No matter how good a herbwife’s intentions, sometimes you have to do what you can with what is easily available with tools you have to hand. This was why I found myself, last Friday morning, trudging along sodden hedgerows in my mother’s wellingtons with cold November rain rattling down around me. The left boot leaked so my sock was becoming increasingly wet but I was determined not to be beaten until my basket was sufficiently full of rosehips and sloes to make my suffering father a new batch of syrup for his cold and cough.
My father will be eighty-six next month. He comes from small, Welsh, farming stock and was brought up in depression-ridden Black Country until his mother died from TB when he was ten and his father found a Warwickshire farmer to apprentice him to a different life. He’s always been strong with boundless energy. Someone, who could do anything he set his mind to but the last ten years of caring for my increasingly fragile mother have taken their toll. He needs lots of sleep and worries, so we visit every fortnight and I provide most of their food so he only has to cook occasionally.
Our last visit to their farm, a month ago, culminated in another bout of inflamed gallbladder pain for me. It resolved by the following morning, as it usually did and as my eldest son and his family were spending the weekend with us, I ignored it. It was the premiere of my daughter’s first play, performed by her new drama company and directed by my second son. It was a resounding success and Chris and I were so please her brother and sister in law could share in the excitement.
For me it was the beginning of the end. My gallbladder decided it would not be ignored any longer. After four days of continuous pain I gave in and asked Chris to call the GP, expecting him to prescribe pain killers and nothing else. It was somewhat shocking for him to take one look at me and arrange immediate admission to hospital.
It was an interesting eight days. The care was exemplary; the staff wonderful - skilled, caring and compassionate. I learned many things about myself and other people. The greatest torture was not having two professionals trying to find a vein in both my arms to take a cannula for one and a half hours when I spiked a fever; it was being forced to listen to adrenalin-ridden TV soaps by my neighbours every evening when all I wanted to do was sleep!
Luckily, the fever had abated by the time the Upper GI surgeon came to see me, so he decided against an emergency cholecystectomy. I quite like my gall bladder, even though it’s now full of stones so I was glad to keep it for a while longer. They pumped me full of so much saline, potassium and hardcore antibiotics, I was awash with fluids, hands swollen and deeply purple arms.
Everything resolved once I came home. I could walk, talk, sleep and turn over on both sides without discomfort. A low fat diet cooked from scratch from real ingredients is no hardship although I shall miss peanut butter, hummus and cream.
Did I take any herbs once I had access to my larder? Yes, but I kept it simple. Dandelion and burdock to help support the assault on my liver by all the complex pharmaceuticals, yarrow to deal with all the bruising and nettle seed with my morning porridge to combat all the stressful situations I’d been through. Lots of low-fat yoghurt with fresh fruit to help rebuild my gut bacteria.
For over a week I was forced to rest, doing nothing more strenuous than checking emails and watching whatever TV programmes I desired. It was bliss. I even managed to attend my niece’s wedding, touched by how pleased everyone was to see me.
The following week I prepared more food for the farm in between resting. We had no idea my father had succumbed to a virus brought in by one of my mother’s carers. He grew progressively worse over the Thursday and finished the bottle of rosehip syrup I’d brought him previously. I made it into a tasty drink by covering the base of a small cup with syrup, adding lemon juice and pouring over boiling water from the kettle on the hob.
Making a new batch of rosehip syrup seemed my best course of action since I could walk along the next door fields but there was no way I could visit my herb beds to gather sage and thyme. I might walk down there but could not have walked back.
The rosehips were large and plentiful. I found sloes for extra vitamin C in the rickyard and greater plantain rosettes were plentiful in the lawn to soothe any inflammation in his chest. Chickweed was growing in the greenhouse so was added to the mix for even more vitamin C.
The pan full of herbs simmered away on the Rayburn while my father returned to bed and fell into a heavy sleep. I cooked a lamb chop casserole to feed my parents over the weekend and vegetables to go with the bolognaise sauce I’d prepared at home for lunch that day.
With no hand blitzer, the syrup responded well to an ordinary potato masher, producing two pints of deep, thick, rose liquid. I’d found five jars and bottles to sterilise, producing enough syrup to keep everyone going over the next few months. It tasted good as well.
The carers were intrigued. Both hail from Portugal.
“Did you buy the ingredients?” asked Maria, who told me she wanted to take a Chinese herbal medicine course next year. I shook my head, wondering how it would even be possible to source what I had foraged when the nearest town is sixteen miles away and there is no internet access at the farm for online shopping.
My father had previously given Maria a dose of the cough syrup I made for my mother’s constant, mucous-driven cough when she was suffering. She said it had cured her.
“You should sell all this, it’s delicious!” Maria enthused but I explained I was more interested in teaching others to make their own medicines rather than entering the maze of commercial regulation.
It’s been a challenging month and I am still spending a great deal of time resting, although probably not enough! My father is much improved and grateful we were there when he needed us and for the full store cupboards and freezers. Although the text books will all tell you to pick herbs when they are dry, there will be times when much can be gained by foraging in the rain.