a promise made new

Summer solstice is here, the sun’s energy is at its peak, and the herbs are back!  Now that the greenhouse is cleaned out (we had a successful first season selling plants!), I can focus more on what’s growing outside.  It’s finally time to start harvesting things as they come into season, and I can hardly wait each day to go out and see what’s new in the garden and around my earthspace.  It’s so exciting to see, taste and smell everything all over again.  And for each herb, I have at least two ideas for what I want to do with it.  Too many herbs, not enough time!!  I will confess that I often daydream about herbal makings while I’m working on my massage clients.  An idea for yarrow will pop into my head, or a formula for a new salve will make itself known to me.  (As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if maybe there’s a deeper medicine to be grasped here?)  I knew I had missed seeing things grow and flower since last summer, but I didn’t realize just how much.  It’s like a lover returning from a long trip; you know you missed them and managed to get by without them, but until they return and you get to experience all those subtle nuances of their personality, you don’t realize how much meaning they add to your life.  Several times this spring, I shrieked with joy (while driving alone, mind you) at the sight of mullein on the roadside springing up in its familiar spots and elders coming into flower.  I’m seeing and taking mental note of where all the wild lettuce is along my driveway in case I hurt my back again like I did last fall (let’s hope not- that was excruciating!)  I was so afraid that I’d forget what to do with them, or worse, lose my inspiration.  Thankfully, this was not the case.

Also, I’m noticing new herbs that have come to live with me, like the honeysuckle spilling out of the woodline, draping itself over everything it can grab hold of.  (My computer’s autocorrect wanted to change “woodline” to “woodbine”, which HAPPENS to be a common nickname for honeysuckle….curious.)

Lonicera japonica having her moment in the spotlight
Lonicera japonica having her moment in the sun

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was on honeysuckle vine that I found praying mantis cocoons earlier this spring, and made wreaths out of them to put in the greenhouse.  Those little guys had a 24/7 aphid buffet waiting for them as soon as they hatched.

those vines are so twisty, it practically made itself
those vines are so twisty, it practically made itself

So, honeysuckle has been giving me her gifts all along!  I have read differing opinions from several herbalists as to how they harvest honeysuckle flowers- some like only the unopened buds, some like the opened flowers as well.  So, I harvested plenty of both.

this is what an hour of picking looks like
this is what an hour of picking looks like.  my hands smelled soooo sweet!

As luck would have it, while traipsing through the brush, I looked down and noticed the missing attachment to my vacuum on the ground.  Had I not decided to pick honeysuckle that day, who knows when I would have found it!

slippery things, those crevice attachments
slippery things, those crevice attachments.

I was able to gather enough flowers to make a pint of honeysuckle-infused honey, and a half-gallon plus a pint of honeysuckle syrup.  With that much syrup, you can fully expect a honeysuckle-flavored kombucha to be forthcoming.

honeysuckle flowers infusing in honey
honeysuckle flowers infusing in honey
honeysuckle flowers infusing in honey, pose 2.  it's like glamour shots for herbs.
honeysuckle flowers infusing in honey, pose 2. it’s like glamour shots for herbs.

For this preparation, I filled a jar, loosely packed, with the flowers and buds and covered it with good, local honey.  I had to stir it a little with a chopstick to get the air bubbles out.  I let it infuse like this for a few days, then I decided that I wanted the honey sooner than later.  So I warmed the herb and the honey in a double boiler for an hour or so, then strained off the flowers and put the warmed honey in a clean jar.   The benefit of this is that your infused honey is ready on the same day, and there is less chance of the honey fermenting from the moisture in the fresh herb.  This does not need to be refrigerated because honey is a natural preservative.  Believe me when I say that it is absurdly delicious.

honeysuckle syrup
honeysuckle syrup

For the syrup, I put the rest of the flowers in a pot (it was a few good handfuls) and covered them with just-boiled water from the tea kettle.  Then, I covered them and let them steep overnight.  The next day, I strained off the liquid and added an equal amount of sugar (you can also use honey for this).  I heated the mixture again just until the sugar was completely dissolved and incorporated.  Store in clean jars and refrigerate.  It should be good in the fridge for at least a month.  Honeysuckle’s energy is cooling, so I will try one of these two preparations next time one of us has a hot, irritated, scratchy throat.  I’ve read of herbalists indicating the infused honey as a vulnerary- used topically on boils, minor burns, abrasions, or hot, infected wounds.  This makes double sense because both ingredients here have anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.  Also, honeysuckle has relaxing, anti-spasmodic qualities, so next time there’s a late night coughing session, this is the herb I’m reaching for.  It would be so soothing to sip on hot herbal tea sweetened with this.

I have 2 “generations” of calendula in my garden.  The flowers I’m getting now are from the seeds I started back in March.  The seeds that were sown straight into the garden in May won’t be flowering for at least another month or so.

the first calendula flowers on a bed of valerian flowers.  that orange is so intense.
the first calendula flowers on a bed of valerian flowers. that orange is so intense.

As the flowers open, I pick them a few at a time and place them on the drying screen.  By the end of the summer, the screen is full of flowers, and I can put some of the dried ones in oil.  My most favorite application for this herb so far is using the infused oil in a salve with yarrow and self heal.  After testing this salve out on ourselves and our family, it has replaced neosporin in our medicine drawer.  I lovingly call it “Woundwort Wonder Salve”, and it has been healing to many a boo-boos in our house.

