasher at the hihest temperature.
6.     Bring the contents of the saucepan slowly to the boil, stirring to ensure the sugar is fully dissolved (a volcanic explosion of undissolved sugar at the bottom of the pan is less than desirable). Bring to a rolling boil and add the pectin slowly so that it fully dissolves. After three minutes at a roiling boil, pull the pan away from the heat and test a a few drops on a saucer which has been refrigerated. (In our warm autumns pre-cooling the saucer is advisable.) If it forms a jellied blob which wrinkles when pushed with a finger at the side, it is ready to bottle. If not, return to the boil for 2-3 minutes and repeat the test for setting. Continue if necessary until a gel point is reached.
7.     Line up the sterilised and still hot bottles on a cake rack or clean tea towel and use a clean  scalded small jug to fill the bottles. Immediately cover with the scalded lids and tighten. Allow to cool completely, preferably overnight, tighten the lids further if necessary, and wash any jellied trickles off with hot water  before drying and labelling. We have never had any contamination with this technique and the acidity and high sugar prevent bacterial contamination. If intending to keep the jars for many months (unlikely as they are much too popular), you may wish to further sterilise in a water bath (place the capped bottles on a rack inside a large pot and cover the jars with water so that there is 2-3 cm above the bottles; maintain at a boil for 10 minutes.  NB With non-acid and/or low sugar bottling, sterilisation is absolutely vital as potentially dangerous bacterial growth can occur. Along with rose petal conserve, this jelly is a great moneymaker for festivals and specialty food shops.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spice Throated Clove Pinks

Spice Throated Clove Pinks

'Tudor Manor' bred by the author from 17th and 18th century varieties

Once they were known as Clove Gilliflowers, a name said to be derived from the French name giroflée used for both clove pinks and the closely related carnations. Old garden books from the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, eras of highly creative spelling, called them Gely Flower, Gillofloure, Gelouer, Gillofrée, Gylofre, and Julyflower. Carnations were known at the same time as ‘coronations’ which described their use in medieval times to create coronets worn by monks on festival days in the church, as described by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.

The flowers of clove pinks may be single through to very double, as can carnations, and may also be as large as carnations. However the flowers are borne in immense profusion, commonly 50 or more at a time on a plant which forms a neat, spreading, evergreen cushion of grasslike foliage. Unlike carnations they never need to be propped up with stakes, and these perennials form a perfect edging to a path, or groundcover, flowering from late spring to autumn in some varieties although they are at their best in early summer. They love full sunshine and good drainage, and require only modest watering which makes them a good choice for a drought resistant garden. They have heat, cold, and humidity tolerance.

'Tuscan Lace' bred by the author from eighteenth century varieties.

 The wild species from which the clove pinks are descended comes from dolamitic limestone areas in Europe and they thrive best in neutral to alkaline soils. (Rather than adding lime to soils that are on the acid soil, place a small chunk of broken concrete under the cushion of leaves when planting. Every time it rains or the garden is watered, lime will be leached into the soil and the plants will flourish.) 

In medieval and Tudor times the cost of the exotic clove spice brought by ship from India could only be afforded by the rich. Mulled ales and wines were flavoured instead by clove pinks that would be grown within the walls of inns. The ancient, heavily spice scented variety ‘Sops in Wine’ (available at Honeysuckle Cottage Nursery) took its name from this use. Today clove pinks are used in perfumery. By Shakespeare’s time, the great herbalist and gardener Gerard  spoke of so many clove pinks and carnations in gardens that a large book would not be sufficient to contain them all. William Lawson in the delightful seventeenth century garden book’The Country Housewife’s Garden’ claimed to have nine or ten sorts which were as large as roses and which he called Queen-July flowers. John Parkinson who wrote perhaps the most delightful garden book in the English language ‘Paradisi in Sole’ (1629) may not have filled his book with clove pinks alone but he certainlyfilled several pages. Borders of spicy throated clove pinks in full blow (as flowering was then called) were one of the delights of the 17th century garden. The beautiful ‘Painted Lady’ was bred in this period, characterised by a hand painted lokk, and many varieties of this type were bred.

