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St John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum, is a weed of the dry and broken lands. It grows commonly on disturbed and/or degraded land, usually where it is stoney or gravelly or otherwise dry. You often see it along river beds or it appears the year after a new track or road is put in. It also grows extensively on overgrazed land. If you haven’t seen any locally yet look along river beds, in old gravel pits, new tracks or where there’s been any disturbance to the soil.
SJW reproduces by seed, which it produces copiously each year. Once it gets established in an area it tends to spread. I’ve been watching it expand its territory over the past 15 years. In Central it grows everywhere north of Cromwell, and in more select places and along roadsides as far south as Lawrence. It’s in Queenstown, making it’s way into Northern Southland. It grows in river beds and on roadsides in Fiordland (where it first turned up in tourist car parks, presumably having hitched a ride from Queenstown). It’s in places along the east coast where it’s dry (haven’t seen it in Dunedin environs, yet) – it’s in at least some of the east draining rivers.
I’d love to know where it grows in North Canterbury, Nelson/Marlborough and the West Coast, and the North Island.
In some places in Central it’s everywhere. Other places outside of Central it’s more localised, but it’s worth having a good scout around in likely places because it’s still getting naturalised and so hasn’t fully extended its range i.e. it might not be obvious but still there.
Farmers don’t like SJW because it can cause photosensitivity in stock (cattle at least) and a beetle was introduced to try and control it but doesn’t seem particularly effective. There’s a whole lot of bother about SJW causing photosensitivity in humans, but in fact that is rare and seems to be associated with commercial preparations (more on this in the SJW uses post).
SJW is a perennial (meaning it grows back each year from the same plant) but in some ways behaves like an annual – it seeds prolifically and its communities seem to move around a bit. Often a really good patch one year will be absent the following year.
There aren’t too many look alikes to confuse this with (ragwort, Senecio sp, from a distance, which overlaps its flowering with SJW), but here are some keys:
1. flowers are bright yellow and have 5 petals with a tufty centre, and are less than 2cm across.
2. branches and leaves are in opposite pairs.
3. leaves have oil glands, either clear or black, and visible when held up to the light. When crushed these stain the fingers red.
4. flowers also stain the fingers red when crushed.
5. it grows from a central point or clump in the ground and can be a single stalk a couple of inches high up to a largish bush of a metre.
There are other Hypericums in NZ. Tutsan, Hypericum androsaemum, is a garden shrub, but has obviously larger flowers and leaves, no discernible oil glands and generally isn’t considered medicinal because of this (it may have other medicinal properties). There are several native Hypericums, including two that are endemic (they only grow here). I don’t know if the native Hypericums are medicinal but they are rare enough to warrant not harvesting them (especially as the introduced SJW is so common).
I harvest the flowering tops of SJW (including leaves and stalk) for tincture and the flowers for oil. This is an almost perfect sample of what I like to make tincture from. A mixture of flowers and buds with some leaves and stalk, but not really any seed yet. It’s also ok to harvest older plants that have some new seedheads as long as the flowers and buds predominate.
If I was picking for oil I would take most of the top cluster of flowers with as little stalk as easily possible (don’t have to be too pedantic about it), leaving some of the lower buds to eventually produce seed.
Here’s the jar filled with the chopped herb from the basket at the top of the post.
I then filled the jar again, with 50% alcohol, capped it and will let it sit for at least six weeks before decanting.
SJW is famous for going a delicious and intense red as soon as you pour in the alcohol (this photo doesn’t do it justice). Oil takes longer but eventually goes a red colour too.
SJW usually flowers for a month or more. Some years it starts in mid December, but mostly I’ve harvested in January, sometimes even into mid February. It’s still going strong at the moment, some plants are starting to put out seedheads but there are still many in bud and flower. I’m going to make some more oil this week.
Here’s my salad from the other day’s weed walk – watercress, mallow, plantain, self heal, sheep’s sorrel, dandelion, fathen, mixed with a bit of lettuce. It’s dressed with olive oil, salt, herb vinegar and topped with boiled eggs and violets from the garden.
Reasons to eat weed salads:
Weeds are usually very rich in minerals and vitamins – I’m not completely hung up on measuring nutrient values (there are other useful ways of judging the value of food), but wild plants do have very large amounts of goodies in them, usually higher than cultivated vegetables.
It diversifies our diet – our not too distant ancestors ate a much wider range of foods than we did, giving themselves access to a wider range of nutrients.
