Lavandula

Every year, on the first Sunday in July in the small hamlet of Ferrassières, a Lavender festival is held.   Ferrassières is situated  about 10 km north-east of Sault, between Mont Ventoux and Montagne de Lure. Ferassieres festival The last time I visited the Lavender Festival of Ferrassières was, I think, 13 years ago.  It was then a much smaller fête, it has expanded considerably.  A programme with the events of the day had been set out, with several walks through the lavender fields, some in the mountains surrounding Ferrassières, others in the fields around the town.  There were quite a few stalls selling local produce and, of course, freshly cut Lavender and Lavender products, especially Lavender essential oil.  We took part in a test to differentiate between 10 different essential oils.  Small strips of paper were provided to dip into the oil.  Each bottle was numbered, you then had to match the oil with a list of names.  It turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought.  Our noses were not quite up to the task, but it was fun to do.  A step by step process is followed from taking the first cutting to the harvest, explained by the Ferrassières tourist office:
Cuttings of Lavender or Lavandin are taken in February.  Each stem is around 15 cm long.  The cuttings are planted into fresh sand and left in a cool room.  In April, the cuttings are replanted in the earth so that roots can develop for planting out in the field the following year.
The following year, the rooted cuttings are planted between lavender fieldMarch and April.  This is done manually as well as mechanically.  The plants are arranged in rows with a distance of 1.70cm between the rows.  The distance between the plants is between 45 to 55 cm, depending on the variety, 10.000 – 12.00o plants per hectare.  The weeding between the rows is done 2 to 3 times a year with a special toothed tool.  If too much grass is growing between the rows, ploughing may be necessary.  Sometimes manual hoeing is necessary depending on what is grown;  usually Lavender used for the bouquets are cleaned manually.  Harvesting is between July and August depending on the Lavender.  The period starts with the cutting by hand, with a sickle, of  the Lavender meant for the dried flower industry;  Lavandin cut for the bouquet industry is cut later.  Each bouquet is dried naturally, first left in the shade for 5 to 6 days, then hung in a hangar for further drying.
The rest of the Lavender and Lavandin is cut by machine a few weeks later.   Lavandin is cut after Lavander in late July – August as it flowers later.   After cutting the flowers, stalks are left in the sun to dry quickly.  They are then taken to the distillery for the extraction of essential oil.
The Lavender oil is produced through steam distillation.  100 kg of Lavender is needed to obtain 0.7 kg of Lavender essential oil.  100 kg of Lavandin produces 1.2 kg of Lavandin essential oil.
Lavender cut for their flowers are put on a vibrating conveyer belt which separates the flowers from the stalks, ready to go into sacs.  In Ferrassières they produce 400 kg of Lavender flowers and 800 kg of Lavandin flowers. 
After the harvest is over, the dried bouquets are cleaned and put together, 80 g for Lavender and 100 g for Lavandin. They are then stocked in boxes to be sold throughout the year.
lavandula stoechasThere are three native Lavanders growing in the south of France:  along the coast Lavandula stoechas, with large petal-like sterile bracts;   in the hills behind the coast up to 600 metres altitude, Lavandula latifolia (Spike Lavender), and in the Haute Provence, above 600 meters, Lavandula angustifolia, commonly known as True Lavender or Lavande fine in French.  Ever since the perfume industry developed in Grasse, farmers have been gathering Lavender in the hills of the Haute Provence. It was a cottage industry at the time. Families, and later itinerant workers from abroad, would come in July and August to pick the Lavender. Very often the Lavender would be distilled in an Alambic on the side of a field.
At the time Lavender was being picked by hand, it was mostly Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender), but between 600 to 700 meters, cross pollination took place between Lavandula angustifolia (True Lavender) and Lavandula latifolia (Spike Lavender).  The gatherers did notice that some Lavenders were taller and the flower spike was larger, but they did not really understand the reasons for this.  As science progressed the reasons for the differences were recognised. They named the Lavender created by the cross pollination “Lavandin”, the official name is Lavandula x intermedia.   Lavandin, they found out, was sterile and could only be propagated by taking cuttings.  Lavandin has an uneven number of chromosomes hence the inability to produce fertile seeds.
lavender fieldIt was the perfume industry in Grasse in the 1920’s that encouraged the research in new varieties of Lavandin.  Père Abrial, in the 1930’s, produced the first Lavandin that became a success for the perfume industry.  The Lavandin carried his name Lavandin ‘Abrialis’.  It became so popular that 2/3 of all the fields were planted with this variety.  After some time, planting new plants without giving the soil a chance to recover, the plants started to develop an illness:  in French it is called ‘dépérissement’, a plant fatigue one could say, and Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ was replaced by a new variety, Lavandin ‘Super’.  Nowadays Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ takes up 10-15% of the Lavandin production.  After some time, the same illness started to affect Lavandin ‘Super’.  The reason for this ‘fatigue illness’ was the lack of crop rotation. When the Lavendin becam e less productive it was just replaced with new young plants.  Nowadays several different cereal crops and a green manure crop are planted over a period of four years after digging up an old Lavendin field, before the plants are replaced.
In the years 1972-1975 a new Lavandin was discovered.  It was selected by M. Grosso, from Goult in the Vaucluse.  It is a very large plant, with a huge flower stalk, producing lots of oil, and in addition it is quite robust. It is called Lavandin ‘Grosso’ after its selector.  3/4 of the Lavandin one sees growing nowadays is Lavandin ‘Grosso’.  The plateau of Valensole is almost exclusively planted with the ‘Grosso’ variety. There are also other Lavandin clones, less well known, such as ’41/70′, ‘Special Gregoire’, ’33/70′ and ‘Sumian’, but the previously mentioned ‘Abrialis’, ‘Super’ and ‘Grosso’ are the most important.
Although this development seemed very interesting for the perfume, soap and detergent industry, Lavandin does not have the same medicinal qualities as Lavendula angustifolia (Lavender).
Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender) is produced in the north of the region, in the Diois, around the town of Die and in a southern direction towards Banon;  also in the Alpes de Haute-Provence around Digne, Barrême and in the Hautes Alpes, north-east of Gap.  It needs an altitude above 600-700 metres to flourish well.
Even today Lavendula angustifolia (Lavender) is normally sown, but a cloned variety of Lavender called ‘Maillette’ is becoming increasingly popular.  It does not produce quite the same quality of oil, but is interesting to the industry because of its yield.  
The quality of Lavandula angustifolia (True Lavender) essential oil is measured in the amount of principally two constituents in the essential oil named ‘Linalyl acetate’ and ‘Linolol’.  The French Pharmacopeia states that it should contain between 35-55% ‘Linalyl acetate’ to be considered Lavandula angustifolia essential oil.  Distillers located in high altitudes produce oils of higher ‘Linalyl acetate’ content, not only because wild lavender plants growing at high altitude contain more esters, but also because of the fact that at high altitude the boiling point is lower. Distillation at lower temperatures produces a better oil:  instead of 100 degrees Celsius, boiling point is reached at 92-93 degrees Celsius.   It could contain up to 70%  ‘Linalyl Acetate’.
Essential oil from Lavandin, because it produces more oil, is cheaper than essential oil from Lavandula angustifolia, but it is not of the same quality. For example, oil from Lavandin ‘Grosso’ contains between 28-38% ‘Linalyl acetate’, whereas Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ contains between 20-29% ‘Linalyl acetate’.  In addition, all the Lavandins have inherited from their other parent, Lavandula latifolia (Spike Lavander), Camphor in their oil, which makes it less pleasant to smell. Where, in Lavandula angustifolia there are only trace elements of Camphor, in Lavandin ‘Abrialis ‘ it is 7-11% and in Lavandin ‘Grosso’ between 6-8 %.
What makes essential oil of Lavender so unique, is that it has a regulating effect on the nervous system:  it balances and harmonises;  it adapts itself to conditions, restorative in cases of listlessness or weakness, yet calming in hyperactivity and agitation.  In addition, it has fungicidal, preventative and immuno-stimulant qualities, although not as pronounced as, for instance, in ‘Tea Tree’ oil.  It can be used neat to treat burns, cuts and spots.  Lavandin ‘Abrialis’ is a good anti- infection oil and has sedative properties.
Although Lavender is mostly produced for its medicinal properties, or for the cosmetics industry,  Lavender honey has a lovely taste.  In Sault, Lavender ice-cream is sold as well as Lavender syrup.  The following is a recipe using Lavender flowers:

 Cake

Ingredients:  175 g unsalted butter; 175 g caster sugar; 3 eggs lightly beaten; 175 g self-raising flour; 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender florets; 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence; 2 tablespoons of milk; 50 g of icing sugar; 1/2 teaspoon water; a few fresh florets.
Preheat the oven to 180 C.  Lightly grease and flour a ring tin or a deep 20 cm round, loose-based cake tin.  Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.  Add the egg gradually, continue beating till mixture is thick and fluffy. Add the flour, lavender, vanilla essence and milk.  Spoon the mixture into the tin and bake for 1 hour.  Let it rest for 5 minutes, the turn it out onto a wire rack to cool.  Mix the icing sugar with water till smooth.  Pour over the cake and decorate with a few fresh flowers.  The cake has a lovely flavour. 
Bibliography: Lavande et Lavandin . by Christiane Meunier;  Aromatherapy – Michel Vanhove; Tourist Information Ferrassieres; Lavender – Tessa Evelegh.
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Making your own fertiliser

When you return to a particular place where you have not been for a few weeks, you notice the difference in the vegetation.  One of our favourite spots, where in spring we find our weekly supply of nettles and dandelion leaves, is almost unrecognisable in June.   Other plants, such as vines and a bamboo look-a-like, Arundo donax, have overtaken our spring plants.  You have to hunt under their branches to find nettles.  This walk takes you between the River Argens and an irrigation canal.  Water is always available and the vegetation is quite different from the hills that surround this spot.
DSC00776
Although we knew we could make fertiliser from certain plants – Nettles (Urtica) – Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) – Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), it was Monty Don on the BBC Gardeners World programme who reminded us of this.  Previously in our ‘Seasonal Foraging’  blog we’ve discussed the virtues of Nettles, Comfrey and Horsetail for either culinary or medicinal purposes.  This entry is about how the extracts of  these plants can benefit our gardens. 
A fertiliser made with Nettles enriches the soil with nitrogen, iron, magnesium and sulfur;  Comfrey supplies  nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous and many trace elements;  whereas Horsetail, with its high silicon content, makes the plant stronger and less susceptible to fungal diseases.
It is so easy to make these different fertilisers.  All you need is 3 buckets, water (rain water if possible), some stones and a bit of patience.
Put the plant material into the buckets, one for nettles, one for comfrey and one for horsetail.  Fill them 3/4 full (you need a bit of room in the bucket for the foam which is naturally produced when the plant material is decomposing). Fill the buckets with water and place some stones on top of the mixture to make sure it stays submerged.  Stir the mixture from time to time.  It takes about 3 weeks to disintegrate, depending a bit on weather conditions.  It does smell (a lid to the bucket is useful) so do not keep it near the house.  When ready, strain.  Use the fertiliser in a 1 : 10 ratio with water.
 Bibliography:  BBC Gardeners World;  www.gardenstew.com;  about.com gardening;   The role of silicon in plant susceptibility to disease – Chad Husby
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Hypericum perforatum