The beautiful laced pinks appeared in England in the 1780s. These were florist’s flowers bred largely by amateurs and were fully double with a distinct band of a second colour around the edge of the petals. The fringes to the petals,for many one of their charms, were bred out of this group by the mid-1820s. They tended to be an English passion.  In the 19th century a number of flower breeders became interested in clove pinks and carnations. Among the glories produced mainly by amateur breeders are ‘Mrs. Sinkins’ and ‘Pink Mrs. Sinkins also known in Australia as ‘Sally’. Both are intensely fragrant. with large, very double flowers in profusion. ‘Old English Mauve’ from the same period has a rich and delicious scent of vanilla and spice given freely on the air and a clear mauve colour.

Some of the many varieties of clove pinks available from Honeysuckle Cottage, my own nursery, include the following which is just a small sample from what can be discovered still in cultivation around the world.:

'Old English Mauve' 19th century large very double, mauve, intensely fragrant of vanilla
 and spice.

'The Joker' Perfectly named, this variety bred by the author from 18th century clove
 pink varieties has semi-double fringed flowers which are white to palest pink lavishly
 striped and splashed with deep ruby red, with an inner rosette of petals. The fragrance
 is deliciously sweet and spicy. 

'The Joker' Clove Pink

‘Kim Brown’ A 20th century variety with smallish, double, blossom pink
 flowers with delightful scent.

‘Val Wyatt’ A 20th century cultivar with smallish double deep bright pink
 flowers and spicy fragrance.

‘Whatfield Wisp’ This is superb. It forms a dense, fine, very low silvery green
 carpet with incredible numbers of tiny pale pink intensely scented flowers on
  5-6cm stems over many months. Rare. This is a delightful specimen for a
 terracotta pot.

'Whatfield Wisp'
‘Doris’ Bred in England, this is an Allwood hybrid flowering over a very long
 season with semi-double salmon pink flowers with a deeper eye.

‘Cherry Pie’ A charming cultivar with grey foliage and beautiful single pink
 fragrant flowers.

‘Napoléon III’ This is a 19th century mule pink ( a type which is sterile, hence
 the name, and bears clusters of smaller double flowers with delicious fragrance).
 Very rare.

‘Sops in Wine’ This unusual name dates back to the 14th century when spices
 were the province of the rich. Mulled ales and mulled beers were instead
 flavoured by throwing in a handful of spicily scented clove pink flowers before
 warming the brew. More than one variety was known by this name, but this
 cultivar came to us from a rare overseas collection of heirloom clove pinks. It has
 small intensely spicily scented semi-double deep red flowers with a slightly
 purple cast. Extremely rare.

‘Nigricans’ This is a rare old perennial Sweet William which forms a low dense
 carpet unlike modern cultivars and bears many stalks of clustered flowers which
 are the darkest wine red possible. 'Holborn Glory' is another of the rare perennial
 Sweet William varieties and has large heads of ice white flowers with large ruby

‘Pike’s Pink’ This lovely old English cultivar forms the neatest and densest of
 low carpets and smothers in small fully double very fragrant baby pink
 blossoms. Very free flowering and like all Clove Pinks very easy to grow in full

‘Carthusian Pink’  or Clusterhead PinkNamed for the Carthusian monks, this
 forms a dense mat of grassy leaves and bears tall stems each topped with a
 cluster of warm pink baby carnation flowers. 

'Mrs. Sinkins' This is the famous 19th century large flowered clove pink which
 is so full of intensely scented white petals she usually splits her calyx. The flowers
 are borne in the greatest profusion and the fragrance can be detected far beyond
 the flowers.

