It might not always feel like it but Spring is finally here.
As a forager I am always keenly aware of those first green shoots beginning to peep through. At this time of year I can’t help but search the ground wherever I go, looking for the earliest wild herbs. But it’s seeing the first flowers of Spring which delights me the most, bringing colour to the drabness of late winter. For our ancestors these signs of growth had a more practical relevance. The early Spring herbs provided much needed nourishment as Winter stores began to run low, and our native flowers were considered equally important for a range of uses.
As an evergreen which flowers most of the year, Gorse is one of the earliest plants to display bright Spring blooms. Gorse is abundant on the West Pennine moors where I live and every year I have looked at these yellow flower pods and wondered what on earth I could use them for.
Having searched out only vague medicinal uses, I was pleased to find the seeds can be used as a successful flea repellent and the flowers as a cloth dye. The flowers are edible and can be used to garnish salads or desserts and as an ingredient of country wine. Having recently found a large collection of demijohns in our old shed it seemed rude not to give this a try. Here is the traditional recipe I intend to follow, and I’ve been reliably informed the end result is reminiscent of champagne.
Collect enough fresh flowers to fill a pint glass. Simmer the flowers in eight pints of water add 3 lbs of sugar or 2 lbs of honey and three sliced lemons. Once the sugar has dissolved add 1 lb of raisins. Once the mixture has cooled to 20°C add one teaspoon of wine yeast and a heaped teaspoon of yeast nutrient. Tightly cover the mixture and leave in a warm dark place for five days, stirring daily. Then strain through muslin cloth and pour into a demijohn. Rack at least twice before bottling. The bottled wine is ready to drink after six months.
Another early spring flower, the Cowslip, is now a protected species but in days gone by it grew in great swathes throughout the British Isles. The flowers and leaves are edible and contain vitamin C, potassium and calcium as well as possessing strong anti-oxidant properties. Leaves were traditionally added to Spring salads while the flowers, which have a mild anise flavour, were used to make an assortment of tarts, cordials, desserts and preserves. The flowers proved equally popular as an ingredient for wine and homemade mead.
In addition, Cowslips are natural painkillers and a tea made from the leaves was once used to treat migraines and general aches and pains. For centuries the Cowslip was also highly regarded for its beautifying qualities. A myriad of lotions, creams and potions were made from the flowers, all of which purported to clear blemishes, reduce freckles and to bring a youthful glow to dull ageing skin. Even more recent herbal books suggest Cowslip-infused cold cream as a remedy for wrinkles.
Primrose, meaning ‘first flower’, is closely related to the Cowslip, and these pretty blooms were similarly used to make desserts and sparkling country wines. The flowers and root contain a fragrant oil which was once greatly prized and the leaf tea was a popular country cure for arthritis and joint inflammations. Modern research has confirmed that the plant contains salicylates which relieve pain and inflammation. Primrose tea is also mildly narcotic and is recognised to have sedative qualities used to treat nervous disorders, hyperactivity and insomnia.
Snowdrops are one of my early spring favourites because they are so delicately beautiful. Up until recently I thought they were completely useless, but my recent reasearch has uncovered some remarkable new discoveries. The plant contains lectin which is a natural insecticide, known to repel all kinds of garden bugs and pests. The bulb of the snowdrop has recently been scientifically proven to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s. It was also found to be useful in the treatment of various nervous, neuralgic complaints. Research is still being undertaken into its use in the treatment of HIV so who knows what else this pretty little plant is capable of.
- Gorse contains mildly toxic alkaloids so should never be eaten in large quantities
- Avoid ingesting Cowslip if you suffer from high or low blood pressure as research has shown the plant can slightly affect blood pressure control
- In very rare cases Cowslip can cause digestive upset and allergic reactions
- As a precaution, foods, beverages and remedies made from Gorse, Cowslip and Primrose should not be taken by pregnant or breast-feeding women.
- Do not take Primrose if you have an aspirin sensitivity
- Do not take Primrose if you are taking anti-coagulant drugs
- Be aware that in very rare cases contact with Primroses can cause skin irritation and allergic reaction
- Both wild Cowslip and Primroses are now rare protected species – it is illegal to pick them or dig them up
- Snowdrops are mildly poisonous – medicinal treatments should only be prepared by a trained herbalist
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 please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.