Hello again. I don’t know what has come over me. Two posts in the same week and I can’t normally manage two in the same season. I’ve actually been meaning to write this post for a while. I sketched out the idea for it in my first or second year of the apprenticeship but never got around to finishing it off until now.
Many of the tasks which I’ve been set over the last four years relate to either mapping of trees/plants or seasonal observations. I have to admit that I am quite good at observing plants but not so good at making records, although I have improved on this more recently. One of my biggest regrets over the last few years is not having a dedicated herbal notebook. I tend to note things down on bits of scrap paper and regularly lose them so when I find them moths later I either can’t read my writing or remember what they related to. I’ve now purchased an A5 spiral notebook so everything will be stored chronologically in one place until I get chance to write them up neat into my herbal folder. The other regret is not taking enough photographs so it assists when writing up. At the end of every month Sarah usually asks us what we’ve been up to and I’ve sometimes surprised myself at what I have done but I think I miss an awful lot out as I haven’t recorded it properly.
There are three reasons I believe the mapping tasks are set:
- to help us get to know plants and to be able to readily identify them;
- so we know where to return for harvesting; and
- so we can’t harvest them at their prime.
I am very careful where I harvest from; living and working in town most of my observations take place in the urban environment including the local parks. These are not necessarily the most appropriate places to harvest from. I always try and harvest within the law and from areas that are not polluted. Whilst not particularly good for harvesting, the urban environment can be a great place to notice to observe plants. Walking around a city centre for half an hour I might spot 10 or more trees with useful properties and more than 20 plants. As I’ve progressed along my herbal journey I’ve got to know a variety of plants and then I suddenly start seeing them everywhere. Classic examples of this are mugwort and St John’s Wort (SJW), both of which can be quite sizeable plants and yet go largely unnoticed. I never ever noticed them until I grew mugwort from seed and saw SJW at the Sanctuary, after a while I began to see them everywhere – almost every traffic jam I seem to see mugwort growing on the verges and some unlikely places where I’ve also seen SJW such as in the grounds of derelict buildings and close to the canalside. It’s almost as if the plants suddenly start waving at you saying “here I am”.
Even in the city centre you can get a connection to nature and the changing seasons and sometimes you can be quite surprised by nature fighting back. One of my favourite times for observations is during my morning walk to work. Back in the summer I spotted some rogue tomato plants growing through a crack in the concrete next to a multi-storey carpark. I imagined all sorts of scenarios as to how the seeds got there. I have spent entire bus or train journeys noting down every plant I can identify and have been surprised at the number. Sometimes if I’m not enjoying a walk for whatever reason I distract myself by telling myself the names, botanical names or uses of plants as I pass them by. Identification skills are developed by regularly walking the same route as you can watch the plant through the seasons and find out if your initial thoughts on the identity were correct.
I’ve been unable to carry out some of the set tasks that rely on harvesting because my only real harvesting locations (particularly for roots and some aerial parts and bark) are the allotment, the garden or the sanctuary during workshops. Sometimes I’ve located plants in the right locations but there are not enough plants available to carry out the tasks so I’ve still not made violet syrup or picked coltsfoot flowers but that did not stop me being excited when I finally identified the plants growing. The one and only time I’ve seen coltsfoot growing in the wild I was on a site visit with two colleagues who thought I had lost the plot when I suddenly exclaimed “that’s coltsfoot” and got my phone out to photograph it. Sometimes if I think the purpose of a task is to make a specific product I still try and do the task but use a different plant or if it is about the plant I might try and purchase it.
I’ve really enjoyed my observational tasks over the last four years and surprised myself at how much I’ve got to love some of my weeds. I now never moan about the dandelions, cleavers, nettles, herb Robert, plantain, chickweed or even ground elder. I get excited when I see them and think about what I can make with them, although I wish someone would tell me a good use for buttercups, forget-me-nots or grape hyacinths except looking pretty in the spring. I’ve also enjoyed the insect observations and stood for ages watching an ivy hedge alive with bees in the autumn.
Moving forward I intend to be more organised in my note taking and photography. I’ve always got my phone with me so there’s no excuse. I’ve also been thinking for a long time about creating my own herbal to include standard information alongside recipes, drawings and even pressings. I might start it this winter. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my notes on here.