Common St. John’s Wort – Millepertuis commun

The name Hypericum comes from the Greek word Hypericon, indicating that the smell of the flowers was so strong, strong enough to ward off evil spirits and at the same time cleanse the air.  When you rub the flowers they give off a red pigment (Hypericin), which was associated with blood.  St John was beheaded and in memory of him the plant was called ‘St. John’s’,  the herb of St. John.  In addition, it is in full bloom on St. John’s Day, 24 June.
hypericum perforatumThe genus ‘Hypericum’ has about 370 species.  It is found in the temperate zones of Europe and western Asia. Hypericum perforatum grows near forests or hedgerows and prefers calcareous soils.  It is a perennial.  The erect stem has two pronounced ridges, which are easy to feel when you slide your hands over the stem.  If you look closely at the leaves, there are tiny holes in them, hence the name ‘perforatum’.  The flowers are bright yellow in colour, with five petals and pronounced stamens.  They are covered with small oil glands.
It has been used medicinally for a very long time.   It was quite common to make your own St. John’s Wort oil.   It  is effective in healing burns and wounds, especially where nervous tissue has been damaged.  When overdoing the work in the garden and you have a sore back, rub some St John’s Wort oil on the painful area, and you’ll find it really helps.  The first time I ever used it was for sunburn.  I applied it on  the sunburned area before going to sleep and was quite surprised the next morning that the sunburn soreness was gone.  You do need to wash the oil off before going into the sun:  although it heals sunburn, going with the St John’s Wort oil rubbed into your skin into the sun, causes severe burning.  This has to do with the light sensitive properties of the herb.  Charolais or Frisian cows, with a lot of white patches, will suffer from sunburn after ingesting the herb from a meadow where a lot of St. John’s Wort is growing.
A few years ago I was visiting Fytosan, a company that makes herbal tinctures and essential oil in Die in the Drôme.  It was interesting to see large vats filled with olive oil and Hypericum perforatum standing outside in the sun.  The following is a  recipe to make your own oil.  I’ve already got one on the go.  The only negative thing is that it is an oil, and it give off a red colour.  After putting on the oil, you need to wear an old T shirt to protect your clothes.   
Ingredients:   olive or sunflower oil;  a large bunch of Hypericum perforatum;  a jam jar and a piece of cotton to cover the jar.
Take off the flowers and drop them into the oil.  The oil needs to be saturated with the flowers.  Cover the jam jar with a piece of cotton and place the jar directly in a sunny spot or on a window sill.  Leave the flowers to soak for 3 weeks, you see the oil turning red.  After 3 weeks, strain and press out the flowers.  You should end up with a red oil, ready to be used.  This keeps for one year.  
In addition to the oil, the herb has been used to treat mild to moderate depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.  In Germany, doctors prescribe Hypericum more often than the anti-depressant drug ‘Prosac’.  It is not meant to be used for medium to severe depression.  It does interact with other drugs and is not suitable for pregnant women or breast- feeding mothers.
At the University Hospital in Leuven, Belgium, they have been using the light-sensitive properties of  ‘Hypericin’ to show up the presence of cancer cells.  Bladder tumors that cannot be detected with an endoscopy can be detected with Hypericin.  They call it PDT (Photo Dynamic Therapy, using ‘Hypericin’, a fluorescent photo sensitiser, extracted from St. John’s Wort).  PDT works by injecting ‘Hypericin’ into the patient through an endoscope tube with a camera at the end.  After injecting the ‘Hypericin’, the tumor lights up red in blue light as a result of the fluorescent effect of ‘Hypericin’.  They think this method of injecting ‘Hypericin’ might eventually lead to a way to treat bladder cancer.
Bibliography:  The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; Handboek Heilzame Kruiden – Penelope Ody; Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson; Blaaskanker beter opspoorbaar – Professor Marie-Ange D’Hallewin – Dienst Urologie; Hypericum perforatum – Ir. J. Lambrechts.
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Tilia cordata