Different weeds offer different benefits - bitter herbs aid digestion by increasing bile and liver function; bland herbs are rich in minerals; spicy or tart herbs make food more palatable and interesting, and stimulate saliva thus aiding digestion.
Wildness is ingestible – people who eat wild plants say that they get something from them not in domesticated vegetables. Whether this is a different set of nutrients, or something more intangible and soulful, eating wild foods nourishes us in ways that garden food doesn’t quite touch.
Eating weeds connects us with the land – it makes us more aware of what is happening to the land around us and how it needs to be taken care of.
Tips on making a good salad.
* taste the weeds as you harvest. This gives you a good sense of what you like and how much to gather (lots of blander herbs, small amounts of bitters).
* start simply. If you are new to eating weeds, start by adding small amounts to your existing salads. Focus on weeds you really like.
* treat weeds as you would any other foodstuff. Clean them if necessary, take time to select the best parts, discard tough stalks and other inedible bits.
* some plants are an acquired taste, especially if you aren’t used to them. Again, start with the ones you are attracted to.
* dress the salad ahead of time with something salty, something fatty, and something acidic. I like sea salt, olive oil and herbal vinegar. Salt, fat and acid all increase palatability and satiation as well as making nutrients more available (by breaking down the cell walls of the greens). The longer you leave the salad to sit dressed, the more nourishment you will get from it.
* don’t be afraid to add flowers (which need a post of their own!!) for aesthetics, taste and nourishment.
This post is part of the UK Herbarium webring blog party, which has kindly been opened up to Commonwealth bloggers too (I love this because many of the introduced plants here in New Zealand come from the UK). Apologies to the Brits though, who won’t have access to artichokes for 6 months. The theme of the blog party is My Favourite Bitter.
Bitters are a class of herb with a bitter taste and distinct actions on the digestive tract, especially the liver and gallbladder. Amongst other things, bitter stimulates production of bile and assists the liver and gallbladder to function well (see further reading at the end of this post for a fuller explanation of bitters).
There is a long history of the use of bitters as medicine – Swedish Bitters would be the most well known example of historical use that survives today. There is also a tradition of eating bitters as part of the everyday diet. Modern peoples lose out here, because we are so un-attuned to the bitter taste that apart from coffee, and maybe dark chocolate (which is tempered substantially by sugar), bitter is often a shunned experience.
Yet bitters are essential to good health, even more so nowadays when we have so many refined foods in our diets that are hard on the body. I also think our incredibly easy access to sugar skews our tastes away from enjoying bitter, but fortunately the more bitter you eat the better it tastes. I want to emphasise here that eating bitters becomes a pleasurable experience, it’s not something you have to force yourself to do.
You don’t have to eat bitter foods in huge amounts – the value of bitter foods can be gained from small amounts, especially if eaten regularly. And depending on the plant in question a lot of bitter can be counter productive (herbally many bitters can be cooling to the body or drying, which doesn’t suit everyone, and strong bitters can be hard on sensitive constitutions). It’s better to eat a small dandelion leaf daily in season than try eating a cup of cooked dandelion greens in one go that you have to force down and that makes you avoid bitters for the rest of the year!
If you’re not used to bitters then start small and find ways to introduce them into your diet that feel good.
One traditional way of eating bitters is by including them in salads. Another way is to eat seasonal vegetables and herbs that have some bitter in them. My favourite is the globe artichoke, which is a great way to learn about the bitter taste because it is such delicious eat.
The leaf of the whole plant is used as a strong bitter in herbal medicine but fortunately the vegetable itself is a more subtle bitter and very edible.
Normally artichokes surface before Christmas (southern hemisphere) but I didn’t find any this year until I went grocery shopping today. Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus aka Cynara scolymus) are a thistle and no relation of the artichokes that are a root vegetable. They’re customary fare in parts of Europe, especially Italy and France. They grow easily in NZ, and often you see them on the edge of people’s properties, where they have been planted as a showy border plant (they’re big and spectacular when flowering). I find most people are really happy to let you pick them.
The edible part is the flower bud. You want buds that look fresh (not drying out on the tips too much) and haven’t started to open. This is a medium sized bud. Some varieties have sharper points on the scales.
There are quite a few different varieties, some yummier than others – you’ve just got to find this out by experience, but generally the ones in the shops are a sure thing, the ones on the side of the road vary more. Usually the issue is about the work to edible part ratio (explained in a minute).
