Finding hidden treasure in your garden
Herbalist Vivienne Campbell will walk your land and show you what’s good to eat and what cures are growing right under your nose
Most of us have eaten some part of a wild plant at some point in our lives, whether it’s a fistful of sun-ripened blackberries from a sunny hedgerow or a dollop of wild garlic pesto made from the peppery leaves of ramsons (Allium ursinum), the woodland-dwelling member of the onion family whose foliage is traditionally harvested around this time of year.
Similarly, most of us know of at least one or two natural cures using wild plants, lore passed on to us in our childhood by an older, wiser generation. I still reach for a dock leaf to soothe the prickle of a nettle sting, for example, and show my young sons how the sticky, milk-white sap of the dandelion is a traditional remedy for warts.
But it took the expertise of the Clare-based medical herbalist Vivienne Campbell to properly open my eyes to the mind-boggling variety of common wild plants that are not only edible but also astonishingly health-enhancing.
Many of these plants grow in the smallest of Irish gardens, including the aforementioned ubiquitous dandelion; the powerful wart-killing qualities of its sticky sap aside, Campbell uses its golden flowers to make a sweet, tasty syrup. “Use it on pancakes, like you would maple syrup. It’s delicious.”
The same can’t be said for the plant’s bitter-tasting leaves which are rich in vitamin C, but Campbell says we shouldn’t let this put us off. “
A lot of edible wild plants are bitter to the taste, which can be off-putting initially. But ‘bitters’ are actually a very good thing in the diet, stimulating the taste buds as well as the stomach, liver and pancreas, which helps the body to naturally rid itself of toxins.” For those who find the dandelion’s leaves too strongly flavoured to eat, Campbell’s advice is to chuck them into a cafetière of hot water to make a health-boosting herbal tea infusion that should be taken regularly. “Using wild plants as part of your diet is all about establishing good daily habits.”
The same goes for the leaves of nettles and ribwort , two other perennial wild plants commonly seen growing in Irish gardens, meadows and wastelands, and which can be used in the same way. Describing it as one of the safest and most useful of wild Irish herbs with a wide range of therapeutic properties, Campbell points out that ribwort can be used as an extremely effective cure for hay fever.
"It’s a natural source of antihistamine, without any of the unwanted side effects of the pharmaceutical version.” Known colloquially as ‘slánlús’ or the ‘healing plant’, the chewed leaves can also be used in a poultice as a traditional cure for wounds, thorns and cuts. You can also make a simple tincture by soaking the leaves for a few weeks in a jam jar filled with vodka or brandy, before straining and bottling it.
These are just a handful of the many fascinating culinary and medicinal uses of dozens of different wild plants that Campbell teaches as part of ‘Walk My Land’, the new plant identification service that she now offers. Tailor-made for anyone who wants help in safely identifying the edible and therapeutic plants growing in their own garden or on their land, this innovative service removes the very real danger of inexperienced foragers mistaking a poisonous plant for something edible.
“I’ve come across situations where people have confused the flowers of the elderflower or meadowsweet with those of hogweed or poisonous hemlock, or the edible leaves of wild sorrel with those of the poisonous arum lily, with potentially horrifying results. With ‘Walk My land’, I give people the confidence to properly identify and safely use wild plants.”
As part of the service, Campbell also provides the landowner with a detailed written report. This contains a photographic guide to the plants identified during their walk, as well as a host of useful plant monagraphs. Not just their Latin and Irish names and therapeutic properties, but recipes for everything from infused oil of daisy flowers (an excellent, native alternative to arnica), to meadowsweet tea (helpful for indigestion ) as well as advice on dosages. The result is something that will transform forever the way in which you view the wild plants growing in your garden.
• To book her ‘Walk My land’ service or find out more about her ‘Learn With The Seasons’ e-courses, see Vivienne Campbell’s website, theherbalhub.com . Other useful online resources include the web version of Mrs M. Grieve’s classic herbal reference book (botanical.com), Zoe Devlin’s wildflowersofireland.net and Plants For A Future (pfaf.org).
• Always pick sparingly, as many edible wild plants are a valuable food source for animals and insects; for example, the edible Cuckooflower or Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) is a larval food plant for the increasingly rare Orange-Tipped butterfly, while the edible, vitamin-rich berries of sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) provide winter food for birds.
• Always play it safe. Only eat plants that you can positively identify, only ever forage in areas where you’re certain that wild plants haven’t been contaminated by pollutants (pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, animal faeces) or parasites, and always wash plants before use. Protect yourself from the risk of Lyme Disease (easily passed by ticks) as well as stings and scratches by wearing trousers and a long-sleeved top when foraging.
This Week in the Garden…
• Now is a good time to start taking softwood cuttings of many hardy and tender perennials, deciduous climbers, shrubs and some trees, including dahlias, salvias, penstemons, pelargoniums, Buddleja, fuchsia, Cotinus, roses and hydrangeas. For detailed advice, see rhs.org.uk
• Keep on top of weeds by regularly hoeing during dry, sunny spells and mulching bare earth to prevent dormant weed seeds in the soil from germinating. My favourite hoe is the ‘swoe’ (available online from handyhardware.ie), which has a sharp triangular blade that gets into the tightest of spaces, while many of my gardening friends are fans of the oscillating hoe, which has a swivelling head. Available in different sizes, it’s available online from dunmorecountryschool.ie or quickcrop.ie
• Plant/move tomatoes, chilli peppers, sweet peppers, cucumbers and squash plants into the glasshouse or polytunnel, but continue to keep a watchful eye out for late frosts. When they threaten, give vulnerable plants night-time protection with a couple of layers of horticultural fleece.