April

A few photos and short comments today as we rapidly approach Beltane, the festival of early summer.

Lime trees – Tilia – Linden in Amsterdam

This week, the Lime trees which line many Amsterdam streets, burst into leaf. I love to eat these leaves, they have a mild flavour, are not tough and they bring many nutritional and medicinal uses. The trees in this street show a characteristic of Lime, they often grow leaves down the trunk. This is a bonus for foragers as it makes the leaves easy to harvest from a tree species which can easily reach 20 meters.

Symphytum x uplandicum in flower

Comfrey plants are in bloom. This helps up to identify the species and help discern whether the comfrey growing near you in the white flowering Symphytum officinale, which is not seen as safe in internal preparations (such as teas) but helpful in external preparations (such as skin salves) or Symphytum uplandicum, which tends to have leafy parts which don’t contain the hepatotoxins in it’s leaves and flowers.

Another Symphytum in flower – 20 m away from the purple one above

Next up, Hawthorn. This is called by many names around the world, including May Tree because it generally bursts into bloom around the first of May. Well this year, it is a little earlier than I have seen for a while. It has been in bloom for over a week and it looks very pretty. Hawthorn is a tree wrapped in much folklore and superstition, due to the plethora of medicinal uses associated with it. This is one of my favourite city herbs.

Hawthorn in bloom. Crataegeus monogyna.

I have been Zooming with some of my apprentices over the past few weeks. I am posting the date and time on the Apprenticeship events page and any who fancy joining me for a chat, do. One week, there was a question about creams so I made them a video about it and have actually been more in love with the cream recipe since! It is a real skin soother. I made this one with orange blossom water and olive oil.

My Zoom cream. Orange blossom water and olive oil.

Magnolia is going over now, the flowers that it. If you have uses for the leaves then now is the time to harvest a few of those! Here is a beautiful specimen which grows in my local cemetery which happens to also be the Netherlands national arboretum – A nice double function, you may agree. The cemetery also houses the national funeral museum. An incredibly interesting place.

Yellow petaled Magnolia in Neiuwe Osster Begraafplaats, Amsterdam Oost.

Below is a photo of an invasive weed which grows in parts of Park Frankendael. I identified it several years ago as Pennsylvania pellitory (Parietaria pensylvanica), a non-stinging member of the nettle family and a sister of the well known traditional herb, Pellitory-of-the-wall (Parietaria officinalis). It is called Glaskruid in Dutch and Cucumber weed in parts of the USA. Both helpful common names as it kind of looks glassy when held to the light (translucent) and it has a mild cucumer taste. Sadly, it is also known as asthma weed because when the flowers start to release their pollen, it can cause havoc for people with respiratory issues. This prime specimen is growing in the woodland area of the park. There is a single mature plant growing in the River of Herbs nettle orchard, on the left hand side, soon after entering through the gate. We are leaving it there and will keep an eye on it when the weedy seed spreading time comes.

Pennsylvania pellitory

Next today, can you see the Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) in the photo below? I found this yesterday, on my walk back home from the supermarket in Oostpoort. Beautiful, fragrant (often nastily fragrant), edible, medicinal and fabulous Elderflower!! I just thought you may like to see it as this heralds the start of the main foraging season for many people. Here are a few recipes and thoughts about elderflower. As you will see from those posts, I am a big fan of them and each year, as well as making foods, drinks and home remedies from them, I dry a batch or two and store carefully to use as a tea during times when my immune system needs a boost. Elderflower tea is a well known traditional remedy for. Since COVID-19 hit Amsterdam, my Elderflower tea has been drunk at least once a day so my stock has steadily been depleted. It will certainly be restocked in a few weeks time, when the flowers are open everywhere and I can harvest some for drying.

I am trying to grow more vegetables than usual at home. I may write a post about these later but for now, here’s a windowsill shot of some veg scraps which I am trying to bring on. The Paksoi is particularly fast!

Romaine lettuce base, basil cuttings, paksoi base, spring onions, some sprouting lentils, celery base and carrot tops. Day 1.

You may have read about my Rosemary beetle problem. I can now report that the issue is improved but continuing. Yesterday, I picked only 5 beetles from the pruned bush. My poor Rosemary bush!

Rosemary beetle – Photo credit:  Secret garden

Lastly, a mention of a Dutch woman who asked for my advice by telephone earlier this week. She had been foraging in an Amsterdam park and noticed a young fern head had been snapped off and removed in an area with many fern heads were coming up. She took this to mean that some knowledgeable forager had found an edible fern and harvested some. She has heard that some young fern heads are edible and she wanted to try so she snapped one off, took it home, prepared and ate it. Unfortunately although now recovered, she became quite ill and she wondered what to do and did I know much about ferns.