19th century 'Mrs Sinkins'

'Jeanne d'Arc' This is surely one of the most elegant clove pinks with very
 abundant, intensely fragrant single palest pink fringed flowers borne on
 slender stems above a dense cushion-like carpet of fine blue green foliage.
 Like its namesake, Joan of Arc, its apparent fragility is belied by real
 toughness of character.

‘May Queen’ An old variety fully double, medium sized flowers in profusion, in
 the style of ‘Mrs Sinkins’ in pale pink overlaid with splashes and stripes of 
raspberry and crimson, filled with fragrance.

D. arenarius This northern European species is a gem with very fine foliage 
and quantities of sinle finely fringed and quite largeflowers with stunning

Dianthus arenarius

‘The Cheddar Pink’  Dianthus gratianopolitanus The true highly fragrant 
native Dianthus from the Cheddar Gorge in England. Very rare. Very charming
 fringed light pink flowers borne in great profusion.

‘Old Velvet’ An heirloom variety with delightfully scented deep crimson

‘Devon’ This is an old English cultivar with richly clove scented abundant pink
 semi-double medium sized flowers in abundance.

'Mt. Tomah Powder Pink' This gorgeous variety flowers prolifically for much of
 the season with medium sized, fragrant, smooth-textured powder pink flowers.
 Simply charming

‘Nancy Coleman’ A lovely old English variety with very fragrant double pink
 flowers, now rare.

'Mars' This is such a dependable clove pink particularly in cold areas. It forms
 a neat dense silvery foliaged carpet and is in flower for much of the season. The
 prolific flowers are spicily scented,  and shaped like baby double red carnations. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sweet Bay - The Noble Herb