Small-Leaved Lime – Tilleul

The Small-Leaved Lime is a European native which grows in the wild in a mixed, deciduous woodland.  small-leaved lime tree - tilleuliulIt prefers a warm position, sandy or stony soil.  Beside the Small-Leaved Lime, there is another native Lime tree, Tilia platyphyllos (Broad or Large-Leaved Lime and a hybrid between Tilia cordata and Tilia platyphylos, Tilia x europaea.  Another word for Lime tree is Linden Tree.  Like the Oak tree, the Lime was considered a sacred tree by the old Germanic tribes;  it has a longevity of a 1000 years. Lots of legends and history are associated with the Lime tree.  In the story of the ‘Nibelungen’, the hero Siegfried, in his efforts to become immortal, took a bath in Dragon’s blood.  During the bathing, a leaf of the Lime Tree fell between his shoulder blades.  Later, in a battle, he was mortally injured between his shoulder blades, there where the Lime leaf had fallen.  A bit of a similar story to Achilles and his heel.  An old tradition was that when a boy was born, you planted an Oak tree, when a girl was born it was a Lime tree.  The placenta was buried under the trees.
It is an impressive tree and often used in Parks.   Before WW2, in Berlin, there was a 1 km long street called ‘Unter den Linden’, planted with four rows of Lime Trees.  Since then the Lime Trees have been replanted.
tilia cordata leavesIt is a deciduous tree, growing up to 40m, with a smooth, dark brown trunk when young.  The leaves are stalked, heart-shaped with serrated edges, smooth above, paler below with a few tufts of hair.  It was introduced in towns as an ornamental tree.  Here in Provence, it flowers in June.  The flowers are light-yellow in colour and very fragrant.  The harvesting of the Lime flowers occurs in summer.  The wood is very light in weight and easy to carve.  It has been used to make marionettes, puppets, recorders and bodies of guitars.  The inner bark was once used in the rope industry.
tilia cordata flowersIn France it is the most popular tisane (herbal drink).  In folk medicine it was used for hypertension.  It is a herb that is ideally suited to nervous people.  A cup of Lime/Linden tea 1 hour before going to sleep has a calming, restful and relaxing effect.  It helps with flu and fever, it increases the perspiration:  drink a couple of cups a day.  It aids the digestion as it stimulates the galbladder.  Medicinally, it is used for colds, infections, high blood pressure, headaches (migraine), as a diuretic and it is anti-spasmodic.  It contains flavonoids (anti-oxidants), essential oils (0.1%), mucilage (10%), saponins, polyphenols (1%), tannins (2%) and other unknown substances.  It is very safe to use.
The young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked.  There are a lot of offshoots on the tree during the growing season, waiting to be picked.  These can be harvested on a regular basis.  They can be put into sandwiches instead of lettuce.  The dried flowers make a good tasting herbal tea.  Honey made from lime blossom has a special flavour.
During warm summer days ice cold Lime tea (30g/l), add a little sugar, encourages perspiration and quenches thirst.
Bibliography:  RHS Encyclopedia of herbs and their uses – Deni Bown;  Food for Free – Richard Mabey;  Tileul – Rustica;  The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart;  Tilia – Wikipedia
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Equisetum arvense

Horsetail – Prêle 
Near the village of Rustrel in the Luberon is a site called ‘Le Colorado Provençal de Rustrel’.   You wonder when you first see the sign why it is called ‘Colorado’.  Well, it does remind you of Colorado, but is on a much smaller scale.  Ochre was mined here.   There are several walks through the Ochre hills, the longest being 5.5 km.site of ochre mine at Rustrel  The walk we chose, took us past towering blood red, yellow, and white ochre hills, past the impressive, ‘les Cheminées des Fées’ (the Fairy Chimneys) and further on, some dunes called ‘Sahara’, which did remind me of the desert of Dubai.  All along the path we saw Cistus laurifolius, a very large Cistus, up to 1.5 m tall.  The leaves were dark green, maybe the soil had something to do with that.  We crossed several streams and at the bottom of the valleys it was quite wet.
We came across a Horsetail that is quite common in the park, Equisetum telmateia.  horsetailThis particular Equisetum looks magnificent.  All the members of the Horsetail family are descendants from prehistoric times, closely related to tree like plants that grew in the ‘carboniferous period’, some 270 million years ago, when decomposed plants formed the coal beds.  The ancient Greeks were familiar with the medicinal uses of Equisetum arvense  (Common Horsetail).  They used it to treat wounds and to stop bleeding.  From the Middle Ages up to the 18th century the rough stems in particular of Equisetum hyemale (Dutch rush/rough horsetail) were used to scour pots and pans.  Dutch rush was even imported into the U.K. for this purpose.
Horsetails are a rhizomatous perennial.  In spring, fertile stems appear topped by a cone.fertile stem of horsetail  These cones contain spores, once the spores have been shed, the fertile shoot dies down.   This is followed by the appearance of sterile shoots, 20-80 cm  long.  These shoots are segmented, the branch like leaves are in whorls, fused into the nodal sheaths.  Once in your garden it is very hard to eradicate.  They like shady, damp conditions and prefer acid soil.  Here in Provence it is not so common, you can only find them near riverbeds.  
Just a few weeks earlier we discovered Equisetem arvense (Common Horsetail) in the ‘Vallon de Baumes’ in Correns. horsetail Although it is a curse to have in the garden, Equisetum arvense,  has been a very useful herb through the centuries.  It is high in minerals, silicon (highest in spring), potassium 2.1-2.9% of dried plant material, 5-8% silicic acid and manganese.  Once it was used in the treatment of TB.  Its uses for TB are now obsolete, superseded by more effective medicine, but it could still be used in a complementary way as it increases the resistance of connective tissue.
Silicon plays  a role in strengthening bones, it is often recommended in the treatment of Osteoporosis and for nails and hair that break easily.  It can slow down the age-related changes in the elastic tissue of the Aorta.  
Equisetum arvense is used for fractures, tendinitis, rheumatism and gout. You will find it in cosmetic preparations for greasy skin and in shampoos for greasy hair.  In folk medicine it was used for excessive menstruation, nosebleeds and piles.
It is safe to use Equisetum arvense.  It should not be used during pregnancy or for nursing mothers.  Prolonged usage is not advised, it may cause levels of Vit. B1 (Thiamin) to drop.  It is advisable when taking Equisetum arvense  to take a daily supplement of Vit B complex.
A decoction of Equisetum arvense stems:  15 g of dried herb (30 g fresh), 1 litre water.  Boil the stems for 30 mins;  drink 3 cups a day.
The young fertile stems can be eaten raw or cooked.  They resemble asparagus.
Bibliography:  Fytotherapeutisch compendium – J. Van Hellemont;  Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; Wikipedia – Equisetum;  Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown; University of Maryland Medical Center – Equisetum arvense
 
