A few weeks ago I discovered a sensory garden in Southport’s Hesketh Park. It was largely overgrown but, through the mass of unruly vegetation, I could see there was a wealth of foraging delights. I decided to return at peak flowering season knowing it would make identification easier.

I am guessing that council cuts have meant the garden is too expensive to maintain. But nature is cleverer than us and has created a wild space buzzing with life, the air heavy with wonderful scents and the raised beds groaning with useful herbs. With our insect population in decline, this is exactly the sort of space every park should create.

Walking through the gates I first noticed Lady’s Mantle spilling over the edge of a bed. This is a plant I use all the time. The leaves contain tannin and therefore are astringent and have a powerful cooling quality. I wash a large leaf, pour boiling water over it and the resulting tea is my facial toner and cleanser.

The cooling action is particularly lovely on hot sultry days and it’s honestly better than any similar shop-bought product I’ve used. I even dry the leaves over winter so I have a supply throughout the year.

Right behind the Lady’s Mantle were swathes of towering fennel. Large clumps of it were all over the garden, so it’s difficult to know if they were planted or if they have self-seeded. I know fennel bulbs are the part of the plant most people are familiar with, but it is illegal to uproot a wild or park plant.

Instead, you can harvest the stalks and feathery leaves to use in stocks, salads and sauces or you can roast them with fish. Fennel is extremely good for you, high in calcium and contains vitamins C and B6, as well as iron and other minerals. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. 

The flowers are beautiful, but it is the later seed heads which I look forward to. In the autumn I collect and dry them to use in curries, soups or stews to add a rich aniseed flavour. Fennel seeds were once a popular remedy for indigestion as the snappily titled The Englishmans Doctor Or the School of Salerne, Or Physicall Observations for the Perfect Preserving of the Body of Man in Continuall Health, Translated in Verse by Sir John Harringon (1608) shares:

In Fennel-seed, this virtue you shall finde,

Foorth of your lower parts to drive the winde.

Another digestive herb, Lemon Balm, had spread all over the place. Dotted about the beds, this pretty plant is also functional. A member of the mint family, it has a lemony, citrus scent and flavour. Medicinally it is mildly sedative and believed to be anti-bacterial and anti-viral.

As a culinary herb it can be used to make syrups or delicate jams and jellies. The leaves are edible, but are quite strong so best used as a garnish or in a salad dressing. The fresh leaves can be made into a relaxing tea or used to flavour mojitos and even gin and tonic. 

In the next bed among the thyme and rosemary plants I almost missed my star find – Black Horehound. This is a medicinal herb which I have read about for years but never actually found. It’s not edible but was once used for a raft of ailments, from sleeping disorders to vomiting and whooping cough.

I think it has particularly stuck in my mind as an old treatment for internal worms where it was used to make an enema – I mean, who needs colonic irrigation? These days the dried leaves are sold as a medicinal tea thought to increase bile production and to calm spasms and nerves.

Growing almost over the top of Black Horehound was another plant I have never seen in the flesh: Lucerne or Alfalfa. This is hugely beneficial to pollinators and is used as cattle feed due to its high vitamin and mineral content. There are constituents of the fresh plant which are difficult for some humans to digest, but dried the plant is used for all sorts of herbal teas and capsules.

Jam-packed with vitamins (A, C, E & K) and minerals (calcium, potassium & iron), it is marketed as a natural food supplement. It contains phytoestrogens too, which are known to balance hormones and ease some symptoms of the menopause. It is thought useful in lowering cholesterol and helpful for people with diabetes.

In the bed opposite was oodles of Oregano, alive and humming with bees and bugs. There is enough in this garden to supply half of Southport with fresh herbs. I picked a few leaves for dinner, but I might return to collect a few bunches to dry.

Drying oregano is quite easy, the herb is at its most potent just before it flowers. On a dry day, cut long stems without harming the roots. Gently wash with cold water then pat dry. Split the sprigs into small loose bunches and hang them in a warm place with some sunlight. I will be drying mine in the loft, which should take about four weeks. Once dry, store in a sealed jar to keep the remaining oils as fresh as possible. 

Weaving its way among the Oregano I found Spearmint with its fresh zingy leaves. I love any kind of mint, especially as a tea. I make a large pot with lots of freshly washed leaves and add a tablespoon of brown sugar to the pot. It is nice hot, but incredibly refreshing chilled. Like all mints it is excellent for relieving nausea and indigestion. It’s great as a garnish in salads and hot dishes as well as being delicious in deserts like ice cream. 

Looming over the mint I found Mullein scattered about here and there. I think perhaps these were wild rather than a purposefully planted specimen. Mullein is edible, but probably not advised. The leaves have the consistency of rabbit’s ears and while they have been comfortably used as natural loo paper, eating them would likely be a rather unpleasant experience.

The herb is instead used for a variety of ailments. I have always known it as a herb for chest complaints like bronchitis and asthma, but it is just as useful for excess catarrh. In addition, a tea made from the flowers and leaves is a mild sedative and can aid sleep. The plant is also a pain reliever and the tea gargled can soothe throat infections. 

There were at least a dozen other herbs and edibles in the sensory garden and there will be even more as autumn blows in. I know many people will have walked through this unruly patch without noticing the free bounty staring them in the face.

They probably saw the space as unkempt without understanding its value as a forager’s paradise and a safe habit for wildlife. But the truth is that even without a wonderful place like this, if you really look there are useful plants all around us – so many bursting with nutritional value or offering herbal remedies. Next time you walk through your local park or green spaces take a closer look at the ‘weeds’. You’ll be amazed.

Happy Hunting,

Words and images by Claire Fleetneedle  

 

Caution:

Lady’s Mantle

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Avoid using Lay’s Mantle if you have liver damage or a liver disorder

Fennel

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Consuming large amounts of Fennel can weaken the strength of birth control pills as it can affect oestrogen levels
  • Can affect the potency of some antibiotics
  • Not compatible with anti-coagulant medication

Black Horehound

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Should be avoided by people on medication for Parkinson’s disease

Lucerne/Alfalfa

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Long term use can create symptom similar to the auto immune disease lupus.
  • Should be avoided by anyone suffering from an auto immune illness such as MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, graves disease, thyroid problems, addisons, coeliacs, and many others
  • Due to its phytoestrogens, Alfalfa should be avoided by breast, ovarian and uterine cancer patients, as well as those with endometriosis and uterine fibroids

Oregano

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Can lower blood sugar levels so should be avoided by people on diabetes medication
  • Not compatible with anti-coagulant medication
  • Should be avoided by those with a lamiaceae allergy

Spearmint

  • Can cause an allergic reaction in those with a lamiaceae allergy

Oregano

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Can lower blood sugar levels so should be avoided by people on diabetes medication
  • Not compatible with anti-coagulant medication
  • Can cause an allergic reaction in those with a lamiaceae allergies

Mullein

  • Should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women

DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences of using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate. In the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs.  If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above then please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.

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