The majority of the perennials in the Herb Garden made it through our mild and exceptionally wet Winter and have since put on strong, early growth; but there were a few fatalities. Not unexpectedly, some of the mediterranean plants such as the Thymes, Sages and Lavenders, did not all survive; the Lemon Catmint – Nepeta Citriodora, also succumbed. All these have been replanted and now that the danger of any severe frosts has hopefully passed, lots of annuals and tender perennials from our nursery are also being planted out.
The other main job at the moment is staking the plants. As I’m sure most of you are aware by now, we use hazel ‘pea sticks’ from our two coppices for virtually all our staking throughout the garden. One notable exception being the Irises – for these we use slender, green sticks, placed directly next to the flower stems.
I thought I might take this opportunity to write a little more about the relevance of a few of the less familiar plants in the Herb Garden; the ones which are most often queried by our visitors. As I explained in a previous blog, many of the plants here are definitely not for culinary purposes but had either a medicinal or other practical application.
Birthwort – Aristolochia clematitis, is a potent example of the dangerously misguided belief that the look of a plant determined its medicinal value. The flower, which vaguely resembles the womb, led to the assumption that the plant would have beneficial effects for pregnant mothers during labour. However, this may have been responsible for countless deaths in childbirth, since at least Roman times. Its poisonous component, aristolochic acid, continues to kill today, as a result of upper urinary tract cancers caused by its presence in traditional Chinese medicine, prescribed and consumed for other ailments.
Our Solomon’s Seal – Polyganatum x hybridum, is currently flowering in the garden and, for the moment at least, looking verdant and healthy. This plant is often attacked by saw-fly larvae, which can defoliate the plant and reduce it to a skeleton of veins in a matter of days; it does however go on to fight another day, coming back fresh every Spring. I regularly check for the small, unpleasant, grey culprits and periodically spray the plant with Savona throughout the growing season.
In China, different species of Solomon’s Seal have been used as food for centuries and P. megaphyllum was once relied upon as a famine food. The rhizomes have many uses: for making a tea or to flavour wine; for a sweet snack by frying with sugar and honey; and they’re also dried, ground and added to flour. The rhizome of P. sibiricum is pulped, boiled, strained and thickened with barley flour to make a sweet seasoning called tangxi. In Korea, P. sibirica is used to make a tea called dungulle. In India, the leaves of P. cirrifolium and P. verticillatum are used as vegetables. Native American Indians used the rhizomes of P. biflorumas to make flour for bread and were also eaten like potatoes. P. verticillatum is used in Ayurveda as an aphrodisiac, as well as to treat pain, fever, inflammation, allergy, and weakness. In Western medicine, the use of Polygonatum in the treatment of diabetes was first observed in 1930, by Hedwig Langecker.
The Florentine Iris – Iris ‘Florentina’, which is also currently in flower, is often referred to as Orris Root. Once important in Western herbal medicine, it is still used today in the production of potpourri and perfume. The root of the plant is dried and ground up to make Orris Powder, which is then used as a fixative in potpourri. For its use in perfume, a further process is required. The powder is dissolved in water and then distilled in order to extract the essential oils. It takes one ton of iris root to make two kilos of essential oil, making it an expensive commodity. After preparation, the scent is apparently reminiscent of violets.
Orris root powder also has a small culinary role; it’s often included with numerous other ingredients in Ras el hanout, a blend of herbs and spices most strongly associated with Moroccan cuisine. You might also be surprised to learn that Orris is an ingredient found in many different brands of gin – but that doesn’t stop me from looking forward to my first gin & tonic, when Summer finally arrives.