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Olea europaea

Olive blossom – Fleurs d’Olivier

After reading an article by Barbara Wilde, http://www.frenchgardening.com, describing a walk on the old olive terraces around Goult, we were inspired and although it is over two hours driving from where we live, we felt we had to see it.
Goult is a pretty village in the Luberon part of the Vaucluse. olive terrace In the late 1990’s the local community decided to restore the restanques (local name for terraces) and the cabanos (small dwellings), where the farmers, who cultivated the terraces, lived.  The restanques provided the local population with food and hence were very important.
On the terraces, olive and fruit trees were planted and underneath, the crops that could cope with drought, like lentils, chick peas and a type of spelt.  The walls of the restanques were built with the stones that were readily available on the terraces.  As they cleared the land to plant the olive trees and fruit trees, more stones became available.  Most of the terrain in the hinterland of the Provence, has more stones than soil.
windmill at GoultThe restoration project is called  ‘La conservatoire des terraces cultivées de Goult’.  The walk starts at the windmill, quite unusual now to find a windmill in Provence. ancient olive terrace A path winds down to the entrance to the terraces.  Despite the fact that the terraces and some of the dwellings have been restored and the olive trees pruned back to their former glory, we felt that we were discovering the lost terraces anew.  They are what everyone imagines a terrace with olive trees should look like: shapely olive trees, curving stone walls and underneath, this glorious mix of wild flowers, all so peaceful and enriching.
The upkeep now of cultivating the terraces with crops, I guess, would be too much work.olive blossom  The produce of the olive trees was a very important factor in local rural life, the fruit and the oil pressed from the fruit. But the local people used the young leaves to treat high blood pressure, artherosclerosis, and urinary lithiasis (a type of kidney stones).  They drank a tea made from the leaves.  Olive leaves are completely safe to use.  Many herbal medicine books mention ‘olive leaves’ for the same purposes as the locals used to use it for.  They do mention that it is a long term treatment.  The following is a recipe on how to use the leaves:

Olive Leaf Tea

Ingredients: 7 crushed leaves, 1 teacup of cold water (all during the growing season, olive trees grow shoots around their base, these are ideal to use for the tea).
Boil the leaves in the water for 5 minutes, infuse it for 10 minutes, then filter. Drink 3-4 cups a day, without sugar, and not with meals, for 3 weeks every 2 to 3 months.
Bibliography : Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia;  Malcolm Stuart – Herbs & Herbalism;  RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown;  Fytotherapeutisch compendium – J. Van Hellemont;  Secrets and Remedies of the Herbs of Provence – Claude Godet.
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Sambucus nigra

Elderberry – Sureau noir – Sambucus nigra

elderberry bush in flowerWhen you are driving around in May and you see a small tree or large shrub, covered in blossom, it is most likely to be an Elderberry. It is native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia. It has been such a useful herb through the centuries, having a very long history from before the Egyptians and is very popular in Folk medicine to treat colds. The name ‘Sambucus’ comes from the Greek word ‘sambuke’, which means ‘a musical pipe’. The new shoots of the Elder were used for this.
It is a shrub or small tree up to 10m in height. The leaves are a dull green, subdivided into 5 elliptic, serrated leaflets, 3-9 cm long. The flowers are fragrant, white, 5 mm in diameter, grouped in flat topped cymes, followed after the flowering by numerous edible, purple fruits, 8 mm in diameter. It prefers moist conditions. The twigs and leaves when crushed give off an unpleasant odour.
Traditionally, all parts of the Elder were used but today it is mostly the flowers.elderflower They contain a plant acid, that is anti-inflammatory;  flavonoids that encourage perspiration (good for fevers) and a fixed oil. The leaves contain toxic cyanogenic glucosides. Internally an infusion made from the dried or fresh flowers is useful in the treatment of colds, flu, nasal catarrh, sinisitis, mouth ulcers and any illness with fever. An old home remedy for flu is an infusion of elderberry flowers and peppermint to treat colds and as a gargle for sore throats. It can be used externally for minor burns, irritated or inflamed skin. It contain minerals: 8 – 9% Ca, Cu and K.
For culinary purposes: the flowers dipped in batter and fried make a delightful dessert; a lemonade made from the flowers is an old home favourite as are also, elderberry wine and elderberry syrup.

Elderflower lemonade

Ingredients: 14 elderflower heads; 4 l water; 2 lemons cut in slices; 2 soupspoons of white vinegar; 500 g of castor sugar.
Mix all the ingredients in a large container, leave it to rest for 24 hours (do not wash the flowers). Strain and bottle. It keeps for 2 weeks in the fridge or longer when frozen.