My advice was to call her doctor or the emergency services if this sort of thing ever happened again and that if she relapsed at all now, to contact them straight away, showing them a photo of what she had eaten. Also not to follow supposed “leads” from other foragers. That fern head may have been snapped off by any number of things, from kids playing near them, a strong bird animal pecking around, a dog etc. This is just one of the reasons why I teacher foragers to pluck really gently and to leave no trace. When one person sees you have been there, others often think that it is fine to copy. Sometimes with catastrophic effects.

I don’t forage ferns and I keep a few bottles of Norit activated charcoal tablets handy, they may sometimes be helpful at absorbing toxins but hospital is your best bet, if a plant poisoning situation occurs – don’t be proud if it should happen, just call 999 / 112 / 991 etc and get professional help – quickly. And only harvest what you know really well, have identified properly and only eat what you are sure is safe for you. I am looking forward to meeting the woman and us going for a herb walk together.

Gnarly apple tree – Wishing you a blooming lovely Beltane!

So that’s it from me today. I hope that you are keeping well, getting enough fresh air and are looking forward to Beltane – May Day, this coming Friday. I certainly am! If you are on the Apprenticeship course and fancy a Zoom or socially distant meeting in the plants, let me know!

Rosemary beetle

I had a pavement garden put in by the city council, beneath our Amsterdam apartment, soon after we moved here 13 years ago. Such pavement gardens are narrow strips, right up against the buildings, were the pavers get lifted and removed, making the sand beneath available as a planting area for residents. You need to draw up a plan and get written permission from your neighbours, when you request a new one – It was quite exciting I can tell you. Well, my neighbours approved my idea and after the council workers set it up for me, I poured in a couple of bags of compost and planted it up with Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Purple Sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’), Rue (Ruta graveolens)and Lavender (Lavendula augustifolia). Everything in there grew really well, even though the little plot faces full south, is under a bay window and gets little rain. It was a lovely, simple Mediterranean herb garden. The herbs were resplendent and many neighbours would snip off a little Rosemary through the growing season, to add to their cooking. That shrub was enormous and very healthy.

Then last year, things started to go rather pear-shaped in the geveltuin. The mature Rosemary had some damage. More than a little damage, in fact it looked decidedly nibbled all over. Only a few flowers pushed through and the plant looked increasingly bedraggled. We also noticed very pretty, metallic striped beetles on the Rosemary sometimes. Often, when we brushed against the shrub, some of them would shoot off and bounce off the pavings making a characteristic crackling sound. We didn’t realize back then but our Mediterranean herb garden was under attack by the Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina americana).

Rosemary beetles don’t feast alone! Photo credit: RHS

This week, enough was enough. The Rosemary looked barely alive and as neighbourhood Rosemary bushes were starting to really bush out with lush deep green new shoots, our looked downright grey. To make matters worse, the Purple Sage was almost gone, the Rue totally desiccated and the Lavender was a shadow of its former self. The beetles were more plentiful than before and my herb garden was no more.

Know your enemy
I read up on the Rosemary beetle and planned my counter attack; Hard pruning, taking a few insurance cuttings, enriching the soil and removing the thick blanket of dead leaves (which I was building up beneath the shrubs, out of laziness really). Finally a good drenching with water.

Part way through the pruning operation

Operation Revamp
As you can see in the video, I shook out the shrubs onto a bright blanket, placing tumbling beetles and larvae in a glass jar which became enormously interesting to local kids. We had about 30 bugs in there by the end. The leaf layer was totally cleared and I hard pruned all of the shrubs. The Rue had to go, sadly as I loved it and few people seem to grow it these days. However, I was delighted to find that it had spawned a few babies, growing between paving slabs so I hope they will make it in the newly prepared plot. My daughter and I scoured the geveltuin and surrounding area for more beetles and larvae before giving the remaining plants a really good watering and then enriching the soil slightly with a bucketful of spent compost (which I collect from my old rooftop pots). Later, I added a couple of lupin seedlings which I had on the roof, a few radish and beetroot seeds, some potted tulips from the kitchen balcony and some self-seeded Lemon balm, which was growing across the street in the gutter. A cheap and cheerful geveltuin makeover! The project took a few hours and I am satisfied with the result.

Rosemary beetle. Photo credit: Secret garden.

