Beltaine has always been one of my absolute favourite times of year, with the fields and hedgerows springing lush and verdant around me. The trees are laden with flowers, and in the verges and hedgerows many old friends have popped back up, from the tiny and elusive speedwell to the buds of the Hawthorn swelling on the trees. The new growth comes in many glorious shades of green, from a yellow gold that is so bright it is hard to believe it is real, to the deep, silvery blue – green of the leaves on the rambling roses in the hedges. This is a particularly good time of year to be out and about, gathering hedgerow medicine and making the most of the sunshine and glorious weather, especially after the seemingly endless cold and snow of last winter! Some of my particular favourites that I should like to introduce to you this time include Cleavers (Galium aparine), Cowslip (Primula veris), Jack by the Hedge (Alliaria petiolata), Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and of course the much celebrated Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata).
First up is the much maligned Cleavers. This tall, rambling herb is often torn up and thrown out as a weed, but don’t be so hasty to do so in future, for the noble Cleavers is an excellent herb for clearing out the lymph system – wonderful for those of us who struggle with skin problems, as well as providing a really helpful ally for those with painful joints, as, being a diuretic in addition to a lymphatic, it promotes the removal of the toxins that make rheumatism and arthritis worse. Our ancestors used to drink an infusion of Cleavers in the spring to remove from the system all the rubbish that accumulates during a winter of sitting around watching the weather dolefully. These days a tea of the fresh herb can be used to relieve water retention. Cleavers is rather easily recognized – in fact, it begs to be picked and used, often grabbing at your clothes as you walk past as if begging to be accepted. Later on in the year, the hard, round seeds that are such a nuisance to pet owners can be ground as a coffee substitute. Cleavers can grow up to 1metre tall, and is a straggly, rich green plant with tiny hairs on the leaves and stem that make the whole plant sticky.
Next up is the often overlooked ‘Jack by the Hedge’. Not often used medicinally, this lovely vibrant plant produces masses of lovely tender green shoots in the spring, and one of the main ways of recognizing it is by the smell of the leaves. Pick one and tear it in half, then take a sniff – the scent of garlic and chives will greet your nostrils. This lovely plant can be used in cooking, salads, dressings for meat or vegetables, and many other culinary uses. When it flowers, the small white flowers can be used as a very pretty addition to salads. No medicinal uses that I am aware of, but it does make a lovely addition to the spring greens available!
The Cowslip, long a beloved sight in spring, also has a long and noble history as a medicinal plant, in particular used for coughs and chest problems, especially those in children. I would not recommend that you pick this plant in the wild, though, as these days it is not found as often as it once was. If you want to use this plant medicinally, it is better to buy it from a reputable supplier and save those growing in the wild in the hopes for better crops in years to come. The flowers have long been used to make a country wine, though these days unless you are fortunate enough to live in a part of Britain where this plant is plentiful, it is better to use the flowers of plants you have grown yourself for this purpose – which is a shame really as Cowslip wine has a lovely delicate flavour.
Moving on to another, more commonly found plant that can be gathered from the wild in plentiful amounts, one other familiar sight in the hedgerows, fields and verges at this time of year is my old friend the Ground Ivy, or Gill-Go-By-Ground. This little beauty first appears in almost flower like rosettes of purplish leaves at the end of March, and by mid to late April she is in full flower, a very pretty lady in purple and blue. Ground Ivy used to be drunk by the Elizabethans in the spring most years, and was called Gill Tea. These days, a tea of it can be used to relieve indigestion, especially when this is caused by stomach ulcers. I also recommend that those suffering from chesty coughs or prone to asthma and hayfever enjoy a few cups on a regular basis as this lovely little herb is also a useful chest tonic, improving lung tone. Pick the herb anytime now and dry it in a cool, well ventilated place, storing them in a jar once thoroughly dry.
Finally, the star of this time of year would certainly have to be the Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata / monogyna). This beauty flowers in early to mid May depending on which part of the country you are in, and being one of the main flowers of Beltaine, I really couldn’t go without mentioning this lovely and useful plant. The flowers and young leaves make a relaxing tea which can be used to soothe anxiety and encourage restful sleep, and which is also a wonderful heart tonic, as are the berries produced in autumn. The flowers also make a delicious country wine, with a decided flavour of vanilla, a use the plant almost seems to invite – around here, Hawthorn hedges are often so smothered in the flowers that it is often hard to see the leaves beneath them. I find that the flower wine also makes a very good base for medicinal wines – use one bottle of the wine and add in a heaped tablespoon of the herb of your choice, then let it steep for two weeks. One small glass per day is a great way to take tonic herbs. Previously known by countryfolk as Bread-And-Cheese, the young leaf shoots are also quite a tasty addition to a fresh salad. It is considered very good luck to bring a branch of Hawthorn flowers into the house on May morning, as long as it does not remain indoors past May Day itself.