Planting a herb garden – history, food and wellbeing

Now that there is some warmth in the spring sunshine, I have planted a herb garden.  It’s a very small herb garden – a vintage Belfast sink and a couple of pots – but it’s attractive and will serve my purposes.

The Belfast sink has been empty over the winter – when we moved house last autumn we emptied out the old herbs which were well past their best, ready for fresh ones this season.  It’s lovely to see it fully planted up, beside the back door so that it’s in easy reach of the kitchen, in a corner which is a suntrap.  The challenge is to remember the watering!

Colour photograph of a Belfast sink planted with herbs, and a green watering can.

The choice of herbs for sale was a bit limited so early in the year, but the plants were in very good condition, and there’s room to pop a couple more into the gaps later in the season if I find some.  I chose two purple sages, one oregano, and two thymes (one gold, one silver).  The sages will grow quite tall, so I put them at the back, with the oregano in the middle, and the thymes at the front.  They will spread, and be able to trail over the edge of the sink.  I also bought Moroccan mint, and a medium-sized rosemary – as mint is invasive and would take over the whole sink given half a chance, and as rosemary grows large and is long lived and will soon outgrow the sink, I have put each in a separate pot.  Ideally I’d also have some chives and some tarragon, although I’ve never had much luck with growing the latter, and maybe some flatleaf parsley (which I use where recipes call for coriander, which I don’t like).

Growing herbs has a long and venerable tradition.  Used for thousands of years for culinary, medicinal and ritual purposes, they have been an enduring part of human civilisation and their cultivation is an international phenomenon.  Much of what we know in the West about herbs and their uses was written down by medieval monks who grew herbs in the physic gardens of their abbeys, and a significant proportion of modern medicines have their origins in herbal compounds, so growing them today feels like connecting with the past.

So what of the herbs in my garden?  Let’s look at their history, uses and properties.

Sage

Its Latin name, Salvia, comes from salvare, to cure, so its medicinal reputation is long-established.  It has been used to treat sore throats and digestive problems.  Clinical trials in 2011 suggested that sage’s reputation of being helpful in the menopause may have scientific backing, as a trial reported its effectiveness in reducing hot flushes.  Originating in the Mediterranean area, sage is grown around the world, thriving in warm sunny locations – so my suntrap by the back door should suit it well.

Perhaps best known in Britain for its role in sage and onion stuffing, sage is strongly-flavoured and I use it a lot in casseroles, as well as torn up and tossed with buttered pasta.  Being a ‘lady of a certain age’, I also drink it as a tea (although as I’ve only had the plants a few weeks, it’s too early to report an improvement in symptoms!).

Oregano/marjoram

Another native of the Mediterranean (this time the Middle East), this is also a sun-lover.  Its antiseptic qualities made it a medieval cure-all, and the first settlers to New England took this herb with them.  I like it with chicken, fish, or pasta, and it is delicate enough not to swamp subtly-flavoured foods.  To me, this is a real sunshine herb – just crushing the leaves and sniffing your fingers will give you a lift.

Thyme

Prescribed by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper as a treatment for whooping cough in children, thyme has long been regarded as having antiseptic properties and being useful in respiratory conditions.  It’s a staple culinary herb (although incredibly fiddly to prepare, as you need to strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems) and gives a fresh, warm flavour which is hard to beat.  Pretty much all ‘mixed herbs’ include dried thyme, but it’s less potent when used fresh and partners well with rosemary, oregano and sage.

Mint

The Moroccan mint I’m growing is a kind of spearmint, so it’s warm in flavour rather than cool peppermint.  Its culinary uses are almost endless – salads, mint sauce, cakes, desserts, cold drinks, and mint tea, for example.  Humans have used mint for a long time – it has been found in Egyptian pyramids dating from 1000 BCE, and the Greeks and Romans used it – but curiously it only came into widespread use in Western Europe as late as the 18th century.  Medicinally, it has been used to aid digestion, and specifically to deal with wind, which may be the reason for the popularity of after dinner mints!

Rosemary

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Since antiquity rosemary has been believed to help strengthen the memory, and it is still used in Greece in the homes of those preparing for exams.  Another herb which likes hot, dry conditions, rosemary has a pungent, invigorating flavour and aroma – and the white, lilac or blue flowers are adored by bees and other insects.  I have always grown rosemary, and use it generously in cooking.  The traditional partner is, of course, roast lamb, but I use it (either as whole sprigs, removed before serving, or finely chopped) in almost anything that’s going to be cooked for a while – casseroles especially.

