Category Archives: Annual herbs

Hairy bittercress – A free lunch


I did a spot of roof gardening this morning and was very pleased to find this herb growing in a neglected plant pot. It’s thought of as weed by most and yet it’s providing at least two services here; covering lots of surface soil thus acting as a green mulch and also it’s soon to be part of my food!  Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) spreads readily by seed and is very successful at monopolising open ground. According to Wikipedia it can be quite a nuisance in lawns, in fact there are many articles on the internet dedicated to eradicating this plant. What a waste, it tastes so good and I’d prefer a useful mixed “weed” lawn to a monoculture of grass any day! It’s very welcome in my plant pots, I’d also say it’s non-invasive in this situation as it’s very easy to pull out completely when you need to.

Hairy bitter cress is part of the brassica/mustard family and is often confused with chickweed. Although it’s habit of growing out like a star from it’s base, it’s flowers and of course the hairs, are quite different from chickweed. Both are annuals. In any case, confusing it with chickweed may be a good way to get to know it. Both are useful and nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals, tasting peppery and great additions to salad.

I’ll let these come on for a few more days in the plant pot before harvesting the strongest plants and rehousing the others.

Chickweed Amsterdam April 2012

Chickweed abounds!

Chickweed Amsterdam April 2012Chickweed makes a delicious and nutritious sandwich filling, it’s also plentiful, easily forage-able and available almost year round (it gets scorched and disappears at midsummer and has a slightly different form in mid winter but still tastes great).

It’s a popular medicinal herb, used as a tonic and for a multitude of ailments including skin complaints. It tastes fresh and peppery and it’s so successful that you are very likely to notice it as a”weed” in any plant pots or borders you may have. Birds love it, hence the name.

I took the photo this afternoon in my neighbourhood, the chickweed is growing in a city tree pit (aka dog latrine) so I won’t be harvesting this patch. But when I find chickweed on my balcony or in a nice clean area, I don’t hesitate to pick some for food.

If your not familiar with it use a good field guide for wild flowers to help with correct identification. Herbalist Susun Weed has lots of detailed information about this plentiful nourishing herb on her website.

As low impact lunch items go, I don’t think you can get much better than a weed which most people dig up and send for incineration here in town. If you haven’t already, please give it a try and let me know what you think.

Today I shared an exquisite meal at gastronomic restaurant Bord’deau in Amsterdam with my lovely and was delighted to find chickweed in one of the amuses! In the photo you will see a sprig of fresh chickweed nestling against beetroot and mustard ice cream. A perfect combination and what a great recipe that would be for the blog. The meal also included a sprig of what seemed to be rock samphire and many other seasonal herbs. Umm, no dinner required for me this evening.

Cleavers (Galium aparine, NL:Kleefkruid)

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
I remember having a lot of fun with cleavers or “sticky weed” as a child.  This is a wonderful sticky, prostate annual plant which often grows wild and prolifically against fences, in hedgerows, crop fields and beneath trees.  I know I was not the only child who delighted every time I found a patch of sticky weed, throwing it at my friends to see it stick to their clothes and hair.  If I had known then about how useful it is as a cleansing herb, I may have been more careful with it – or maybe not!

The leaves of Galium aparine grow in whorls of 4 – 8 around its stem, which can grow to 2 metres long.  The plant’s sticky nature comes from tiny hooked hairs growing out from the leaves and ridges of the stems.  It produces tiny greenish white flowers from May to October.  Seeds are set in small sticky hairy burrs and can remain viable in soil for up to 7 years.  The sticky hairs enable Galium aparine to grow upwards by clinging to other plants and fences. They also assist in seed dispersal.

Cleavers are held in high esteem as a spring tonic.  The herb is said to promotes lymphatic flow, to be cooling, soothing and cleansing. It is best harvested when young and prolific from early February.  It can be added to salads, though the hairs give an interesting effect, or cooked in a little water as a leaf vegetable.

Sometimes confused with…
As ever, when harvesting from the wild you should use a good field guide, be aware of look-a-like plants and follow the picking rules which I have mentioned previously.  I think the most likely plant to be confused with Cleavers (Galium aparine)  is Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum).  Sweet Woodruff is also a useful herb but unlike Cleavers it contains substances which can be poisonous in very large doses. Sweet Woodruff is darker green and has sticky hairs on its seeds, but the leaves tend to be smooth.  Sweet Woodruff is a perennial whereas Cleavers is an annual.

Cleavers juice – This is said to be the most potent way to consume cleavers. To make it all you need to do is to clean your harvested cleavers, chop it roughly and then squeeze out the juice through a jelly bag or clean tea towel.  The recommended dose is 1 teaspoon, 2 – 3 times daily as a tonic.

Cleavers tea – Again, clean your harvested cleavers then chop it.  Add 1-2 tsp of this per cup of boiled water.

Cleavers tincture – Harvest the top two thirds of plant when in flower or setting seed. Tincture in 100 proof vodka.  Dosage is 0.5ml – 1ml in water a few times daily when called for.

Cleavers has a folk reputation as a remover of lumps and bumps.  So enthusiastic were many claims that there has been some clinical research, in the hope that it could help reduce certain cancerous lumps.  However the results were not supportive of the traditional claims.

Cleavers is often used by herbalists for cystitis, swollen glands, swollen breasts, PMS, mild lymphedema, prostatitis and as a diuretic for a general spring clean.  Susun weed reports that it can also be helpful in reducing allergic reactions.  Due to it’s gentle diuretic cleansing action, Galium aparine often also helps to ease some skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema and gout.