                  Sweet Bay - The Noble Herb
Medieval Herb garden, Provence
Apollo, god of the sun, forever walks the lands of the bay tree, the lands of his long lost love. Apollo was fatally attracted to the mountain nymph Daphne and pursued her. But despite his great glory, she rejected all his advances  and her father, acting somewhat excessively by modern standards, turned her into a bay tree to protect her virtue. The sweet bay tree Laurus nobilis is still known in Greece as Daphne in her honour. Apollo persisted in his devotion to a lost love, forever more wearing a circlet of bay leaves in her memory, and offered protection to anyone who carried with a sprig of bay. 
 Both the Greeks and the Romans crowned their greatest athletes,  poets, triumphant generals, and emperors with laurel wreaths. Roman senators, in the tradition of politicians everywhere, awarded themselves this signal mark of honour. In the medieval period, men of great learning as well as academic graduates continued to be  crowned with a wreath woven from the leaves and berries of sweet bay. Known as the bacca laurea, this wreath is still comemorated in France in the word baccalauréat, the final secondary school exams, and in the English title of Poet Laureate.
If you need a little fiery magic in your life,  sweet bay should certainly be planted in your garden. Not only is it the herb of Apollo but also of Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess,  of Ceres, and of Aesculapius  the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo.  Sweet bay not only offered protection against evil.The Romans particularly relied on its powerful protection against lightning, perhaps because Apollo was the son of Zeus, god of thunderbolts. Bay leaves were burned in rituals to penetrate the veils of time, and placed beneath the pillow at night to increase creativity and bring prophetic dreams. The third Oracle Shrine at Delphi in Greece was thatched with the branches of sweet bay for this reason, and the oracle pronounced her prophecies with a bay leaf held between her lips. Bay leaves were also used in incense and carried in sachets as a magical healing plant.  For such magical uses, sweet bay is ritually harvested, picked at its most potent when the sun shines in one’s face at the first moment of sunrise.
Like all powerfully magical herbs, the sweet bay had its downside. If a tree died it  was thought to be an omen of great disaster. Shakespreare was certainly aware of this tradition. In Richard II  the Captain says: “Tis thought the King is dead, we will not stay/ The bay trees in our country are all wither’d.”
The sweet bay is an evergreen, and native to the countries that border the Mediterranean. In cooler areas it rarely grows larger than a shrub to 3.5 metres, but in warmer areas it can become over a long time a substantial tree to 20 metres. The dark green leaves have a delightfully aromatic, warm and spicy fragrance reminiscent of cinnamon. They are used in bouquet garni to flavour savoury dishes such as casseroles, soups, stews, sauces, and pickles. The leaves are equally delghtful in many sweet dishes such as custard tarts and other milk based desserts. Tuck a few young leaves into a bowl of fresh fruit salad or a fruit punch before chilling. Delicious! In the Middle East the leaves are used to flavour coffee. For kitchen use,the leaves can be harvested at any time and air dried away from sunlight, storing them afterwards in airtight containers. But  the fresh leaf can be used in any recipe. Bay laurel wood, or just a few woody twigs added to the barbeque, creates a memorable feast.
The clusters of nectar filled, cream coloured axillary flowers are very modest, and  are followed by aromatic blue-black berries which yield a fragrant oil containing cineol that has been used for perfumery, in liqueurs, and for veterinary liniments. Bay leaves also act as a weevil deterrent and have long been stored with rice, flour, dried figs, and other dried foods in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
Bay has also found use in herbal medicine as a tea made with 30g of leaves steeped for 10 minutes in 3 cups boiling water and sipped to relieve flatulence and aid digestion. This same tea has also been used to relieve the symptoms of influenza and bronchitis, and is said to be useful in treating baldness when applied regularly to the scalp although no guarrantees are given. Simmer a large handfull of leaves in four cups of water for ten minutes , strain, and add to a hot bath to help relieve tired, aching legs.  
Bay trees are susceptible to frost damage in their earlier years and can be scorched and cut back at temperatures of -7 degrees C and killed at -15 degrees C when young, but older branches and their leaves survive undamaged. Potted bay trees grow well indoors if they are given bright lighting and regular watering.  Outdoors, the plant appreciates a warm, sunny position and good drainage. Bay trees are very accomodating but on heavy soils you will be rewarded for good preparation of the site with the addition of generous quantities of well rotted compost. A regular foliar feed of a seaweed based fertiliser will also keep the plant healthy. Its greatest enemy, white wax scale insect, is also the root cause of the  disfiguring sooty mould seen commonly on undernourished bay trees. White oil can be used as a controlling spray on large specimens. Infestations on small bushes can be wiped with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol . Regular watering is essential. Plants rarely recover from wilting.  
Sweet bay has some close and fragrant relatives such as the Canary Island Bay L. azorica and the tall growing, very aromatic, non-edible Californian bay Umbellularia californica. The cinnamon tree Cinnamomum zeylanicum, the cassia bark tree C. cassia, and the camphor laurel C. camphora  are all closely related. The warmly fragrant Mexican bay Litsea glaucescens is a look alike and taste alike beloved in Mexican cooking, red bay Persea borbonia from the Gulf Coast of the USA is an excellent substitute for bay when used fresh, and the leaves of another shrub known as ‘sweet bay’ Magnolia virginiana was a popular and almost indetectable substitute on the American east coast.
 Favourite smell-alikes are  the delightfully aromatic  bayberries or candleberries of North America, Myrica cerifera and M. pennsylvanica which are  both native to the east coast, and M. californica from the west coast. They are tall evergreen shrubs with aromatic, shiny, tough leaves. Their inconspicuous deep blue, hard fruits are covered in a thick layer of wax which can be separated by boiling and is delightfully fragrant. It was used to make the scented candles so greatly prized by American colonialists, as well as soap. A fragrant oil is also extracted from the leaves. 
  Few plants respond as well to clipping and bay is an excellent subject for  formal clipped hedges and simple topiary.  Common topiary shapes are a standard with the top trimmed into a sphere, and an elongated pyramid. Bay topiary has been in vogue for at least two and a half millenia, often grown in large pots, and remains as fashionable as ever. Use one to create a garden focal point, or a pair to emphasise an entrance.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lavender Is More Than a Romantic herb