Photograph of a chopping board with chopped herbs and a large kitchen knife.

Whilst the whole ‘grow your own’ phenomenon may require more space, time and energy than many of us have available in 21st century Britain, it’s possible to have a herb garden in the smallest of spaces – in a pot or in a window box, or even indoors on a windowsill at a pinch.  And nothing beats the pleasure of cooking with herbs that you have grown and harvested yourself.

 

The Festivals of Midwinter: Solstice, Yule, Christmas

December is always a struggle.  I have found  this year worse than most, with relentless rain, gloomy skies, and the lights on by 2.00pm.  To be honest, here in the UK I find it increasingly difficult from late October, when the clocks go back and evening draws in when it’s still afternoon.  I count down until the shortest day, 21 December, the Winter Solstice, when the days start to lengthen again.

Apparently, it’s not just me.  This sense of the year dying around Samhain (the end of October) to be re-born with the lengthening days after the Solstice is a part of many pagan traditions.  Festivals at midwinter seem to have been a part of human life in the north of Europe for as long as anyone knows.  And of course there is Christmas!  Curious to understand more about the origins of how we celebrate, and which of those traditions are truly ancient, I have spent the last few days reading The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, professor at Bristol University and an expert on folklore and paganism.

Professor Hutton’s research methods are very thorough, and he explores traditions and what we think we know about their origins, teasing out what the evidence really is, and establishing when traditions were actually first recorded (often much later than I expected).

Of course, some of this is more widely known and I’d come across it already.  For example, there is no biblical foundation for 25 December (or indeed any other date) for the birth of Jesus.  Professor Hutton identifies the first mention of that date in a calendar of Christian feasts in 354 CE, probably in Rome, and finds an intriguing quote from the Scriptor Syrus in the late 4th century, who refers to it being the ‘custom of the pagans’ to celebrate the birthday of the sun on 25 December.  This continued to cause confusion during the next couple of centuries at least, with church ‘fathers’ begging believers to remember that they should be worshipping Christ, not the sun, at these festivals!  In the 5th century, one Maximus of Turin wrote delightedly about the appropriation of a pagan festival of sun worship for Christian use.

And of course there’s Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter feast, held on 17 December and the days following.  It included, says Professor Hutton, a lot of the elements we still recognise:  gifts, candles as symbols of light, the closure of shops, schools and law courts for the duration of the festivities, and (a precursor to the medieval custom) the usual order turned upside down, with masters and mistresses waiting on their servants.  Kalendae – at the beginning of January, dedicated to the two-faced God, Janus, who looked both back at the old year and forwards into the new – saw more giving of gifts, this time figs, honey, pastries and coins.

Photo of a quarter of a wreath, in mono with a pop of red for the berries.  Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Evergreen wreath

Professor Hutton points out that the with the spread of Christianity in Mediterranean countries, Easter became the principal festival of the year – but in northern Europe, the colder, darker winters meant there was still a need for merrymaking at midwinter.  “The habits of a midwinter festivity had come by the dawn of history…to seem a natural one to the British,” he says.

The Christian calendar absorbed the idea of a season of festivities around midwinter, with the Nativity celebrated on 25 December, St Stephen (the first martyr) on the 26th, St John the Evangelist on the 27th, the Holy Innocents (the children massacred by King Herod in an attempt to eradicate the infant Jesus, mentioned in Matthew’s gospel) on the 28th, the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, and Epiphany (originally the baptism of Christ, later eclipsed by the celebration of the visit of the wise men) on 6 January.

The Anglo Saxons didn’t use the word Christmas (‘Cristes Maessan’) until 1038 – before that it was simply ‘midwinter’.  It was obviously important though, as a 12-day break from work for servants was enshrined in law by Alfred the Great in 877 CE.  The word ‘Yule’ arrives with the invading Danes in the 11th century, although Professor Hutton says that the derivation of the word “has baffled linguists.”

However, he says, we know a fair bit about midwinter/Solstice/New Year revelries, because of the attacks of churchmen upon them – especially the various divination practices, to see what the new year would bring, some of which were still being recorded by 19th and 20th century folklorists.