Leek, Potato and Calendula soup

I often use fresh  petals to garnish soup; they are almost always available on my balcony, they look so pretty and their intense orange colour encourages appetite.  After writing about uses for Calendula, I thought I should make more of an effort to use the dried flowers in my food.   Adding dried Calendula flowers to soups, or broths, was seen as essential to Old English cooks.  They apparently felt that a broth without pot marigold was not a real broth, so that’s where I decided to start!

My Leek, Potato and Calendula soup requires about 5 dried Calendula organic flower heads.  If you have dried petals, rather than flower heads, then those will also work well.  Calendula flowers can taste quite bitter if infused for too long, so I added them to the soup just 5 minutes before the end of cooking and ensured that the leeks were thoroughly cooked at the start, to add a little sweetness.  Calendula flowers are most likely to work their magic if some of their astringency is allowed to shine through, so don’t try to mask their taste completely, enjoy it.

(Serves two)
2 long, thin leeks
4 medium potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped.
5 Dried Calendula officinalis flower heads (or 3 heaped tsp dried petals)
Vegetable stock (optional)
Olive oil for sweating leeks

  1. Clean and trim the leeks.
  2. Slice the leeks and add to a pan with well fitting lid.
  3. Add a little olive oil and allow them to sweat gently over a low to medium heat, stirring occasionally.
  4. When the leeks are very soft add the chopped potatoes and enough water to amply cover the vegetables.
  5. Add a vegetable stock cube or 2 tsp bouillon powder if desired.
  6. Bring the vegetables and water to the boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked.
  7. Add the Calendula flowers or petals and simmer for a further 5 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat.
  9. Remove any hard flower parts (the stalks and flower centres) before liquidising the soup.
  10. Serve warm.

43 Uses for Calendula (NL:Goudsbloem)

Calming, cooling, cleansing. Calendula officinalis (Pot Marigold, NL: Goudsbloem) is one of the easiest herbs to grow and perhaps one of the most useful to Urban Herbologists. It is a hardy annual which does very well in containers, can flower throughout the year and self seeds readily. It is beautiful, tastes good and has gentle astringent, anti-inflammatory, cooling, detoxifying and antiseptic actions. If you only have space to grow one herb, this has to be one to consider. Many of the remedies mentioned here are very easy to make, if you prefer to buy them from a reliable source, I recommend Weleda products (some links are included in the list). N.B. Calendula is not to be confused with French marigold (Tagetes patula). Calendula is very gentle but when trying a new herb it is always wise to use very small quantities at first or to do a skin patch test.

43 uses for Calendula

Medicinal uses
1. Sprains
– make a compress from infused flowers.
2. Gum infections –
Mouthwash from tea or a few drops of tincture in water.
3. Sore throat pastilles – Powdered dried flowers, blended with honey.
4. Mastitis & sore nipples – Calendula Cream can help strengthen nipples and prevent mastitis in nursing mothers.
5. Cold sores – Calendula salve is helpful to many cold sore sufferers.
6. Acne – Lotion made from Calendula tea can help speed healing and reduce scarring.
7. Nappy rash – Infused oil, lotion or Calendula Cream can prevent and speed healing.
8. Athletes foot – Calendula cream or infused oil, anti fungal.
9. Ring worm – Calendula cream or infused oil, anti fungal.
10. Period pain – Many women find regular use of Calendula tea helpful as a menstrual regulator.
11. Digestive inflammation – Calendula tea can often gently reduce inflammation.
12. Scar reduction – Often Calendula Oil, cream or salve can help to reduce existing scars and prevent scars.
13. Lowering mild fever – Drinking Calendula tea at first signs may help.
14. Skin softening – Massage using Calendula infused oil.
15. Eczema – Calendula infused oil or cream often calms red, hot eczema conditions.
16. Dry chapped skin – Calendula salve or infused oil.
17. Varicose veins – Calendula salve or cream.
18. Chillblains – Calendula salve or cream.
19. Post operative recovery – Calendula tea. Gentle, cooling, nourishing, speeds healing, reduction of scarring.

Culinary uses
20. Herbal ice cubes/wands – Freeze petals in ice cubes for summer drinks.
21. Salad flowers – Pretty and tasty, sprinkle on top.
22. Soups Add dried or fresh flowers or petals to soups. An ancient broth without Calendula was incomplete, hence the name Pot Marigold.
23. Saffron colour substitute – The taste is different but the colour is very similar.
24. Risotto – Adding whole petals livens up the appearance of risotto.
25. Soft cheese –
Blend in whole or chopped fresh petals. Previously used to colour cheese yellow.
26. Yoghurt –
Mix in fresh petals or spinkle on top.
27. Butter –
Mix in finely chopped fresh petals. Can be frozen.
28. Omelettes –
Add fresh petals for colour and taste.
29. Cakes –
Use calendula butter or add fresh petals to cake mix.
30. Milk dishes –
Add to rice pudding, custards and similar dishes.
31. Sweet breads –
A little like saffron.
32. Vegetable bouillon – Add to mixes of dried herbs and vegetables.
33. Source of Vitamin A

Other uses
34. Fabric/Wool dye –
Boil flowers, yellow dye. Suitable mordant is alum.
35. Pot pourri – Whole dried flowers retain colour and mild scent.
36. Alter decorations – Used since ancient times to adorn spiritually significant objects and buildings.
37. Skin toner – Cooled tea.
38. Eye make-up remover – Infused oil.
39. Face cleanser – Infused oil or cream.
40. Lip balm – Soothing and calming, beeswax and infused oil.
41. Hair rinse – Tea, to brighten blond hair.
42. Companion planting – Useful for deterring pests in organic gardens.
43. Year round colour – The Romans noted this plant tends to be in bloom on first day of each month (calends), hence the latin name.