Prevention
It took me a couple of years to give in to the fact that these pin-stripe armored beetles were beautifully munching through my herb garden and that I was providing them with perfect overwintering conditions. From now on, I intend to keep the plot more open and airy, more species rich and attractive to predatory and pollinating bugs and I will water the plants regularly, especially when they appear to be under pressure. I also plan to place a bird nesting box on the street tree across the pavement and will feed the plants with comfrey & nettle tea, when the mood strikes me.

In the hope that I can help others to spot Rosemary beetle and deal with it more quickly, I made a short video, which you can see here. My daughter and I had fun editing this one so we hope that you find it useful.

Squish or Release?
So what happened to the collected beetles and larvae in the glass jar? Well, I did squish one on the pavement in frustration, the day before the clean up operation and I felt really bad about it. Killing them didn’t feel right at all and I knew well that these bugs were here for a while and I had allowed them to get out of control. I needed to help nature to restore beetle balance. After a chat with a gardening friend, I decided that the best solution was release these little beasts into a more bio-diverse area, away from aromatic herbs and where natural predators could feast on them or they had a chance to escape and live among other species of insects. This morning, we took them to a grassy area, close to water and let them go.

Have you got a beetle problem? If so, how are you dealing with it? What would you have done with the captured beetles? Do you have other herby-pesty problems and can you think of better ways for people to keep their herbs healthy? Do let me know as I would love to hear!

Herb Walk

I went for a walk and forage in the Orchards of Park Frankendael this morning and made some recordings for you. Next time, I will hold my phone the other way so that it records a wider frame but for now, I hope that you can at least enjoy some of the blossoms and bees!

So there we have it, about 30 minutes of my ramblings in the orchards. We saw quite a few plants today but there are hundreds more to find. Let me know what you would like to see next time!

Prickly Bear Sauce

It’s stinging nettle top plucking time here in Amsterdam. Most people realise that they are edible and that they sting.  I”m often asked how to eat these prickly iron and protien-rich freinds.  There are many ways!

Some people like to roll them up and eat then raw. I prefer them cooked or added raw to smoothies. Nettle soup is popular and I like that but I’m fonder of incorporating nettles into creamy, garlicky sauces.  I’m making one this evening so I thought I’d share how.

I’m calling this little sauce recipe The Prickly Bear because it contains stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) which are clearly prickly and wild garlic, scientifically known as Allium ursinum, Bear onion. You may know it better as Ramsons, Daslook or Wild garlic.

To make enough sauce for 4 – 6 people, I used:

Olive oil

3 banana shallots

20 stinging nettle tops (top 4 full leaves and stems)

Handful of wild garlic leaves

5 chestnut mushrooms

3 table spoons sour cream

1/2 good quality stock cube

Salt and pepper

Gently saute a few chopped shallots (or a medium onion) in butter, ghee or olive oil.

Add washed and chopped stinging nettle tops, before the shallots are thoroughly cooked.

Cover with a lid and allow it all to steam for a few minutes. Stinging nettles benefit from being nice and soft when you eat them so don’t rush this step.

Now add the chopped Ramsons. Give it all a good stir.

Add sour cream, salt, pepper or a little of a good quality stock cube.

and then add a hearty pile of sliced mushrooms (preferably chestnut mushrooms).

Replace the lid and simmer gently for 5 minutes or so, until the mushrooms are cooked and tender.

Serve with whatever you like. I stirred it through some gnocchi this evening and sliced some Comte cheese over the top.

Virtual herb walk

This is the start of my main edible and medicinal herb walk season and it’s beautiful here in Amsterdam.

Wild garlic – Ramsons – Daslook.

The plants are looking wonderful. Bumble bees are buzzing and caterpillars are already nibbling the nettles.

River of Herbs Orchards – Park Frankendael.

There’s no need for me to purchase as many vegetables as usual because I’m adding fresh Stinging nettle and Ramsons to my diet each day.

Stinging nettle, Ground ivy and Ramsons, a day after picking.

However…

I’ve decided to try to bring some of the wild city edibles to the virtual doorsteps of those of you who are hungry to learn.

Purple Deadnettle.

One day next week, I’ll go for a solo herb walk, somewhere very quiet, during my daily fresh air break. I’ll pretend that you’re with me – in a good way 😉 I’ll record it and share it so that you can see what’s around.

I’ll perhaps look like a mad plant lady as I walk around talking to plants but what’s new? I’d like you to see the plants and learn from them. We need to know what grows around us and how to use them safely and ethically.

Magnolia at Linneaushof.

Some which we find may be growing right outside of your window, right now. Some may be invading your balcony pots. Let’s see what turns up.