Harvesting lavender in Provence

Lavender belongs to and heads an elite list of universally popular herbs including the mints, thymes, sages, rosemary, and basils, all of which find extensive usage and acceptance worldwide,  have multiple virtues, and fascinating histories. No plant with the exception of the rose, a herb in its own right, evokes such universal affection or stirs memory more deeply than lavender. It has been a herb for all ages, and is showing promise of being one of the most important botanicals for the future with modern research now confirming many of its reputed medicinal virtues, aromatherapy harnessing its fragrance to gently ease work stressed bodies, and chefs around the world rediscovering a culinary herb of exceptional quality and breadth of usage that all but Provence had forgotten.

In the USA, lavender’s versatility as a medicinal herb has earned it the name of the Swiss army knife of herbal medicine due to its remarkable range of uses. In Provence it is considered the one essential in the first aid box. Only the true lavender Lavendula  angustifolia finds extensive use medicinally, and it appears to be at its most potent when the oil is distilled from flowers collected in the wild at higher altitudes in its native Provence. The next most potent form appears to be oil distilled from seed grown crops derived from genetically diverse material, and then clonal material, that is material grown from cuttings of a specific cultivar of the species. Certified organic crops attract a premium, and crops subjected to agricultural sprays are difficult or impossible to sell to any reputable firm. As lavender is one of the plants least prone to insect attack and disease, organic production is unusually easy to manage provided the crop is grown in a suitable site in terms of climate and soil, the fields are open, sunny and well drained, and simple rules of crop hygeine followed.

 Wild crafted herbs are universally preferred in herbal medicine, provided they are collected by experienced gatherers, as the tougher growing conditions  favour potency, the plants are less likely to be polluted, and they have been grown without the use of agricultural chemicals. The widely grown hybrid lavenders derived from crosses between the high altitude L. angustifolia syn. L. vera, L.officinalis and the lower altitude L. latifolia syn. L. spica, known in Australia as Intermedia cultivars and in France as lavandin, find  limited medicinal use.

The range of activity demonstrated by  lavender oil derivd from true lavender is remarkable. It is antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral in action and also useful on first degree burns.It is a powerful soporific as anyone who has ever tried to strip lavender in a poorly ventilated room soon discovers. At the height of early 20th century lavender farming in southern England, cross ventilation had to be ensured  before workers began to strip dried lavender flowers from the harvest or the ladies would be literally asleep on the job. Lavender also has a marked tranquillising effect. Next time World War III is about to break out among the children at home, open a bottle of lavender oil and hear the blessed sounds of peace return. This is a trick well known to French psychologists...and teachers! Lavender is also a very useful soothing agent for the peripheral nervous system. I found it to be very useful in reducing the pain of shingles for my mother who suffered from this very painful virus from time to time over thirty years. For those who find leg muscles aching and twitching in bed after a hard day’s physical work (restless legs syndrome), lavender oil rubbed into the muscles relieves the symptoms for many.

The essential oil distilled from lavender has until recent times been the only form of the plant to be used medicinally. But the water soluble compounds in lavender are found not in the oil fraction but in the water fraction of the distillate. The water fraction is known as a hydrosol and has been found to have its own range of biological activities. Its mildness has also attracted those developing gentle products for facial skin, and for children, and an interesting commercially developed use is as a spritzer to spray on the face during long haul flights. It refreshes, invigorates, and appears to reduce the impact of long distance travel on the body. The finest quality hydrosol comes over in the first approximately 30 % and the last third should be discarded.

