Saturday, 15 March 2014


More to a herb than meets the eye.
Willow Catkins
We've got some friends in Knutsford and, when we go round to see them, they always seem to have a bowl of some new recipe of crisps for us to help ourselves from. On one memorable occasion, I tried a good handful and found the taste disgusting.

"I'd complain to Booths about these, if I were you", I said to our hostess as she came into the room,  "they taste like scented cardboard"

"That's probably because", she replied with admirable constraint, "you're eating my pot- pourri".
And that's the thing about herbs. They aren't just the pretty selection of plants which fit happily in the bed under the window - according to the dictionary definition, they are 'plants which can be used for scent, insecticides, medicine and culinary purposes'.

If you're going for the 'scent' bit, it's easy to make a pot-pourri using this recipe I spotted in a Dr.D.G.Hessayon book: add 1oz dried orris root, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and a few drops of flower oil (rose or violet) to a quart of dried flower petals. Shake them together in a plastic bag and leave the mixture sealed for about three weeks before putting it in a dish or pomander. Apparently only rose, lavender and carnations retain their scent after drying, so forget some of the obvious things like cornflower and marigolds unless you want to add some different colours.

Even some trees come under that general definition: in days of yore, a person with a head-ache would chew a willow or poplar bud to ease the pain. Relatively modern science  laughed at this as an old wives tale but then looked suitably embarrassed when it was discovered that the buds and bark of these trees contains salicin which, in the human digestive system, becomes salicylic acid - a major component of aspirin.
Hop (Humulus lupulus)
Similarly, herb pillows, much recommended in the old days as remedies for all sorts of things, were suddenly discovered to often have well-founded scientific reasons for their efficacy: King George 3rd had difficulty sleeping to such a degree that he was ready to hand over the crown to the Prince Regent. Fortunately, one of his mates suggested he try a hop pillow. The pillow is simply a muslin bag containing the dried herb which is placed in your own pillow, allowing  the heat from your head to release the volatile oils. Anyway, Georgie boy suddenly found he was sleeping properly and, after a few successful nights, decided to continue with his duties as king and dispensed the poor old Prince Regent back to the world of opening supermarkets or whatever it is they do. The Latin name for hop is Humulus lupulus and lupulin is a known sedative.

Verbena, used in a herb pillow, is popularly recognised as an aphrodisiac. A potential problem with this is that, should any hardened stalks be left in the pillow, there is a danger of one penetrating the eardrum at a moment of erotic bliss. This, I feel, is the source of the belief that too much of certain things make you go deaf.
      For more on the unusual uses of herbs go to this.

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