Larry – Another herb lover.

If you would like to see the orchards and hear some bird song, hop over to the River of Herbs blog as I’ve posted a few green video clips and photos there this week.

If you’d like to join my free virtual walk, let me know, preferably in the comments box below and I’ll inform you when it’s online.

Journey well, Green Freinds.

Imbolc walk

Spring is in the air, I can smell it and feel it and taste it! Well, early spring is here at least which means that my apprenticeship is reopened to newcomers, I’ve ordered too many heirloom seeds for the coming season and I’m planning growing projects in each spare moment. I can’t help it, when I feel Imbolc (the first spring festival) approaching, my energy levels pick right up and I need to get busy. Maybe you are the same?

I’m so looking forward to the Urban Herbology walk that’s coming up on Saturday, in Past Frankendael. It starts at 11.45 at the main old entrance of the park and is almost fully booked so have a look at the meetup group if you would like to join or if you fancy joining me on another walk.

Wild garlic is up and tasting great!

I sent a message to people who have signed up, through meetup yesterday. If you have signed up but didn’t receive the message, please let me know (urban.herbology.lynn@gmail.com).

If you would like to stay informed whenever new walk and workshop dates are set, please sign up to the meetup group as I don’t keep a mailing list and don’t like to spam anyone.

Heaps of edible and medicinal plants are showing themselves at the moment and many are growing so well that we can harvest them from certain places. I’ll show you lots of tasty and useful plants on Saturday.

See you on Saturday!

Jelly ears – Wood ears

I’m back at work in school now so not too much time to write posts but I just have to share these images with you. I took an ex-student into the woods for a walk and chat last week and we found these amazing Jelly ear or Wood ear fungi on a mossy old Elder tree. The scientific name for these ear shaped beauties is Auricularia auricula-judae.

Photo credit: Tony Alvarez

Some were enormous!

Photo credit: Tony Alvarez

Jelly ears are one of just a few fungi that I get excited about when out foraging because they are so straightforward to identify and I love to pick, cook and eat them!

I harvested a couple whilst out on that walk and went back for more with my daughter, a few days later. We found them on the mossy Elder but also on older dead trees which now have no bark so I couldn’t identify those tree species (but they are certainly not Elder).

I harvested a small paper bag full, dried most in my oven on a very low heat and cooked up the rest in a curry.

I’ll rehydrate these in a cup of water for 15 minutes or so, when I’m ready to slice and cook them.

Velvety to the touch. Unmistakably gelatinous Jelly ears.

Jelly ears don’t have a strong flavour and they smell of the mossy woods which they come from. They have this particular crackle-crunch when cooked and munched and I really like them. They are not crunchy or crackly when fresh however. When on the tree, they are totally gelatinous, unmistakably ear shaped, have a velvety upper texture, a another under texture and are pure jelly in the middle. They can be pulled carefully off the wood rather like a bit of turkish delight. I like everything about them!

A mature Elder

Jelly ears are mostly associated with rotting parts of Elder trees (Sambucus nigra) but are also known to grow on other tree species.

I’d love to know your thoughts about these ears of the woods. Have you tried them? Do you like them? How do you like to cook them? Let me know your thoughts.

Herbs for Amsterdam Homeless

Click to hear the narration of this blog post

In October 2019, I took three teenage boys and another senior teacher from my school (The British School of Amsterdam) to Cooking in Another Kitchen (Koken in een andere keuken) at De Stoelen Project, in Amsterdam Oud West. This involved cooking for 55 people at what is said to be the best (most effective and sought after) homeless shelter in Amsterdam. Each week, through the open season, homeless people queue up outside of the shelter on a set day, to request tickets to enable them to stay a few nights at the shelter. A night at De Stoelen Project comes with a cooked meal, a safe place indoors to sleep and washroom facilities. The people who receive tickets are only allowed a few days per month at the shelter, to allow for a rotation of visitors. The tickets are in great demand each week.

I heard about De Stoelen Project several years ago when Henny Heijmans, the project leader, came to speak at my River of Herbs evening at Pakhuis de Zwijger. I am sorry to say it took this long to actually book a date and volunteer there but, having been there once I intend to return often and with gifts. 

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Photo credit: De Regenboog

The Schedule
The day made a big impression on us all. It began by our small group traveling to the project from school. The Stoelen Project is located under the multi-story car park on Marnixstraat. We checked out the kitchen facilities and our shopping list with our Stoelen Project coordinator, Mark, and then headed off to an Albert Heijn supermarket. They kindly donated all of the pasta for our menu. Then off to the Yakhlaf supermarket on Vlugtlaan, which kindly gave us an incredible price on everything else for the meal. We were advised by the project to budget about €200 to be able to feed 55 people. I think we spent approximately €70, thanks to the generosity of Albert Heijn Museumplein and Yakhlaf Supermarket. 