In Provence lavender has long held a high reputation as an anti-toxin. Maurice Messegué, son of a famed herbalist and himself one of the greatest herbalists ever produced by France, wrote of  hunting with his father in the mountains of Provence when he was a child. His father’s small hunting dog was bitten by a poisonous adder and the young Maurice was immediately dispatched to gather wild lavender from the bushes on the hillside. The dog was already severely distressed by the time he quickly returned, but his father crushed the handful of lavender flowers and leaves between his hands and applied it to the bite. The dog soon appeared less distressed and by the following morning was well on the way to recovery. The bite of the adder is sufficient to kill small dogs.  Maurice Messegué said that the use of lavender against snake bite was common in Provence where hunting dogs were often were bitten. But I thought it might still be the case that the animals which recovered had  been bitten by snakes that had struck another prey recently and had less venom than normal in their fangs. So I asked Catherine Couttelenc (she has since reverted to her maiden name), a lavender expert and university graduate who comes from a traditional lavender farming background in Provence, whether she had ever heard of such a use. She was not familiar with it, but went on to tell her own remarkable story. 

Her aunt was fond of gathering wild mushrooms and was considered an expert at identification. Perhaps her vision was becoming long sighted with age, but among the mushrooms she gathered was a deadly poisonous form. She prepared her meal from them, ate it, and shared a little with her small dog. Within a minute the dog had succumbed to the toxin and was writhing and foaming on the floor, before dying. Without hesitating, and possibly with minutes or less to spare, she grabbed the bottle of essential lavender oil that was always kept in the medicine chest and swallowed around 4 mls. She developed no more than slight symptoms which wore off almost immediately. Lavender’s reputation as an anti-toxin appears to be anecdotal at the moment, unlike its other substantiated medicinal uses, but the reports are consistent and it may be that a molecular compound in lavender oil binds with active sites on various toxin molecules and renders them ineffective.

Lavender sachets made at Honeysuckle Cottage with freshly harvested and dried  lavender.

Lavender growers often express the fear that their precious natural essential lavender oil will be replaced by the much cheaper synthetic form of the oil. But true lavender oil is much more than the sum of its parts, and synthetic lavender oil does not have the healing qualities of the genuine oil. Nor is it of value to the top end of the perfumery market or the rapidly growing and widely accepted area of aromatherapy. High quality oils derived from organically grown crops are demanded by both sectors. In perfumery, the subtlety of quality perfumes cannot be achieved by using synthetic oils alone which are like a single frequency note, piercing and strident, and difficult to blend. Natural essential oils have a broader frequency band, to continue the metaphor, they are more complex and softer, easier to blend and to create a harmonious whole. Many natural essential oils are literally worth far more than their weight in gold, and substituting a few synthetic oils can keep the price of a quality fragrance within a tolerable price range. To create the necessary complexity, balance, and harmony, however, the fragrance is blended with essential oil of true lavender.

In addition to its use as a complexing and harmonising element in many upmarket fragrances, lavender perfume has enjoyed a resurgence in its own right. Many of the older formulae favoured a scent which was by modern standards ‘snuffy’, with a musky, musty bias. Modern formulations aim for a clean, clear, cool fragrance. The sweet clean fragrance of these new formulations is winning over a whole new generation, and together with the citrus family of scents, is popular with both sexes and all age groups. Modern formulations for personal toiletries usually incorporate the hybrid or Intermedia forms of lavender. An old-fashioned image fragrance has reinvented itself.

Harvesting lavender in the high country of Provence in early July

Aromatherapya is a true discipline in its own right. It is studied at post-graduate level in several medical schools in France, and a Chair of Phytotherapy has been established in the Université of Paris Nord. Aromatherapists demand the highest possible quality essential oil of true lavender, organically grown and preferably organically certified. Synthetic lavender oil is of no therapeutic value, and Intermedia oils are of limited value. It finds widespread use in therapies to reduce stress, relieve insomnia, and soothe the body. It is used as a wound healant in aromatherapy and, possibly because of its ability to relax the mind, it is considered to enhance the immune system and assist in overcoming adrenal exhaustion. Apart from pure essential  oil, tinctures, tisanes, spritzes, atomises, salves, and washes are all used, and hydrosols are gaining popularity with aromatherapists.

