Native British herbs: Part 1

Anxious thoughts and shivers of excitement are simultaneously nipping at my subconscious, if don’t give them the attention they crave soon, they will run me ragged. This harrying of my mind is not unreasonable, in just under seven weeks time the RHS flowershow, Tatton will commence.

After a couple of years break I am returning as an exhibitor…with a shed! This is a bit of a change from my usual creations which have always been edible gardens. My first was a small garden (6×4 m) called Eat my garden and featured a whole raft of edible plants. Then followed The Herbal Tea Party (a name I nicked from an excellent Manchester nightclub I used to dance the night away at; the garden was a little more demure). Then came The Cider House Rules, a design that called for a lot of research and consequently a lot of cider drinking, all in the name of art you understand.

Then I did some edible exhibits in the Prize Vegetable Pavillion (ah the jokes just make themselves!). I remember the last time I was there. I was titivating the herbs, adding the finishing touches, when who should come careering into the tent on a motorised scooter than the Queen of herbs herself, Jekka McVicar. Had I not had my nose in the blooms and my backside in the air I would have spotted the incoming and exited fast.

After circling my stall, no more than once, she came to an abrupt halt.

“What British natives do you have here? ” she quizzed me.

Hmmm British natives? I remember thinking, well there’s me. No, she means the herbs, of course she means the herbs, Oh bugger I’ve no idea.

It was at that exact moment that the frothy, creamy blooms of Achillea ageratum, tickled by a welcome breeze, shimmied into my line of vision.

“English mace” I declared, resisting the urge to whoop victoriously. English mace, one of my favourite herbs, now even more so, Oh how I adore this fine plant. And now, the Queen of herbs, this font of knowledge of all things herbal will look upon me fondly as her prodigy and bestow her favour upon me.

My elation was short lived my daydream dashed. This fraudulent herb is an interloper, it’ a Swiss native! Why oh why is it not called Swiss mace?!?!

Realising I was on a very sticky wicket I glanced at my watch, muttered the immortal words “Oooh is that the time” and hightailed it out of the marquee. She never saw me again.

I hadn’t given this episode much thought until recentlywhen I found myself tripping through a Cretan gorge where sage and thyme grow madly. The air is fragrant and filled with the sound of bees that buzz across the valleys. Hillsides are peppered with bee hives and the sticky, golden honey is available to buy from berry brown locals who sit and dream in the sun. These herbs are happy here, they grow well, a perfect example of right plant right place.

I don’t mind where my plants come from, after all I’ve no time for UKIP and my borders are open to all. It was seeing how the Mediterranean herbs flourished in their native habitats that got me thinking. So often the herbs we want to grow here in the UK struggle because of the climate yet our British natives thrive. I’ve decided to explore our homegrowns and introduce a few more into my own garden not just to satisfy my own curiosity but to ensure that if I bump into ‘you know who’ again, I’ll be much better prepared!
Wild Angelica

Legend has it that the beautiful characteristics of Angelica were revealed by an angel, hence the name. It is,   without doubt a delightful, architectural plant that can grow to 2 metres tall. Stiff, slender stems bear fresh green leaves and large umbels of white flowers are produced in summer. Angelica thrives in moist soil and is often found growing wild on riverbanks.

Cultivation

Grow in rich, moist soil in partial shade. Very attractive to bees.

Culinary uses

Young shoots taste similar to celery and can be added to salads and soup. Angelica seeds are traditionally used to flavour gin, vermouth and chartreuse. We bought a bottle of something fiendishly alcoholic in France a few years ago. It was a delightful green colour but alas, we cannot quite remember what it was other than something potent with Angelica.

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