May is the time for maximum growth, bringing forth a massive array of natural, nativE, HERBs. Historically, running parallel to the learned texts being complied by physicians, apothecaries and Herbalists, ordinary men (and usually woman) compiled ‘Books of receipts’ and ‘Still room’ books.
These were notes, recipes, formulas and techniques based on personal experience and observation of plants. This gathered information formed the mainstay of nutritional and everyday health in ordinary homes and large estate houses. It was important to identify the entire character of a plant, from growth to application. The common Stinging Nettle is a good example of how this traditional knowledge of a plant’s properties enabled it to be employed for a multitude of uses including pudding making, cloth, fibre, paper, rope, dye, beer and tonic. Nettle soup is still a great, accessible way to enjoy the plant at this time of year – tried and tested for millennia!
The herbers keenly observe the May-time happenings of their own respective local environs, which cover a wide range of differing herbal habitats. Whether noting down their findings or simply watching as they walk, it’s an exciting time to be outdoors; following coastal trails, woodland paths, heathland forays and meandering along familiar river courses.
The fresh leaf-growth on trees across all environments is particularly abundant during May, making this the month to try fresh leaf infusions. Birch-leaf tea is a good option, with a soothing, yet cleansing action. The leaves make a vitamin C rich spring cleanser.
On the coastal and river areas of Suffolk, Thrift -with its distinctive honey scent- and purple Sea Lavender, blend with a stunning colour palette across the marshes and salt flats. It’s worth noting, too, that this is the last opportunity to collect seaweeds before spawning begins. That doesn’t mean you must use them straight away though - gathered at the optimum period between January and May, seaweeds are easily dried for later use.
Now is also the time when Blossom Cordials really come into their own. New blossoms such as hawthorn, the last of the Blackthorn, and the beginnings of elderflowers can be gathered to make tasty cordial refreshments. Gorse flowers too, whilst being in flower most of the year, are particularly strongly ‘almond’ scented and flavoursome during May. At ground-level, Dandelion flower-heads are a Herber favourite as they yield a wonderful flavour for cordial.
For all herbs mentioned do remember to gather with care and be mindful of taking a small amount. Give thanks and leave no mark of your collection. Remember too that if we harvest blossom we for-go the fruit and seed.
May is a time to feel inspired by Nature, to feel close to its rejuvenating cycle and to take note of what is around us. We can collate our own diaries and recipes for sharing, or even research some ancient Still Room books to compare with our own personal herb remedies.