Some people get put off artichokes because there is some work involved in getting to the edible bits. But the preparation and pulling apart of the artichoke is part of the whole experience. I’m going to write about the easiest way I know, because I’m basically a peasant foodie and am happy to eat well simply. There are lots more complex ways of preparing and eating artichokes (including raw), so once hooked you can explore those.
First take the artichoke and cut off any stalk close-ish to the bud. It’s nice to have a bit of stalk, but too much and the bud won’t stand up in the bowl. You can cook the extra stalk as well if it is still fresh, just put it in the pot with the bud. I like to bang the bud face down on a chopping board a few times to open up the ‘scales’. I then put the bud face down in a pot with a small amount of hot water (face down because the heat goes up into the inside of the bud). Bring to the simmer and let it cook with the lid on for 10 or 15 minutes. Test to see if it is done by using a sharp knife down through the centre near the stalk. It should slide in easily.
Take the bud out and let any excess water drain out from the inside. From this point on you need the following:
a sharp knife
Put the bud upright in the bowl. Open up the scales a bit and pour in some olive oil. Let this sit for awhile, so it cools enough to be handled and so the olive oil starts to take up the flavour. If you leave the bud to sit for a long time, the oil will get really tasty (and artichoke is fine to eat cold).
Once cool, start to pull off the scales, starting from the outside at the bottom. Each scale has a knob of flesh on it which is edible. You can dip this in the olive oil pooling at the bottom of the bowl, and then use your teeth to scrap off the fleshy bit. Put the empty scale in your spare bowl. A serviette is essential here, this is very hands on eating.
(some varieties of artichoke don’t have as much flesh on the leaves, and so it seems not worth the bother. But I find even the thin layer of some bud scales worth it because of the flavour and response in my body – a qualitative rather than quantitative experience).
One thing you can do here is taste the bud closer to the remaining stalk – there will be some stringy bits that pull off with the scale – and you can eat the stalk itself. There is a pleasant bitter taste here, which blends well with the more pungent sweet taste of the fleshy bit. If you get a sense of this bitter here you will pick it up in the rest of the choke too.
Continue eating the scales until most of them are gone. Now you are getting to the choke heart. You will start to notice two things. At the top the scales become thinner and sharper.
Just discard those, and underneath you will find a turret of densely packed hairs. These are completely inedible unless the bud is very very young. Use the sharp knife to cut through through the base of the hairy layer and discard it. You may need to cut the heart in half or quarters to get all of this off.
The top half still has hairs on it, the bottom is clean:
Now you are at the pinnacle of artichoke eating. You can take each half or quarter, dip in oil and eat whole.
Here is the true artichoke flavour and texture, the reason why people go to all the bother – a phenomenal mix of deep sweet, bitter and pungent*. By this stage I usually notice a pleasurable relaxation in my liver and solar plexus area, and complex tastes in my mouth and palate that last well after the last bite.
*although pungent isn’t the right word and I’m struggling to describe the taste. You find it to a lesser degree in related plants such as burdock and variegated thistle.
Because the eating of artichokes can be a bit of a ritual, they make a great food to share with a group of people. And because it’s a bitter, it serves well as an appetiser, stimulating appetite and digestion before the main course. Enjoy!
For a fancier look at how to prepare and eat artichokes, see Julie Biuso’s blogpost.
Great Lakes folk herbalist Jim Macdonald has an comprehensive article (PDF) on the importance and benefits of bitters as food and medicine.
More on bitters from the blog party.
I’ve been craving greens this week so have been out looking for the summer weeds. Here’s what I found on my weed walk today. Most of these plants were growing wild.
Self heal, Prunella vulgaris. A low growing perennial, found in shady or damp-ish places. A member of the Lamiaceae family that includes mint. All members of this family have square stems and leaves opposite in pairs. This photo is a bit confusing because there is another plant there that looks very similar but with shinier leaves (self heal has matt leaves). I need to go back and find out what it is. This is a good instruction in paying attention and being certain that what you are picking is what you think you are picking. Unlike many others of the mint family self heal has no volatile oil. Tastes bland with a subtle pungency (that is stronger in wetter places I think).
Watercress, used to be Rorippa sp now Nasturtium sp (probably N microphyllum). Only very distantly related to the garden nasturtiums. Introduced from Eurasia, there are two species in NZ. Watercress grows mainly in streams with moving water, occasionally in boggy places. Most of this patch is flowering with long thin seed heads rather than leaves, but I manage to find a small handful of green shoots. A member of the cabbage family (Cruciferae, because the flowers always form a cross pattern), it is pungent and hot to taste.