Elderflower fritters

 Ingredients: 12 elderflower heads; oil for deep frying; caster sugar for dredging. Batter: 100 g plain flour; pinch of sea salt; 2 tablespoons sunflower oil; 150 ml warm water; 1 egg white.
To make the batter, sift the flour into a bowl and add the salt. elderflower fritterStir in the oil and mix in enough lukewarm water to give the consistency of fairly thick cream. Leave to stand for 1 to 2 hours in a cool place. Just before using, beat the egg white in a bowl until stiff and fold it into the batter.
Rinse the elderflower heads and shake them dry in a cloth. Dip each one in the batter, shaking off any excess, and drop into a large pan of oil heated to 180C. Do not try to fry them all at once as they must not be crowded. When each batch is done, drain briefly on crumpled paper towels then lay them on a serving dish in a warm place until the others are done. Sprinkle with sugar and serve straight away.

Elderflower sorbet

Ingredients: 900 ml water; 150 g caster sugar; 16 elderflower heads; juice of 2 lemons; white of 1 large egg; red currant or sprigs of mint to decorate.
 Put the water in a pan with the sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer until the sugar has dissolved. elderflower sorbetWash the elderflowers and shake them dry. Put them in the pan, cover it and remove it from the heat. Leave for 30 minutes to infuse. Strain, and stir in the lemon juice. Turn into a rigid container and cool. Freeze for 1 hour, until semi-frozen. Beat the egg white in a bowl until it is firm though not stiff. Fold it into the sorbet and freeze it again until firm, about 1 hour. To serve, spoon into wine glasses. Each glass may be decorated with a few red currants, or a tiny sprig of mint. Serves 6
Bibliography :  Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia;  Malcolm Stuart – Herbs & Herbalism;  RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown
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Isatis tinctoria

Woad – Pastel du Teinturiers

Woad was cultivated as the source of blue dye for more than 2000 years.  Plinius, in the first century A.D., reported that the women of Britain dyed their naked bodies blue to attend ceremonial offerings.  Julius Ceasar, noticed that the men used Woad as a war paint.  They painted their bodies with a paste of the leaves.  This may have had two purposes, firstly to scare off their opponents, secondly to staunch blood and heal wounds.
The process of obtaining the dye through fermentation gave off a terrible smell. woad flower Queen Elisabeth I of England banned the process of obtaining Woad dye in a 8 km radius of her palaces.  It remained a popular dye for fabrics until Woad was superseded by Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) in the 1630’s.  The colour of Indigo is more appealing, although some Woad continued to be used as a colour fixative in making the Indigo dye as it is a more permanent blue than that of Indigo.  In the beginning, when Indigo was first introduced in the 16th century, laws were passed to protect the local Woad industry.  Henry IV of France, in an edict of 1609, forbade, under the pain of death, to use “the false and pernicious Indian drug”.  When artificial dyes became popular in the early 20th century, the Woad and Indigo industry collapsed.  The last commercial Woad harvest in recent times occurred in 1932 in Lincolnshire.  Small amounts of Woad are now grown in the U.K. and France to supply craft dyers.
Woad is a biennial, 45 cm – 130 cm tall.  In the first year, just a rosette of leaves are visible.   In the second year the stem emerges.  The stem leaves are arrow-shaped, clasping the stem.  At the top of the stem there are much branched racemes of yellow flowers.  Each flower is 4 mm across with 4 petals, followed after flowering by numerous hanging seeds.
The above ground parts , when crushed, give off the blue dye.  The leaves are harvested in the first year, in summer.  The blue dye is obtained by fermenting, drying and re-fermenting the crushed leaves, and adding lime-water to the final product.  
Apart from Woad being used as a dye, it was traditionally used as a poultice to stop bleeding, heal wounds and ulcers.  It is poisonous and should not be taken internally.
Bibliography:  Kruiden – Lesley Bremness;  Fleurs de Méditerranée – Larousse;  RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses – Deni Bown;  Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart;  Isatis Tinctoria – Web.
 
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Cytisus or Ulex

Broom – Genêt  

There is much confusion among people about what is Broom and what is Gorse and which one is edible.  They are closely related, but where foraging is concerned it is quite important to make the distinction between the two as the buds and flowers of both Broom and Gorse have traditionally been used in salads.  There are now concerns about the toxicity of Broom and whether the flowers and buds should be consumed. The toxicity of Gorse is much less, although it is not recommended to eat too many buds or flowers. 
Broom is the general name given to evergreen, semi-evergreen and deciduous shrubs in the Pea family.  They are divided into 3 genera – Chamaecystisus, Cytisus and Genista.  These three are closely related and share similar characteristics – slender, dense stems with very small leaves to suit dry conditions.  In addition, Broom is closely related to Gorse and Laburnum.  They tolerate and often thrive on poor soils, they do not like wet soils.
Cytisus are shrubs without spines.  Leaves with one or three leaflets, alternate.  Most have yellow flowers but some have white/orange/red/pink or purple flowers.
flowers of broomGenista are spiny or non-spiny shrubs with simple leaves.  Flowers are yellow, borne in heads or racemes.  All the above are native to Europe, North Africa and southwest Asia, but the largest diversity is in the Mediterranean.  Flowering at the moment is the largest shrub in the family ‘Spanish Broom’  (Spartium junceum or Genista junceum), even more toxic than the Cytisus genus.  
The Plantagenet kings used common Broom ‘Planta genista‘ as an emblem and took their family name from it.  It was initially the emblem of Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II of England.
Genista tinctoria (Dyer’s Broom) was grown commercially for its yellow dye in parts of Britain into the early 19th century.  Woolen cloth, mordanted with alum (colour fixative) was dyed yellow with Dyer’s Broom, then dipped into a vat of blue dye (Woad or later Indigo) to produce a once famous colour ‘Kendal Green’, later superseded by ‘Saxon Green’ in the 1770’s.
Broom contains alkaloids, notably ‘sparteine’ which affects the heart and nerves, similar to curare.  It is a bitter, narcotic herb that depresses respiration, regulates the heart action and has diuretic and purgative effects;  medicinally, used internally for heart complaints.  Excess causes respiratory collapse.  Not to be given to pregnant women and people with high blood pressure.  Only to be used under qualified practitioner.