After shopping, we returned to the Stoelen Project and set to work; cleaning veg, chopping and cooking the food. The project does provide menu ideas and clear guidance on the quantities of ingredients that volunteers will need but the boys in our group had pre-planned the following menu:

Pasta pesto
Chicken 
Salad
Baked apples with cinnamon

They did a great job and created a really tasty and nutritious meal.

The day was packed, purposeful and a lot of fun. We were able to serve our meal to the “visitors” as we got all of our washing up done pretty quickly and the cooking was well-timed. Serving up in the dining hall (which doubles as the night shelter) was probably the most impressionable part of the day. The visitors who came to the shelter that evening to eat were of all ages and backgrounds. The atmosphere was extremely calm and I certainly felt very humbled by both the regular volunteers’ commitment and the genuine need of the visitors for a place of sanctuary.

We learned from one of the regular volunteers, Eva, how close many Amsterdammers are to being homeless. In some cases, all it took to become homeless was a family breakup or an unexpected redundancy. So many of us are just a few missed paycheques away from homelessness.  

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Photo credit: De Regenboog

Impact
It is still difficult for me to write about this as I clearly remember feeling so ridiculously lucky to be taking a warm tram home that night; Traveling to a safe home, in a safe neighborhood. Knowing that I could change out of my clothes without fear of harassment. Knowing I would stay warm that night, and the next night. Knowing what time I would wake up tomorrow and where I would be heading after breakfast. Knowing I had clean clothes to put on. Knowing I could shower. Knowing I would eat well. Knowing that the law is basically on my side, I have rights and am fundamentally safe and loved.

My daily concerns are minuscule compared to those of the visitors at De Stoelen Project.

The Homeless Issue
No one knows exactly how many people are homeless in Amsterdam. Apparently, there are enough beds for each homeless person here to be off the streets at night, so they have a dry place to sleep. But those beds are not available year-round and there are not enough. Drunkenness, theft, drug use, screaming, agitation and sexual abuse are common reasons for homeless people choosing not to visit the shelters. This is a complex and uncomfortable issue for society.

Close to home
One of my great-uncles was homeless in the UK. I remember meeting him once when I was young – such a loved, respected and intelligent man. I don’t know why he stepped out of regular society and lived as a man of the road. Perhaps he had some mental health issues, as do many homeless people. I doubt that I will ever know why his life took that turn but I am sure it was not a simple decision. When I was about 8 years old, he came to our home in Bristol out of the blue one day to see my mum, his niece, and her young family. It is a long time ago but I clearly remember how we wanted to shower him with love, shelter, food and anything he needed but he didn’t want it. Or he just couldn’t face it. For whatever reason, he needed to go and so he went. I never saw him again.

We all know that times have changed and so have some of the reasons for increased homelessness but every homeless person has a family somewhere and reasons which prevent them to returning home. 

Spread the word
In January, my volunteering group is going to give an assembly at school about our day at the project. We want to share something of the experience with the other kids and teachers at school but mainly we want to raise funds and offer some practical assistance to De Stoelen Project. We asked the volunteers and leader what they most needed from us. Yes they can always use financial contributions but we were surprised to learn that they would really appreciate the following items:  

The Project Needs:
Brand new men’s underwear
Brand new men’s socks  
New toothbrushes
Toothpaste

Photo credit: https://www.lighthousesaskatoon.org/

No Beans, Please!
We asked about the foods that other groups choose to cook up when they take a turn at catering for the 55 ever-changing visitors. Apparently, most groups try to keep things cheap and nutritious but this generally means beans on the menu. Now beans and rice, or chili and rice sounds rather good to me but as Eva explained, beans are so effective at getting the gut moving, that the visitors need to stay near to a WC for the day following the meal. This is a big problem for homeless people. I certainly have not seen many homeless people lining up for a public loo and I can’t imagine them getting into the loos in shops and restaurants. So, the advice of Eva and Mark was to keep meals bean-free, please! Keep it simple, tasty and nutritious. 

