Summer is the hottest time of the year and has plenty of sunlight, but when it comes to foraging for wild foods it is the season in between spring and autumn, which means that the spring greens are past their prime and the fruits and nuts harvested in autumn are still not ready.
However, summer is a great season for gathering in the herbs that grow wild and drying them to preserve them for future use and some like St John's Wort are traditionally harvested at this time.
St John's Wort
St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is commonly found growing in grassy places, woodland clearings and edges, roadsides, waste ground and railway banks and is in full bloom and full potency at midsummer when it can be collected on St John's Day, June 24. It is easily recognised by its golden yellow flowers starry 5-petaled flowers with conspicuous stamens and the flowering tops are the part of the plant that contains most of its active ingredient hypericin.
St John's Wort
St John's Wort has become widely known and used as Mother Nature's answer to Prozac and is on sale as a herbal tea or in other forms as a supplement from health stores and distributors of such products. It is also a remedy for anxiety and nervous tension, as well as having antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) is a plant that may well also be found in places where St John's Wort grows and especially in fields and meadows but also on railway banks and waste ground. The Native Americans recognised its medicinal properties after it had been introduced to the continent and used it against cancerous tumours and skin diseases, as well as taking it during pregnancy and childbirth and as a general tonic and herb of purification.
The flowers are the parts that get used as an infusion and these can be collected and dried. Red Clover was once used to treat bronchial complaints and is also thought to be good for balancing blood sugar levels.
Common name: Wild Marjoram - Scientific name: Origanum vulgare
Photo by Leo Michels. Usage: Public Domain
Photo by Leo Michels. Usage: Public Domain
Two aromatic summer herbs that can be used in cooking as well as for medicinal purposes are Wild Thyme (Thymus drucei) and the Marjoram(Origanum vulgare), both of which favour grassy places on limestone or a chalky soil.
Wild Thyme is a tiny little plant that you will have to get down on your hands and knees to gather and it grows in clumps among short grassland and on downs and heaths. It produces reddish-purple flower heads and is easier to find and pick when in bloom, which occurs between June and August.
The flavour and fragrant aroma of Wild Thyme is much milder than the garden variety but it is just as useful for flavouring savoury dishes. Richard Mabey awards it with an A category in his classic book Food for Free.
Marjoram is a much bigger plant and when in flower it is easy to spot clumps of it, especially as it usually has bees and other insects in attendance eagerly gathering the nectar from its pinkish purple flowers. This is a very aromatic and spicy herb that is excellent for adding flavour to food.
In Mediterranean cookery Marjoram has been much valued and made use of, although in the UK it has often been neglected for some reason, even though one of its local names is Joy of the Mountain. It is also known as Oregano.
Marjoram is prepared by collecting some flowering sprigs of the herb, hanging them to dry and then stripping the leaves and flowers from the stalks. Crushed up in this dry form it can be stored in airtight jars for future use.
Marjoram taken as an infusion is good for anxiety, insomnia, colds and chest complaints, indigestion and tension headaches. It has antiseptic properties too.
Another common summer herb is Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and although it grows inland on waste ground and cultivated in gardens it really thrives on cliffs and other places by the sea. It can reach as much as 5 ft in height and is easy to recognise with its graceful appearance, feathery leaves and umbels of mustard-yellow flowers, which appear from June to October.
If you crush any part of the Fennel plant you will notice a strong smell of aniseed and its flavour is similar too. The seeds are collected later on in the autumn and are wonderful for adding to curries, stir-fries and other dishes as well as making Fennel herb tea but the leaves and stalks are gathered in early summer and hung up to dry.
Finely chopped Fennel leaves are good in salads, with parsnips, and even in apple pie and the herb is good with oily fish as well. The whole plant is edible and it really is one of the most useful wild herbs that can easily be found.
In fact, Fennel is such a versatile plant that Pliny listed it as being a remedy for no less than 22 complaints and it was one of the Anglo-Saxon herbalists' nine most sacred herbs. Fennel tea is good for the digestion and it can be used as a gargle for a sore throat and a mouthwash.
250ml/ ½ pint/ 1 cup of boiling water 1 teaspoonful of Fennel seed ½ thin slice of fresh orange or some grated rind
Crush the Fennel seeds slightly and place in a teapot and pour the boiling water over them. Cover and leave to infuse for 5 minutes.
Add the orange slice or rind for extra flavour, and then strain before serving.
Olives with Wild Marjoram
1 lb of pricked olives in a jar 1 cup of olive oil 1 teaspoon of Thyme 1 teaspoon of crushed peppercorns 3 teaspoons of chopped Wild Marjoram
Add the herbs and spices and olive oil to the olives in the jar, close it, shake well and store in a refrigerator for at least 2 days.
Serve the olives with red wine and cheese.
The Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris) is often found growing in the same locations as Fennel and is another very useful herb that flowers from June through until October. Typically encountered on roadsides, on banks and on waste ground the Common Mallow stands out with its showy pink five-petalled flowers that are produced on stems that can be as much as 3 ft in height.
The leaves, flowers and seeds are all edible as well as having medicinal properties. The plant contains a lot of mucilage, which taken internally as an infusion reduces inflammation and is a treatment for coughs sore throats and bronchitis.
Young leaves and shoots of the Common Mallow contain vitamins A, B1, B2 and C and can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as greens. Unripe fruits can also be added to salads and the seeds are known as "cheeses," due to their shape rather than the mildly nutty flavour.
The Romans cultivated the Common Mallow as a culinary and medicinal herb and by the 16th century it had gained a reputation as a cure-all. In sufficient quantity it has a laxative action and so can help purge the body of toxins and disease.
One more easily found and wonderful summer herb is the Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), which grows in damp places such as river and streamsides and by ponds, and flowers from June until October with frothy creamy-white flower heads. Meadowsweet has inspired poets Ben Jonson and John Clare, and the latter included it in his poem To Summer.
The flowers and leaves when dried smell of newly mown hay and can be added to pot-pourri or used to make a herbal tea. It can be used to flavour soups and stews but has medicinal properties too and is traditionally taken as an infusion for heartburn and gastric ulcers.
Besides all the herbs described above that can be looked for in the countryside, there is another, which grows much closer to home and is definitely worth knowing about and that is the Lime Tree (Tilia x europaea), which can be found in many parks, gardens and along city streets. In June and July the delightful honeyed fragrance of this common tree perfumes the air and when they are in bloom is the time to harvest its flowers.
Made into a herbal tea, known as "Tilleul" in France where it has proved a very popular beverage, Lime-blossom besides tasting good is good for anxiety and insomnia because it has mild tranquillising properties as well as for treating high blood pressure. Dry the entire flower head along with its winged bract and make the tea without milk.
In early summer, before the Lime leaves get too old and tough, they can be eaten in sandwiches but make sure to wash them first and collect them from out of the way of roads and traffic fumes.
Summer is an ideal time for enjoying the countryside and rambling due to the longer hours of daylight and the warm and sunny weather. The fragrance and the many uses of the herbs found growing at this time of year are surely another of the many pleasures of the season.
Footnote: This article was originally published in Permaculture Magazine, number 48, summer 2006.
Copyright © 2010 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.