Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Herbal enlightenment

Today I learned that to get the blue dye from woad, Isatis tinctoria, you have to dig up the plant, put it in a bucket of water and pee on it. The water turns blue, you strain the plant debris and you have your dye; it's also a very pretty plant (see above), so two reasons to grow it. I also learned that angelica is one of the main ingredients in gin (I knew about the juniper). And sempervivums can be used on small cuts and grazes in the same way that you use aloe vera, for the succulent juice that oozes from the leaves once cut. 
Okay, so sempervivums are not strictly considered to be herbs, but if a herb is a plant that is valued for medicinal or culinary purpose, for its scent and flavour and special properties, then that would cover a very large slice of the horticultural firmament.
Of herbs you have probably never heard of: Stevia was used by the Aztecs as a sweetener, and it's 30% sweeter than sugar. The reason we haven't heard much about it, apparently, is that the politics and countries involved in the sugar trade have deliberately opposed its growth. Something to investigate further.
Meanwhile, the little known Meum athmanticum, a member of the carrot family is a native British herb, eaten by crofters in Scotland to stop them feeling hungry. And Tagetes limoniae gives off the most amazing scent from the merest brush of its leaves.
These are just some of the  fascinating herb facts I learned at Jekka's Herb Farm. It was a special visit, in my newly freelance capacity, to sample her new range of teas that taste as good as they look - you've gotta love a tea that has blue cornflower petals in it. Jekka is a very generous fountain of knowledge, makes great marjoram biscuits as well as teas and growing all those herbs. I could hardly keep pace, but I'm looking forward to the next pub quiz with a special round on herbs. I will be quite smug about knowing all the answers.
Here are some of the acres of seeds trays at Jekka's, which I love for the geometry. I wish mine looked so orderly.


  1. You didn't mention whether 30% sweeter means 30% more fattening - because, if it doesn't you could be on to something important there!


  2. Hi Esther, my early investigations (thank you Wikipedia) google suggests that Stevia doesn't affect blood glucose in the same way and that it is potentially much healthier. Hence another reason for the sugar cartels to take against it perhaps? Incidentally, I was chatting to someone whose mother has been using it as a sweetener in cake recipes for years... will try to find out the quantities.

  3. fascinating! i just checked out one of jekka's books from the library a few days ago--i think it was the new book of herbs? something like that. beautiful photography and so many neat facts.

    stevia is getting somewhat popular over here in the states. a few different companies have come out with commercial stevia sweeteners, and seeds for stevia plants can be found in most organic seed catalogues.

  4. Hi Emily - I just googled Stevia recipes and there are loads available; very popular for diabetes and candida diets as its carb and calorie free. The movement seems to be v. much led by what's happening in the US. Over here,it seems very few people have heard of it. It is more of a challenge to the artificial sweetener market by all accounts.

  5. I hadn't heard of stevia until Waitrose flagged it up in one of their Weekend magazines a few weeks ago. I intend to grow some with the children here this summer - I'll have to look to see if Jekka sells it at her farm. Lovely to have a first hand report of the workshops there, I've been very tempted to treat myself to one but it seems a long way to go to learn about herbs. Slapped wrist for me, you've inspired me now!

  6. Hi Caro - must track down that article. I think we'll definitely going to be hearing more about stevia over the next few months. I was talking to a man from Suttons Seeds today, who sell seeds and plants, as does Jekka I think. He was saying that it needs really good light levels, so a very bright sunny windowsill to get going - treat it a bit like basil.

  7. growing Stevia is a good idea. Once the government and Eu get their dirty hands on it, they'll be 'adding' and 'subtracting' from its purity. As it is, it is not available in herbal shops in London.