Some practices which we may think of as ancient are, according to Professor Hutton’s researches, fairly recent (or in any event, there is no evidence for them, and they are not mentioned, before a relatively late date).  For example, the use of a wassail bowl was first recorded in the 1320s; mummers and other kinds of ‘disguising’ were a medieval phenomenon, and mistletoe does not put in an appearance until the 17th century, with the association with kissing being a whole century later still.  Yule logs were common from the 1600s to the late 1800s, and hobby horses were around from the late 15th century through the Tudor and Stuart periods, with other animal-head processions (including the Mari Lwyd in Wales) being mostly recorded in the 19th century.  Although folklorists believed they were of pagan (i.e. pre-Christian) origin, Professor Hutton can find no evidence for their earlier existence.

Colour photograph of Yuletide Green Man plaque surrounded by holly.  Image Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Yuletide Green Man

So, what customs have persisted which actually, possibly, genuinely are ancient pagan customs, which have survived by being adopted and adapted by Christianity after the church very cannily decided to celebrate the Nativity at the time of the pagan midwinter festivals?

  • Evergreens. Greenery was used for festivals in pagan Europe, and its use was generally adopted by the Church, especially in England.  Holly and ivy were originally favourites, with bay, rosemary, yew and box (and, in the 17th century, mistletoe) being added in over the centuries.  Do remember, though, that most of these are poisonous, so keep them (and especially the berries) away from children and animals if you decorate your home with evergreens this midwinter.
  • Lights and candles. On the shortest day of the year (or thereabouts!) it’s traditional to have lights and candles to symbolise the lengthening days to come, light overcoming the darkness, the start of the ascent to summer.
  • Partying. The giving of feasts (especially by landowners/masters for their tenants/workers) has been a recurring theme for two millennia.  So, when you are at the office party, remember that this tradition goes back to Roman times!
  • Presents. The exchange of gifts has been a feature throughout much of the history of midwinter celebrations, although the exact timing (anywhere between 17 December and 6 January) has moved over time.
  • Misrule. In Tudor times, the Lord of Misrule would preside over often riotous jollification, where the usual norms of behaviour were cast aside, often with the assistance of masks to aid anonymity – even at the royal court had a Lord of Misrule.  The idea of turning the hierarchy of society upside down at midwinter has persisted since Roman times.  Its medieval incarnation as the Feast of Fools, where junior clergy and choristers took over (and subverted) the liturgy, persists in the practice of electing a ‘Boy Bishop’ in some English cathedrals.  And more generally in society there is a sense that anything goes at Christmas.

So, as the dark descends on the shortest day of the year, let us light candles and Christmas lights and affirm that the light will always triumph.  Let’s deck the hall with boughs of holly, toast each other with ‘Wassail!’, exchange gifts, and generally let our hair down.  Because in the ancient times when those customs originated, as now, in Professor Hutton’s words, “feasting and entertainment were in themselves fundamental responses to the tedium and melancholy which a northern winter could engender.”

 

This article is based on The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 (new edition 2001).

 

Book review. The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings by Catherine Hyde

As regular readers of this blog may have gathered, I am a bit of a fan of the hare.  I was delighted, therefore, to find this rather wonderful little book with the evocative title The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings.  It is pleasingly square, with a tactile cover, which is always a good start.  And it had me at the first page, which is an illustration of the three hares motif!

There are a number of elements to the ‘calendar’ aspect of the book.  A poem, with the refrain which recites the folk names for the full moons (The Snow Moon, The Wolf Moon, The Hunger Moon, The Sap Moon etc) is woven through it.  Each month then has six themes.  There are black and white illustrations of the moon phases.  There are double page colour paintings of the hare in the seasonal landscape (I especially like January, where the hare is joined in the snowy countryside by the barn owl and the raven).   There are Indian ink drawings of the hare in action and at rest.  For each month there is a flower, a tree, and a bird, each accompanied by a colour painting and a note about the folklore and alternative country names.  For example, June’s flower is honeysuckle:

“Used for rope-making in the Bronze Age and also known as woodbine, honeybind, trumpet flowers, Irish vine, Goat’s leaf, sweet suckle and fairly trumpets.  Honeysuckle grown around the entrance to the home prevented a witch from entering and would bring good luck.”

The Hare and the Moon subtly weaves poetry and art together, blurring the boundaries and creating what has been described as ‘visual poetry’.  This is so much more than a book of poems and folksy factoids with illustrations.  The images have a dreamy quality which lend a timeless air to this charming book.  Perfect for reading, as I did, while curled up on the sofa on a dark winter afternoon, a steaming mug of tea by my side (think hygge!), this would make a fine Christmas/Yule present for anyone who loves the natural world, folklore, or art.  Or indeed hares!