Valerian came to live with me by a  bit of kismet.  I dug it up from my friend and herb teacher’s garden very early last spring and we both mistakenly identified it as dicentra (the leaves were just beginning to peek through the surface).  As it started to grow, I realized it was indeed NOT dicentra, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was valerian.  It seems to be very happy where it’s growing- since last year it has doubled in size!  Valerian is one of those plants that likes to dominate the conversation.  No matter where you are in the garden, you can smell those tiny white flowers, so heady and sweet.  You can even catch the scent from the second floor bedroom window above it.  I almost hate to cut the flowers off the plant because then I won’t smell them every time I step out the back door.  The roots are the part most commonly used in herbal medicine, but I don’t want to dig up my plant just yet (unlike the flowers, the roots smell like dirty gym socks).  Last year, I made an elixir from the flowers, but I haven’t had the chance to use it yet.  This year’s flowers went into a syrup for an experimental “nighttime” kombucha.  I can’t wait to test that brew!!

valerian's bouquet
valerian’s bouquet

I recently bought a small wormwood plant- Artemisia absinthium.  I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with it yet (a little green fairy, perhaps?), but it does look happy in its new home.

Artemisia absinthium, pose 1.
Artemisia absinthium, pose 1
Artemisia absinthium, pose 2.
Artemisia absinthium, pose 2.

Wormwood workin’ it.

It’s taken me a few years, but I now have a nice bed of comfrey growing that consists of about a dozen plants.

Symphytum officinale in flower
Symphytum officinale with her little bell-shaped flowers

Comfrey is such a vigorous and versatile plant that a few times every summer, I let the plants get big, then cut them way down.  Before I do this, I take a few handfuls of the nicest leaves and dig up some root pieces from some of the more established plants.  After I cut the plants, I lay them on the ground around the cut stems.  This acts as a mulch and adds significant nutrients back into the soil, and sometimes I put them in the compost pile for this reason.  With the leaves and root pieces, I prepared a poultice.  Comfrey poultice is great for sprained or strained ligaments, tendons, muscles, scratches or scrapes.  To apply, cover the affected area with a thick layer of poultice, cover with a clean washcloth or folded rags (to keep it in place and absorb moisture), and wrap with self-adhering vet wrap or an ace bandage.

For this preparation, I scrubbed the roots of all dirt and gave them a rough chop.

you can see why it's called
you can see why it’s called “blackroot”

Then, I put the root pieces and leaves in the blender and added a little water at a time until I got a pesto-like consistency.  I also really missed the smell of freshly poulticed comfrey.

every herbalist needs a good blender or food processor!  i highly recommend the
every herbalist needs a good blender or food processor- I highly recommend the “Ninja”.  it’s no joke.

Next, I spooned the mixture into labelled and dated (very important!) quart freezer bags, squished out all the air and laid them flat.  I find they are more efficiently stored in your freezer this way, and you can break off a chunk whenever you need it instead of defrosting the entire bag.

this batch yielded 4 quart bags of poultice.  always label and date!!
this batch yielded 4 quart bags of poultice. always, always, always label and date!!

I should say here that it is not for puncture-type wounds because it is so efficient at creating new cell growth that it could grow new skin over the wound before the wound itself has a chance to heal from the inside.  Its nickname “knitbone” should also be a clue to one of its uses- for bringing broken bones back together.  Also, in permaculture, comfrey is a key player in fruit tree guilds because its deep taproot draws nutrients from deep in the earth to nourish the shallower roots of the tree.  It is a huge biomass accumulator, and is good forage for livestock.  When I had chickens, I’d throw an armload of comfrey into their pen and they’d make quick work of it.  Along with all of this, it really is a pretty plant, and would add interest to any type of garden.  Oh, and bees like it too.  So why aren’t you growing it yet?!

A happy, blessed solstice to all!!  I wonder what my ancestors did to celebrate the longest day of the year…..

On this day in 1884, J.H. Keim writes, “Clear and warm.  Mowed the meadow with machine. J. Schlip helped me…Festival in the Woods, Coventry Band.”  (I wonder what his mowing “machine” looked like, and I would have loved to hear this Coventry Band!)

On this day in 1891, J.H. Keim writes, “Cloudy with rain…we were to S.S. (sunday school) & meeting.  Hetrick preached, we were then home the balance of the day.”

On this day in 1929, Miriam Keim writes, “Picked about 100 qts strawberries.” (Nana’s strawberry patch was legendary ’round these parts!)

On this day in 1889, J.H. Keim writes, “Clear morning but clouded up part of the day.  Showers passed north of us.  It was very hot.  Hervey was to smith shop.  Grandpap was to mill & smith shop.  Then the boys and I harrowed & dressed out sweet potatoes…dressed corn with cutter this afternoon.  Hervey & I was to the granite quarry & got 4 steps for the porch.” (I can only guess that the granite was from the quarry in either Warwick or St. Peter’s, and I know those porch steps still!)

On this day in 1900, J.H. Keim writes, “Clear & pleasant.  12 eggs.  Did not feel rushed today.  After morning chores were done, I went to truck patch and picked a few boxes of strawberries.  They are getting scarce now.  I mended clothes in afternoon.  In evening, went to social at Hiram Amole’s.  John & Katie entertained us with graphophone.”   (this was the next evolution of Thomas Edison’s phonograph- you could dictate or sing into it to make a recording!)

picture from wikipedia
picture from Wikipedia

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