Saturday, 30 March 2013

Unusual Herbs

The Child Within
Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia auricula)

I suppose most of us are guilty of thinking of grandad as an old man. In one sense this is obviously right, but it overlooks the fact that inside that old man body is a child fighting to get out. He would always be on about 'acting our age' just before demonstrating that he was about six and a half. For instance, it was him who told me how to wrap a banger in the clay which passed for garden soil in the place we lived. The idea was to light it and wait till it was fizzing before throwing it at a neighbour's house wall, where it would stick. Then, when it went off, Auntie Bertha's picture would fall off the wall and the hapless neighbour would dive under the table, under the impression that something big had fallen off an aeroplane. This was the theory, anyway. In fact we never found out what the result was. We were too busy running.

Depth charges were his idea as well: wrap the banger in silver paper with some small stones to weigh it down, then drop it in the park lake and watch the resultant turmoil on the surface as an eruption occurred in the depths. We were always hoping for stunned fish to pop up as well but this never happened. It was years later that I learnt our mistake by watching 'Crocodile Dundee' - we should have used dynamite.

Another example of the boy struggling to get out occurred when we were on holiday in The Lake District. The family was having a picnic at the side of Esthwaite Water and I had decided to make a pier. I was heavily into dams at the time but, as Esthwaite wasn't going anywhere, there didn't seem much point, so a pier was the next best thing. Grandad watched the operation with growing impatience until he could stand it no longer. Then I was suddenly reduced from architect to labourer, while he waded knee deep in the icy water, repositioning rocks and supervising the filling- in of crevices with sand and grit from the shallows. The underwater foundations of the pier went out a surprisingly long way, as the lake shelves shallowly. This was hard work and we were taking a rest on the bank before adding the superstructure to the foundations when a large rowing boat manned by three people bore towards us.

"Are you people aware you are trespassing?". The haughty voice came from a very posh middle-aged lady in a large hat. She actually stood indignantly in front of her seat in the boat while two Oxford looking types plied expertly on the oars. Replace her brolly with a trident and trim the brim of her hat and you had Boadicea.

We were well aware of the trespassing bit - a large sign had informed us - but Grandad had insisted that he'd fought for his country and no toffee nosed git of a landowner is telling him where he could picnic. We wondered how much his spell in the catering corp actually qualified him for this remark, but it hadn't seemed worth arguing about at the time.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
To be fair, I think Grandad was going to shout back in heated debate, but at that moment the bottom of the boat made contact with the foundations of our pier. I can't remember much about physics, but feel fairly confident that the occupants of the boat obeyed Newton's first law of motion and the boat itself paid homage to the second. Put simply, the boat stopped and the occupants kept going:  Boadicea  fell backwards over the seat, while her hat dropped over the side, to float like a discarded porridge bowl. At the same time, the two Oxford types disappeared off their perches into the bottom of the boat in a melee of arms, legs and non-too upper class curses. At this, even the war hero lost his nerve and we grabbed the picnic and fled across the field and through a hole in the fence. He was already revving the old Austin Seven when I got there.

Maybe Grandad was an exception but I don't think so. I mean, what teenagers plays hide-and-seek or mess with electric trains? It isn't cool. Wait til they're a bit older though, with kids of their own. Then the excuse is there to argue loudly about who was peeping when they should have been counting, or to heatedly claim ones turn on the electric train control. The spirit of the child is in all of us and I reckon there's nothing healthier than letting it out every now and then. Perhaps we should take heed of what Bertrand Russell meant when he said 'sod what society thinks'. On second thoughts, it was Ted Russell who said it. He used  to live down the road from us, got behind with the rent and became a tramp.

A lot of herbs would be popular with the tramps of yore who would roam the countryside and no doubt make use of anything that was free. We tend to think of herbs as those rather exotic escapees from Mediterranean climes, like rosemary, lavender and sage. However, the dictionary definition is 'a plant of which parts are used for medicine, food or scent'. This is a group that  many of our native plants, including some trees, fit into, although we probably wouldn't deem them suitable for our little herb garden: dandelion, for example, fits most of the criteria. It is widely known as a diuretic and the  French even call it 'pis en lit'. It is also rich in vitamins A and C, while being a passable salad plant (especially when the leaves have been deprived of light so that they lose their bitterness. An upturned bucket can provide the darkness). I suppose the pedant would point out that it doesn't have much scent, but so what - it possesses enough of the other attributes to be over qualified. Apparently it used to be used as a substitute for coffee during the war. Nice fat roots are roasted until brittle and the taste is said to be almost indistinguishable from coffee, without the negative aspects of a caffeine content. I must admit to not having tried it, but intend to this summer (assuming we have one) when they make an appearance. Apple growers find them a useful ground-cover in orchards, because they give off ethylene gas which speeds the fruit ripening process.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia auricula)is probably the last thing you'd look for in a herb garden, nonetheless it fulfils the 'food' criterion. Roger Phillips, in his book 'Wild Food' suggests simmering in butter for 20 minutes with thyme, parsley and seasoning, then rolling into slices of bread and toasting. I tried this and the result reminded me of a classic scene in an old Charlie Chaplin film where he eats his boot. Apparently it is important to pick the fungus in its young state unless you want to do a Charlie. It is called 'Jew's ear' because it is found growing on branches of elder and the legend says that Judas hung himself on that tree.

Hawthorn is ubiquitous in the U.K. but most people only recognise it as a good hedging plant with nice early flowers. However the young leaves are traditionally known as 'bread and cheese' because country children would eat them on the way to school and  people used them in salads. Legend says that, applied on May day, the dew from a hawthorn will 'beautify a maid forever'. It seems that Samuel Pepys wife tried it in 1667 but there is no record of it stopping his philandering, so I suppose the jury's still out. Another legend refers to the variety Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora'. This is also called 'The Glastonbury Thorn', because Joseph of Arimathea was doing a gig on Wearyall Hill and going down like a lead balloon. In frustration, he stuck his staff, made of hawthorn, in the ground and, lo and behold, it burst into flower. That got 'em. It was better than one of Tommy Cooper's tricks working - they hung onto every word after that and the variety 'Biflora' became famous for flowering on Christmas day. It actually became a political football at one point in 1752, because, in spite of its history, it failed to flower until January 5th. This was widely recognised to be due to the change of calendar from the Julian to Gregorian, which was then said to be against God's wishes. However, the argument was ignored and the plant still flowers a few days after Christmas.

Ah, well. You can't win 'em all.

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