 

(For more about Catherine Hyde, take a look at https://catherinehyde.co.uk/)

Body, mind and spirit – living life to the full

My interview with Hannah Spalding made me realise that I am interested in people who do what they love – not just the nine to five thing, but work which they are passionate about.  So when my mother in law suggested that I interview a school friend of hers who has set up a holistic, beauty and spiritual training centre, and is hugely enthusiastic about it, I was intrigued.

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Elaine Collier, together with her friend and business partner Gill Moss, run the Como Centre, which is based in Oxfordshire.  They provide a wide range of accredited training courses, as well as workshops and other events.   Their mission statement says:

We work within the mind, body and spirit sector and firmly believe in the following:

  • There is more to life than meets the eye
  • We all need to become more empowered and do more of what we love
  • We need to take more care of our own health and wellbeing
  • We need to be happy

The ‘we need to be happy’ bit was exactly what I was interested in!  “I think it’s really important to be on your own journey, to come to your own conclusion that you are happy and comfortable with”, Elaine tells me.  “Some people tell me that, if I’m going to be a spiritual person, I shouldn’t eat meat, or drink alcohol, or smoke or take drugs.  Well, I don’t smoke or take drugs, but I do eat meat and I do have a drink from time to time, and I don’t think those sort of restrictions are helpful.  I think it’s more a case of, if you’re taking your spiritual development seriously, you’re going to be careful about how you behave, about how you live your life.”

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Gill Moss and Elaine Collier

The range of training courses and workshops offered by Elaine and Gill is comprehensive, and covers most areas of complementary therapy and spiritual development.  Topics include mindfulness, massage, healing, beauty therapy, meditation, angel workshops, reflexology, past life regression, sound therapy, tarot and reiki.  The Como Centre’s latest initiative is an online programme, Flick Your Switch, which aims to guide participants “towards greater clarity, perspective, peace and happiness in your life.”

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The Como Centre’s approach is more than just a training course – participants are part of a community, a family, and Elaine and Gill are there for people throughout the programme and for as long afterwards as they need.  Facebook groups are a big part of how the Centre works.  “You’re getting what you need to give you confidence and get you energised, and ready to put into practice what you have learned – and you can contact us at any point afterwards if you have a question or a problem.  The personal connection is really important to us.”

I asked Elaine how she had come to be involved in this sector, and she recalled how, many years ago in her native St Ives, Cambridgeshire, she and a friend had started attending the spiritualist church “for something to do.”  Initially deeply sceptical, what she found there opened her eyes: “there’s more to this life than we think.”

Over time, Elaine and her friend moved into leadership roles at the church, including healing, while she worked as a PA to the director of a research institute.  Following the birth of her son, divorce, and redundancy, relocating for work brought Elaine to Oxfordshire.  Then, she says, “everything changed.”  She met Gill through a google search to find a hopi ear candle therapist to deal with her ongoing blocked ears.  She became enthused about reiki, and a friend suggested “you could do that,” so she trained as a reiki healer.  At last, says Elaine, she was fulfilling her purpose, “what I’m here to achieve.”  The Como Centre was founded 8 years ago, to help other people fulfil their potential.  At the end of 2019 Elaine and Gill are moving from their current premises to work out of two new locations in existing complementary practices, as well as increasingly online.

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We talked about how the mind/body/spirit sector is becoming more mainstream.  Elaine feels that there is a growing interest in how all aspects of life are connected.  She also sees people taking more responsibility for their own health and wellbeing, rather than turning to medication in the first instance.  “It’s not just for hippy types now – it’s becoming the norm.  Mindfulness and meditation are being taught in schools now, which is great, and will help to make it the norm.”  People are realising that there is more to life, says Elaine, than “being born, going to school, working, having kids, watching TV, and waiting to die!”

How does Elaine feel about her work? “I wish I’d done it years ago – but then again, I wouldn’t have been ready,” she says.  When I ask about her working day, she says “We have a ball! There’s no such thing as an average day – most of our sessions run at weekends, but on other days I’ll be replying to emails, creating new material, or going on courses myself to keep my skills up.”

Find out more about the Como Centre by visiting their website (where you can also download a series of meditations) or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All images are taken from the Como Centre website with permission.