Mallow, Malva sp. One of the smaller mallows, just about to flower. The leaves contain mucilage, which makes it cooling and moistening medicinally and food-wise. It’s related to the marshmallow and has similar uses herbally. The taste is bland.
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Grows everywhere. Needs to be identified to distinguish from lookalikes. Young leaves that have come up after being mown I think. Or maybe first year leaves. Either way, bitter taste but not too bitter. Older leaves would be more bitter and so best to use less of them.
Plantain/kopakopa, Plantago major. Smallish, gnarly plants from another patch of mown grass, but still lush. Notable for their five or more distinct ribs with a thread inside when broken open at the stalk. There are two species in NZ, this one and another that has long thin leaves (P lanceolata). The narrow leafed one isn’t that great as a food, but both medicinal. Taste is green.
Fathen, Chenopodium sp, probably C album. A relative of spinach, quinoa and amaranth. It’s been a traditional food in both the Americas and Europe. This is a young plant – adults can grow up to a metre when seeding. It’s a common first arrival in new soils and grows prolifically, so if you like the taste it’s worth letting it seed in the garden (it’s not hard to weed out from places you don’t want it). Taste when young is bland, tarter when older.
Sheep’s sorrel, Rumex acetosella. One of the docks, a small, usually low growing one. It has a distinct double ‘tag’ at the bottom of each leaf. With a similar tartness as the docks but more lemony (like garden sorrel) and suitable for eating raw.
There’s been a couple of wildcrafting related posts this week from other kiwi bloggers that I wanted to share:
Nigel Olsen from Curious Kai has a post on eeling, with a great slide show that includes degreasing and filleting (I’m still eating my eel from the freezer and the myriad wee bones are certainly something I’ll be thinking about more carefully next time). There’s some useful tips on attracting eels, and check out that smoker! Nigel also talks about ecological concerns and decreasing eel numbers due to commercial fishing and habitat destruction, with useful links about the current issues.
The people at Millstream Gardens have a post on their current harvesting and medicine making that also includes a surprise out of season giant puffball. It’s got a very useful photo of what a puffball should look like inside if you are going to eat it.
Don’t know what happened to December, it just seemed to disappear. But I see in November I’ve made the cardinal blogging sin – saying I will post about something and then not doing it. Ooops.
There’s so much going on in nature at the moment, it’s hard to know what the essence of this month’s moon is, so I’ve gone with the obvious – it’s the first full moon after the summer solstice. The best weather is still to come in the later summer (Feb usually), but people are intent on holidaying now. Personally I find this time of year increasingly stressful and have decided that from now on I’m not going to try and get anything done to a time schedule from mid Dec to mid Jan (when everything seems to be either hyped up crazy or just shut down). Maybe it needs to be the chill out moon, or the hiatus moon.
There is a dilemma here – I have this idea that we’re meant to be having a break, but in terms of the natural world it’s a very busy time. Lots of harvesting from the wild to be done and the garden needs attention. If we were to be taking our cues from the land we’d give up the idea of a big celebration at high summer and do it in the middle of winter instead.
So in the spirit of easing stressful times here are two of my favourite herbs for helping me relax: St John’s wort and lavender. I made lavender oil today, and hope to get some vinegar put up this week too. I use the oil for massage anytime I am sore or stressed and need a bit of TCL. The vinegar I put on salads, but if lavender is too much like a toiletry for you to have in the kitchen it makes a wonderfully scented hair rinse (dilute first). You can read more about lavender medicine by New Mexico herbalist Kiva Rose.
I also made some SJW tincture this week and hope to do oil too. SJW (Hypericum perforatum) is popularly seen as an anti-depressant (and it can be very helpful for helping people with some kinds of depression), but the herb is used widely including as a liver support, menopausal support and as a nervine. I’ve used it mostly as a nervine - it helps heal pain especially the sharp, shooting kind (including shingles and neuralgia) and for easing sore muscles – but it’s also a good herb to help manage stressful times. It seems to both strengthen the nervous system and help it to relax.
SJW started flowering a month ago (which was early) and is peaking now. It will flower for another month I’d say, so plenty of time for harvesting, although I find the best medicine comes from the earlier flowers. Here’s a medium sized plant in flower and bud, with last year’s old seedhead in my hand.