Fresh basil on Japanese knotweed pudding

Grow and Donate Fresh Herbs
I asked if they would like fresh herbs and the unequivocal response was, Yes, please! So here is the second part of my appeal.  Come spring 2020, I would love for Urban Herbology readers, walkers and apprentices to consider gifting not only new undies and toothcare to De Stoelen Project but also to grow simple, well-known herbs in pots for the project. I want us to supply them with fresh herb pots every week – Basil, Parsley, Mint and other familiar, easy to use culinary herbs. The herbs need to be familiar because the teams who run the kitchen each day are not necessarily skilled cooks or herbologists! And, really unusual tastes are going to make the food taste odd to the visitors, so they may not feel able to eat it. Simple herbs which the volunteers can throw into the mix will boost available nutrients for the visitors, liven up the meals and add extra love to each plate. What a gift that would be. If we get loads of donated herb pots, there could even be one per table in the dining room, for the visitors to pluck from and add to their own food. 

Homegrown Mint

Book a date
Here is the agenda link for Keuken in een Anderen Keuken. Book a date. You need a small group of friends or colleagues. (The website has English pages too). The kitchen is great. It is new, has industrial-sized pans and apparatus and accommodates 3-4 cooks. You also need about €200 to buy your menu. I suggest you raise that money, get a good deal on the ingredients and donate the rest of the money to the project. The Stoelen Project has salt, pepper, some dried herbs and so on, in the kitchen. You can check specifics and leftovers from previous groups (such as cinnamon which we needed) when you arrive – before shopping. 

Please share
If you like this idea and want to get involved, please share this post with your network and keep in contact through the comment box below. If there is plenty of interest and support we could be delivering fresh herb plants and the other items regularly. 

Let’s try to stock De Stoelen Project (and homeless shelters everywhere) with as many fresh herbs, clean socks, underwear and personal care items as they can handle!

If you book a date at Cooking in Another Kitchen, I would also love to hear about it! 

Wishing You All A Cool Yule And A Happy, Healthy New Year!

Update 26/12/19: Thanks for the positive feedback since I published this post yesterday. One person that I heard from, tells me that De Stoelen Project also desperately need extra volunteers to sleep over at the project. The commitment is apparently two nights a month through the season that it is open. For details, please contact De Stoelen Project directly.

 

 

Midwinter Malva

One thing that I really miss when I am at school all week, is a long, relaxed, morning walk. I really need to start weaving more walks into my work week schedule. In any case, I certainly can’t complain as I am now on school holiday for a couple of weeks so started with a leisurely walk today. Taking in the air, sights and plants as I wander for 5km or more through Amsterdam east, is a great way to start the day.

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This morning, my walk took in a long stretch of the Weespertrekvaart. On one side, a cycle path, sport fields, allotments and Amsteldorp (with plenty of Christmas lights at the moment). On the other, a mix of new villas, tower blocks, boats, businesses and the old Bijlmerbajes prison buildings. In between, a wide stretch of canal which a few ducks, gulls and a morning rowing team were enjoying. Between the canal and the cycle path is a footpath and parts of it are edged with reeds and wild herbs.

At this time of year there is a lot of green to be found in Amsterdam but due to midwinter’s reduced light and temperatures, most plants are not in flower or in good shape for foraging. At this time of year, it’s best to look but not touch, unless you find a big area of something quite special which is clearly loving the reduced competition for light, which midwinter also brings.

This Malva patch caught my eye. Not only is the plant quite prolific in places along the footpath, but here and there it can be found in flower. Plants are much easier to identify when in flower so this is great for foragers. Even if you don’t fancy foraging during midwinter, it is a great time to build your knowledge – of plant ID and where the plants like to grow.

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Yesterday in school, one of the classes ran an assembly about different foods eaten to celebrate Christmas around the world. One mention really caught my attention – Malva Cake in South Africa! Malva – in a cake – what a great idea!

I tend to eat malva leaves, of all sorts, in salads or I cook them gently and eat in savoury dishes. They can be chopped up into a tasty falafel mix, fried, stuffed, cooked like spinach and then sprinkled with feta type cheese. The options are endless (so long as you are sure to wash dust off as they can be quite hairy). Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is in the malva family, so is the Lime tree (Tilia spp) and they have ever so unctuous leaves. The malva in this photo looks like Common mallow (Malva sylvestris) to me. In my experience, it has less unctuous leaves than lime and marshmallow but they are mild tasting, very palatable and quite abundant in the greener parts of Amsterdam. More importantly, Common mallow is neither endangered here in The Netherlands (the Marshmallow plant is) nor is it out of reach (as Lime tree leaves certainly are in winter). So I became more and more pleased with this find on the footpath edge. One of my favourite Amsterdam plants is Hollyhock. That is also in the Malvaceae family and the leaves look quite similar to Common mallow. And while I think of it, some other Malvaceae members are cacao, cotton, durian and okra. This family of plants has high economic importance around the world.

