Springtime with the Herb Whisperer

Words and Images by Sally Roberts

I think we will all be emerging into this spring with even more enthusiasm than usual – not only has it been a long, cold, winter – for many of us the social restrictions have meant it’s been a lonely one too. Whilst the garden naturally rests during the winter months, most of us rarely do. Instead of ‘Herbs of the month’, this time we are covering the general season of springtime, the start of new growth and activity as the days grow noticeably longer, and the sunshine stronger.

The winter months of January and February while the garden sleeps, I stay happily connected to it by reading about plants, playing with herbal scrapbooks and journals, and cooking with my herbs and spices. Quiet walks out among the dormant flowerbeds and countryside are restoring and the delight of discovering the first few snowdrops is always a favourite moment of mine. Then the first bright yellow daffodils with their promise of sunny warmth to come…of course it’s also time to think about new seeds, new herbs, new plants for the new season ahead…a renewal of all things!

Once March rolls in there are obvious signs of the season changing all around us, but what we can actually do outside in the garden very much depends on the weather and temperature in any given year. It is important not to be too hasty in our urge to get started if it is still too cold – if it’s under 10 degrees too much clearing and tidying will disturb valuable insects and pollinators still sleeping.

 I’m going to share with you some of the herbs and flowers I most enjoy during the spring months, most of which can be used in the kitchen, but some are just for the delight of them. Starting with primroses, which most of us recognise as an early symbol of spring, these can indeed be eaten, and crystallised with sugar they make the prettiest decoration for a cake at Eastertime. A lesser known but equally pretty herb that appears early, is sweet cicely. With lacy, fern like leaves, sweet cicely self-seeds and grows easily. It has a sweet liquorice scent and a honeyed slightly aniseed taste – wonderful if you are trying to cut down on sugar. Add it to fruits when cooking them, or have in fruit salads. Delicious with soft cheeses too.

We all know daisies, and their fresh innocence tends to bring out the child in us all. Daisies can be made into a tincture which can be used as a mouthwash to help sore throats, or infused in oil which can then be used to soothe scratches and bruises. They are actually full of Vitamin C, so can be drunk as a tea or added to salads and fruit salads, or used to decorate cakes and desserts.

 A detox or a spring cleanse in our diet is something we naturally think of doing as the weather changes, and one of the very best plants for this is the humble nettle. It’s the new, fresh leaves that need to be picked – don’t forget your gloves – as once they start to flower in late spring they become too tough. They obviously lose their sting as soon as they’re cooking – nettle tea or nettle soup are superb spring tonics, with more Vitamin C and iron than either spinach or broccoli. I’m just going to say here that if you forage for any of these plants, do it well away from the roadside for obvious reasons. My other favourite spring tonic is watercress, packed with calcium, iron and Vitamin C. Eaten fresh in salads and sandwiches will give you the most nutrition, but is lovely made into soups on those cooler spring days.

Two more herbs I love to use in the kitchen at this time of year are rosemary and chives. Chives are easy to grow, even in a pot, and I used to grow them underneath my roses when I had a big garden. With their mild oniony flavour they boost our immune systems in the same way as onions, and are delicious just snipped with scissors over all kinds of salads, and dishes with eggs, potatoes or cheese. The lovely purple flowers are edible too and look fantastic on salads – but a word of warning here, because the flowers tend to be intensely strong in flavour; too many will simply overpower a dish.

Rosemary, of course, is associated with eating spring lamb, if you are a meat eater, not just for the flavour, but it helps to digest the fat. I love it over roasted potatoes and vegetables, but a little goes a long way as it has a strong taste. Bunches of rosemary are pretty in the house, the scent is a gentle stimulant and always associated with remembrance, it does in fact perk up the mind. A tea made with a sprig of fresh rosemary is refreshing throughout the system.

Most of all, spring is the time to get outside and enjoy all the new life bursting out around you. If you don’t have your own garden to get busy in, you can still grow some herbs on your windowsill, inside or out, in pots outside the door if you can. Find new places to walk and sit and play, no matter what age you are it is the season when it is almost impossible not to rejoice in the sheer, beautiful, magic of nature.