Gorse – Ajonc

Ulex europaeus or common Gorse/Furze looks similar to Broom but with spiny branches.  It flowers in late winter and spring through to September.   It prefers slightly acid, poor soils.
In former times, in winter, when there was no other green food available, gorse was used to feed cattle.  The shrub would be crushed before given to cattle.
Gorse wood was used to make small objects.   As the wood is non toxic, it has been used for cutlery as well as garden ornaments as it is resistant to weather and rot.  Ash, from Gorse wood, is rich in potassium and makes a good fertiliser.  
Soaked seeds are a good remedy against fleas.
In the Bach flower remedies, the flowers stand for hopelessness and despair.
Gorse flowers are edible.  They can be used in salads and tea.  They have a slight coconut aroma and almond taste.  The buds can be pickled like capers and the shoot tips used for tea.

Gorse flower and Dandelion salad

Ingredients:  4 handfuls of dandelion leaves; 1/2 thinly sliced cucumber; 2 handful of Gorse flowers.
Mix the leaves, flowers and cucumber together.  Add your favourite dressing.  Ideal for early spring when the dandelion leaves and gorse flowers are available.
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Blossom

In Provence, you feel winter is over when the first Almond blossoms appear, on the coast around the end of January and with us,  about 2-3 weeks later.  This is followed in early spring by the blossom of the Blackthorn, Cherry,  Quince, and, at the moment, False Acacia, Chestnut and Elderflower.    

Almond tree – Amandier – Prunus dulcis

I always feel spring has come to Provence, first with the cheerful, yellow-flowering Mimosa, quickly followed by the delicate light pink blossom of the almond tree.  All around us we see the flowering almond trees, not just in the gardens but growing wild on the hillsides and we feel it is part of the flora of the region.
The history of the almond tree is quite interesting. almond blossom It is native to the Mediterranean region of the Middle East, spreading eastwards up to Pakistan. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans introduced the almond tree to the rest of the countries around the Med, as far as Spain and northern Africa. The almond tree was first introduced to France in the 8th century and to north-western Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. The first almond tree was planted in England in the 16th century. In Elizabethan cooking, large quantities of the nut were used and almond water was used as a substitute for milk in recipes. Nowadays the major producer of almonds is the USA with 41% of the world production, followed by Spain with 13% and various other countries making up the rest.
There are two types of almonds, Prunus dulcis var. dulcis (sweet almond) and the Prunus dulcis var. amara (bitter almond). Quite difficult on sight to differentiate between the two, but in general the bitter almond flowers are a deeper pink and the nuts are broader and shorter than those of the sweet almond. Both the sweet and the bitter almonds contain almond oil (50% of the nut) which is procured by pressing the almond.
The bitter almond is used to boost the flavour of products made with sweet almonds like, for instance, the liqueur ‘Amaretto’. The bitter almond contains prussic acid, which occurs in many of the leaves and seeds from our most common fruits, for instance apple pips. Prussic acid is poisonous and the bitter almonds have to be heat treated before they can be used.
Almond oil is a widely used oil in cosmetics, and is the most common oil used in aromatherapy.  To the almond oil, drops of different essential oils are added and then used as a massage oil.
Sweet almonds are used a lot in Spanish cooking and are a boon for those people with gluten intolerance.  In general it is a much used culinary delight.

Sloe/Blackthorn – Prunellier/L’Epine Noir

Blackthorn blossom close-up

Although the blossom of the Blackthorn looks pretty, it is the berries that are used.  The berries will be ready in late autumn after they’ve been subjected to frost.

Sweet Cherry – Cerisier – Prunus avium   /   Sour Cherry – Griotte – Prunus cerasus

The Vaucluse and Alps-de-Haute-Provence are the departments of Provence with  Cherry orchards. but in spring you find cherry trees dotted across the Provençal landscape,  sweet as well as sour cherries.  cherry trees in bloomThe Sweet Cherry had been introduced into Europe by the Romans from northeastern Anatolia (Turkey) as far back as 72 BC.  The Sour Cherry is a native to Europe and western Asia.  The Sweet Cherry and the Sour Cherry do not cross-pollinate. 
L’Occitane has a fragrance called ‘Fleurs de Cerisier’, in which the blossom is used to make the scent.

Clafoutis

Ingredients:  500 g sour cherries; 50 ml Kirsch; 50 g butter; 4 eggs; 75 g castor sugar; 100 g flour; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 2oo ml milk; icing sugar.

clafoutisWash and remove pips from the cherries.  Put the cherries into a bowl and pour over the Kirsch.  Leave it to soak for 1 hour.  Butter a large cake tin.
Preheat the oven to 175 C.  Melt 25 g of butter in a pan.  In a bowl, beat the eggs and caster sugar till light and airy.  Sieve and fold in the flour and salt.  Mix in the the melted butter and milk till the batter is smooth.  Pour the flour mixture into the cake tin and distribute the cherries on top.  Cut 25 g of butter into small pieces,  dot the butter over the cake.   Put the cake tin into the oven for 40 minutes till the cake is golden and done.  Leave until lukewarm, then sprinkle the cake with icing sugar.