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Found these cacao pods growing from the trunk of a Theobroma cacao tree in Costa Rica (2016).

Malva cake sounds great to me and also brings to mind the big packets of dried Malva leaves sold by my local Turkish supermarket (Yakhlaf on Javastraat). I googled recipes for malva cake and was a little disappointed that most contained no malva at all and looked distinctly similar to sticky toffee pudding. I found one reference to a Dutch cake with malva in the name but no actual malva in the recipe. So I am now on the hunt for a recipe which contains enough malva leaf to make a delicious unctuous cake – and preferably without carb-rich flour (as I am trying to avoid carbs). If you know of a recipe, I would love to hear! In the meantime, I will start experimenting with almond flour and malva leaves.

malva pudding cake
David Lebovitz’ Malva Pudding Cake (click for link) – I know, it’s not exactly disappointing but where is the actual malva leaf in this mouthwatering recipe? Photo credit: David Lebovitz

Do you have any uses for Malva leaves which you would like to share? If so please let me know in the post comments or through my contact page. Malva leaves seem to be very widely used in other parts of the world and right now, they are looking good in both Turkish supermarkets and winter footpath edges here in Amsterdam.

Forage lightly and happily, my friends!


Next Urban Herbology walk in Amsterdam – Tomorrow! 21st December. Check out my meetup group or What’s app me on 0627596930 if you would like to join the Winter Solstice walk.

My Online+ Apprenticeship course is open to newcomers for just 5 more days (until end of 25th December). Then it will be closed to new members until Imbolc (February 1st 2020). For more information see here or contact me.


Minimal Herbology

I amassed alot of herbs over the years. If you’ve been to my home for a workshop, you’ll know this. Through using them for food, home medicines and teaching apprentices, I reached a point this time last year where they were deposited all over my home and it didn’t feel good. Everything felt cluttered and kind of neglected, unloved.

There were paper bags of dried herbs and seed stems among children’s books and bike repair kits. Canning jars of elixir between piles of laundry and so so many tinctures! Imagine the scene of these things secreted in every nook and cranny of my home – a nice but not big home – a typical Amsterdam apartment where usage of space needs careful consideration. It was not a comfortable sight. To intensify the image, imagine the many associated Herbology crafting materials in my kitchen and cupboards. Materials like filter funnels, strainers, aquarium tubing and demi-johns. I had accumulated a lot of Herbology related things.

For years, I have been encouraging herb crafters to buy multipurpose tools and only harvest what they needed but some how, these objects had some magnetic attraction you me – or I did, to them. I had lost track of what I had and where it was – it didn’t feel good. I wanted to reduce my possessions once and for all. No more basic tidying and mild mannered decluttering, I needed to minimalize! And I have. And I still am. After a steady minimalising process, I’m feeling clearer, fresher and more effective. So is my home. I highly recommend the process!

I am sure that I’m not alone in this issue. If you are in the middle of a sense of herb crafting overload, I would love to hear from you. Personally, it feels quite cathartic to talk about it so I hope it will help you to share too!

Here is how I reached a happier herbal place over the past year:

1. Nothing Extra: I imposed a No Foraging rule on myself. I wanted to stop bringing more herbs and related materials into the house until everything was used up. I told myself that I should only consider light foraging of plants that I was going to use immediately. Not “soon”, not “if” nor “just in case” but immediately. If the urge to forage came upon me (and it did often) I had to check everywhere at home, in case the herb I sought (or could use as a substitute) was hidden away somewhere.

Substitutes: If the herb that I wanted wasn’t at home, I had to think it over for 48 hours before going out to forage. Mostly, I found a substitute and didn’t forage. So my herbal stocks didn’t increase.

It felt great to use up herbs that I’d collected a while back with a few purposes in mind and then found myself using them up for something different but very worthwhile.

Politely Refusing: Turning down offers of herbal gifts also helped this year. I do have a reputation of being quite blunt with people sometimes so hopefully I haven’t offended anyone in the process but I really didn’t want more coming into my possession. This has been true for everything else too for a few years but for herbal stuff – this year, I was on a minimalising mission!

I did fail to refuse a block of beeswax from an old apprentice, during the summer but agreed that I would take it to grate it up and share with new apprentices and give some back to her. We use it to make salves and candles, in case you’re wondering. The grating and sharing is still to happen but it will!

My nothing-extra strategy certainly stopped my supplies increasing further and helped me become aware of what I had and what I needed.