Eating lavender has a quaint ring about it, undoubtedly romantic, but seemingly improbable. In reality lavender was at least as popular and used in the same way as rosemary in England in previous centuries. Fashion is a powerful thing and lavender was relegated to the realm of the quaint as a culinary herb in the late 18th and 19th century in England. In the USA and certainly in France however, lavender never completely disappeared from the list of culinary herbs. Despite their obvious modernity, in many ways Americans have retained many old-fashioned ways. Their use of the gentlemanly ‘Sir’ as a form of address is an example. The pronunciation of the word ‘herb’ as ‘erb’ is another instance. This pronunciation was used in Elizabethan England at the time when English settlement first began in Virginia. The English language moved on in England. Dropping the 'h' in front of a word became regarded as distinctly lower class, and 'erb' became ‘herb’. But in the USA the use of 'erb' has been retained.

 Lavender was never forgotten as a culinary herb in the United States. A remarkable number of recipes in parts of the USA included lavender flowers, often in sweet pies, cakes, and biscuits. Lavender was never forgotten in Provence either. In the dried herb mixture known as ‘Herbes de Provence’, it finds traditional use in flavouring meat dishes, baked fish, soups, and in vinaigrettes for salads. The recipe for this herbal mixture is as variable as any traditional recipe can be, and many formulations have been published, but they usually contain various proportions of dried rosemary, sweet marjoram, thyme, savory, and lavender flowers. Lavender is also used extensively in Provençal baking (particularly breads), to flavour wild game in combination with honey, and to add an indefinable something to classic French sweet dishes such as Creme Brulée and  cherry filled Clafoutis. Lavender honey and the almonds of southern Provence are the basis of the enormously profitable nougat industry of Montelimar which draws tourists from far and wide.

The new wave of lavender herbal cookery world wide but particularly in France and the United States, is even more exciting than that of the past.  Fish, venison, and game are smoked with lavender, meats and seafoods are grilled over lavender stalks, lavender savoury butters are melted over steak and fish dishes, marinades for game, meat, and seafoods incorporate lavender,and Asian fusion foods blend the flavours of Vietnamese coriander ( rau ram ), Thai basil, mint, or with garum masala.
While lavender already qualifies as not only the most romantic of all herbs, and the most versatile, lavender is also one of the most mystical of all herbs. Around the Mediterranean region where lavender is endemic, various species of lavender have been attributed with magical properties. It was burned during the summer solstice fires to create a purifying smoke. In Tuscany it was used to protect children from the ‘evil eye’, and in North Africa it was used by women to protect themselves not only from evil, but from violence. It was also believed that lavender conferred the ability to see spirits and, if a handful was carried, to detect the Devil who would appear as a man with a hollow back. Spikenard, oil of spike, derived from Lavendula latifolia, was used in ancient Egypt to anoint sacred sites and purify tools of magic for cleansing rituals. Today, practitioners of mystical religions also use oil of lavender for purification rituals and healing.

Lavender is more than a romantic herb. Today it has reinvented itself to be the most modern of plants. In gardens, lavender is immensely popular around the world, and hundreds of new cultivars for landscaping uses have been released in the last decade. The use of lavender in landscaping is still increasing, and more cultivars are being released than ever before. Lavender as a culinary herb has never been more popular, and its usage is increasing rapidly across the fashionable world. The medicinal uses of lavender are now being confirmed by modern science. Lavender as a fragrance is becoming universally popular, its clean, fresh, cool ragrance perfect for modern lifestyles. Aromatherapy has verified the use of lavender in treating modern problems of stress and immune deficiencies. Lavender is in the forefront of modern herbs and likely to remain  so. It was romantic before, now it has a versatility that is truly astounding.

If you are a lavender lover, you might enjoy my book 'Lavender Sweet Lavender' (Kangaroo Press Sydney)  It was updated to a second edition in 2000 after a number of reprints.  Although it is out print currently you will find second hand copies come up for sale regularly on Happy gardening and reading about gardening.  Judyth  McLeod

© Judyth A. McLeod