Quince – Coignassier – Cydonia oblonga

quince blossomQuince is another fruit tree introduced from southwestern Asia (Turkey and Iran) into Europe.  The Greeks already mentioned it.  It is used for its fruit.  The fruit, not unlike a pear in shape, has to be cooked to be edible.  The tree has the most exquisite blossom.   Although not a native to our region it is often found in the wild.
False Acacia – Acacia faux – Robinia pseudoacacia
False Acacia is a native to south-eastern United States, planted and naturalised in Europe. acacia blossom The tree reaches a height of 25 m. often more. The leaves are mid green, round to oval, 15-20 cm long.  The flowers, similar to pea flowers, white and in bunches of 10-20 cm long, have a similar scent to orange blossom.   After flowering the pods appear 5-10 cm long. The branches have short, strong thorns.  The tree has a nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its root system, like many species of the pea family, and can grow on poor soils.  It is an early coloniser of disturbed areas.  
The wood is extremely hard and resistant to rot and suitable for making into furniture, flooring, fence posts and panelling.  Because of its slow burning and high heat capacity it makes a good firewood.  
Although bark and leaves are toxic, the seeds and young pods can be eaten after being cooked as the poison is destroyed by heat.  In France the flowers are eaten as beignets, dipped in batter and deep fried.  
Acacia mono floral honey is made from the Acacia flowers.  The flowering period is short (10 days) and it depends on the weather conditions as to how much nectar can be collected.

Horse chestnut – Maronnier – Aesculus hippocastanum

Horse chestnut was introduced into western Europe in the 16th century, coming originally from eastern Europe and western Asia.  From the 18th century it had become a common tree along roads and in parks.   It is thought that the name ‘Horse Chestnut’ comes from the fact that the Turks used to give chestnuts to their pregnant mares to eat.
Although the chestnut is rich in carbohydrates, it cannot be eaten as it is too bitter.  chestnut flowerGoats and pigs don’t seem to mind the bitterness.  In folk medicine the leaves are used as a cough medicine for horses.  We now know that they contain a lot of saponins, which helps in getting rid of catarrh.  In herbal medicine the young shoots, flowers and seeds of the Chestnut are used.  It strengthens the walls of the arteries and by doing so, improves the efficacy of the function of the arteries.  In  Dr. Bach’s flower remedies (remedies directed at a particular characteristic or emotional state), the buds of the Chestnut are used in ‘failures to learn from mistakes’. 

Olive blossom – Fleurs d’Olivier

oliveterrace2After reading an article by Barbara Wilde, http://www.frenchgardening.com,  describing a walk on the old olive terraces around Goult, we were inspired and although it is over 2 hours driving from where we live, we felt we had to see it.
Goult is a pretty village in the Luberon part of the Vaucluse. ancient olive terrace In the late 1990’s the local community decided to restore the restanques (local name for terraces) and the cabanos (small dwellings), where the farmers, who cultivated the terraces, lived.  The restanques provided the local population with food and hence were very important.  
On the terraces olive and fruit trees were planted and underneath, the crops that could cope with drought, like lentils, chick peas and a type of spelt.  The walls of the restanques were built with the stones that were readily available on the terraces.  As they cleared the land to plant the olive trees and fruit trees, more stones became available.  Most of the terrain in the hinterland of the Provence, has more stones than soil.
windmill at GoultThe restoration project is called  ‘La conservatoire des terraces cultivées de Goult’.  The walk starts at the windmill, quite unusual now to find a windmill in Provence.  A path winds down to the entrance to the terraces. Despite the fact that the terraces and some of the dwellings have been restored and the olive trees pruned back to their former glory, we felt that we were discovering the lost terraces anew.  They are what everyone imagines a terrace with olive trees should look like:  shapely olive trees, curving stone walls and underneath, this glorious mix of wild flowers, all so peaceful and enriching.
The upkeep now of cultivating the terraces with crops, I guess, would be too much work.
The produce of the olive trees were a very important factor in local rural life, the fruit and the oil pressed from the fruit.olive blossom But the local people used the young leaves to treat high blood pressure, artherosclerosis, and urinary lithiasis (a type of kidney stones).  They drank a tea made from the leaves.  Olive leaves are completely safe to use.   Many herbal medicine books mention ‘olive leaves’ for the same purposes as the locals used to use it for.  They do mention that it is a long term treatment.  The following is a recipe on how to use the leaves:

Olive Leaf Tea

Ingredients:  7 crushed leaves, 1 teacup of cold water (all during the growing season, olive trees grow shoots around their base, these are ideal to use for the tea).
Boil the leaves in the water for 5 minutes, infuse it for 10 minutes, then filter.  Drink 3-4 cups a day, without sugar, and not with meals, for 3 weeks every 2 to 3 months.
Bibliography : Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia; Malcolm Stuart – Herbs & Herbalism; Antonio Carluccio – Carluccio’s Complete Italian Food; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown; Kruiden-Receptenboek – Mariette Clijsters; Clafoutis – Gerda Nagtegaal; Secrets and Remedies of the Herbs of Provence – Claude Godet.
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