2. Use it up: I worked my way through a lot of tinctures, honeys and elixirs this past year. I found several ways to do this including giving some away as gifts, using them to make products I could use immediately, adding more to my diet and composting all the dried herbs which were aging and not oozing energy anymore. My house and balcony plants got a hefty herbal mulch layer and they look good as a result. The top image on this post shows a good layer of old dried nettle leaves, around my evergreen balcony parsley.

3. Organise – Sustainably: When I finally whittled my stocks down to a manageable level, I hauled everything herbal from around the house into one place – the living room. If I was to keep anything of my stocks then those things had to be in an easily accessible place.

I found multiples of some concoctions so I condensed them into single larger containers. This helped the stocks to take up less space and be easier to organise.

Next, I emptied the shelved walk-in cupboard off the side of our living room. It was half filled with herbal stuff and half with household “things”. Some of it was useful (vacuum cleaner bags, spare bike saddle, a never-used Tagine from the Tropenmuseum which is now in action and it’s such a lovely raw earthenware cooking pot!…) but a lot of it was total nonsense which we had hung onto just in case.

I took unwanted household clutter to the local charity shop and cleaned the cupboard out. No painting or changes were required, just a good clean.

The tagine – a buried treasure

4. Limited Herbal Storage: I pledged to only put back in to the cupboard what I wanted and felt we needed. To ensure things didn’t get out of hand again, I found two sturdy shoe boxes and an old wine crate and limited my stocks to what could be stored neatly within them. There were also two small plastic tubs filled with old essential oils and my mini herbal medicine chest. Any overflow had to be given away or composed. I was very strict about this (not difficult by this stage in the process – I was so ready!). I used storage containers that I already had so I spent zero cash on this mission.

5. Less is more: Now I’m left only with the herbal supplies and crafting accessories which I can use, do use and feel that my family need. The rest is gone. It feels great. The rest has not gone to the big elixir shop in the sky but it has gone to freinds, family and the local community via the charity shop.

Whilst working on the herbs, I also worked on everything else that I possess and have consequently purged many many things from my life.

It feels liberating and spacious to have done this and my head feels clearer. I now know what I’ve got and what it’s for.

6. Sustainable Minimalism: The last time I felt so materially clear was when I moved to Amsterdam from the UK, via India. Gradually extra possessions crept in. With the herbs, I felt compelled, perhaps even ethically obligated, to keep them (aka “hoard” them). My intentions at the time felt pure but now I feel it far better to help show people how little we really need to do this work. So it seems I’ve gradually metamorphosized into a Minimal Herbologist.

It seems to be human nature to hoard things which we know are valuable. Knowing the value of herbs and wanting to help others know it, led me to hoard them and the associated paraphernalia. Things have changed.

I’m still passionate about helping others to learn the herbal ways – I feel it’s important for everyone to have the chance to learn about it. It’s a life skill. But these days, I also want to show that teachers of Herbology such as myself can do it with very little. And I mean very little.

I’m now growing fewer herbs, have a well organised home with far fewer possessions. My fridge and food cupboards only hold what we need this week (plus some long term seasonings). Our excavated pantry is now my herbal, spare food and household essentials store and my clothing has reduced to around 30 items. I’m also doing better at controlling my finances as I’m uber -conscious of what I allow myself to bring into my home.

7. Ongoing process: My Herbology library remains quite extensive, especially compared to all other categories of my things. I seem to be keeping them just in case.. I’ve given quite a few books to Eelco over the past year or so, for his green community library in Transvaalbuurt and more need to go. They are like an extension of my mind so it’s odd to let them go but more need to go. There, I’ve said it – so I must do it. Perhaps one bookshelf clear by the end of the year? Let’s see.

8. Good Company: It really helps to have like minded people around you, when you’re on a mission of any sort. And I’m certainly on a mission; a multi pronged mission of Herbal Minimalism, Frugality and Financial Independence. I’m very fortunate to have a great family and freinds who respect and embrace that mission. I learn such a lot from them and they keep me on track. Other lovely folks have crossed my path this year, notably Jane & Jim Collins and Sisters A and B from Project Rijkleven. I have also been reading lots of inspiring books, blogs and listening to great podcasts which light me up. When I start to wobble from my steady path, I think of all these people and get back on track!

Your experiences

So how are your experiences of sustainable minimalism? Have you got a crafty hoarding habit which could do with a deep clean? Are you a small space crafter who no longer has space for food in their cupboards? Have you lost track of how many jars of infusions and elixirs you have? I”d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!